On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech
to the National Association of Evangelicals. He told them that the American experiment in democracy rests on "seeking God's blessings:"
...we need your help to keep us ever mindful of the ideas and the principles that brought us into the public arena in the first place. The basis of those ideals and principles is a commitment to freedom and personal liberty that, itself, is grounded in the much deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.
The American experiment in democracy rests on this insight.
The way to keep America great, Reagan proceeded, is for evangelicals to continue their work, especially as far as their prayer goes:
Well, I'm pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others cans we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.
He bemoaned the recent change in attitudes toward sex:
...no one seems to mention morality as playing a part in the subject of sex.
Is all of Judeo-Christian tradition wrong? Are we to believe that something so sacred can be looked upon as a purely physical thing with no potential for emotional and psychological harm?
and went on to suggest that federally-funded clinics prescribing birth control to teenagers is part of
...many attempts to water down traditional values and even abrogate the original terms of American democracy.
He then critized advocates of a nuclear freeze for trying to reward the Soviet Union for its military expansion (we know now
that no such expansion was taking place). He proposed the following rationale for fighting the Soviets:
A number of years ago, I heard a young father, a very prominent young man in the entertainment world, addressing a tremendous gathering in California. It was during the time of the cold war, and communism and our own way of life were very much on people's minds. And he was speaking to that subject. And suddenly, though, I heard him saying, "I love my little girls more than anything -" And I said to myself, "Oh, no, don't. You can't - don't say that." But I had underestimated him. He went on: "I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God."
There were thousands of young people in that audience. They came to their feet with shouts of joy. They had instantly recognized the profound truth in what he had said, with regard to the physical and the soul and what was truly important.
Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness - pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
And he cautioned his audience against the temptations of the devil:
You know, I've always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire...
Today, we refer to this speech as Reagan's "evil empire" speech, even though the only mention of the term comes at the end of the speech almost as an afterthought. A lot of people at the time thought it was rather ridiculous to suggest that we must fight the Soviets because God is on our side (whats next? an invasion of the holy land?). New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis was one of them:
If there is anything that should be illegitimate in the American system, it is such use of sectarian religiosity to sell a political program. And this was done not by some fringe figure, but by the President of the United States. Yet I wonder how many people, reading about the speech or seeing bits on television, really noticed its outrageous character.
Its interesting to observe how this event has morphed in our current political culture. There is a certain subculture of people on the right who would prefer to remember this as an instance of Reagan having the guts to say that the Soviet Union was bad (as if the US has not been fighting communism continually since about 1948). There is also a tendency to consider Lewis' response - along with other criticism of the speech at time - as an instance of moral relativism, done by a collection of people shocked at the thought of saying that something is wrong.
Consider, for example, how Andrew Sullivan edits Lewis' column:
I wonder how many people, reading about the [Evil Empire'] speech or seeing bits on television, really noticed its outrageous character… Primitive: that is the only word for it. … What is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem a simplistic theology – one in fact rejected by most theologians?... What must the leaders of Western Europe think of such a speech? They look to the head of the alliance for rhetoric that can persuade them and their constituents. What they get from Ronald Reagan is a mirror image of crude Soviet rhetoric. And it is more than rhetoric: everyone must sense that. The real Ronald Reagan was speaking in Orlando. The exaggeration and the simplicities are there not only in the rhetoric but in the process by which he makes decisions.
Note how Lewis' main point - disgust with Reagan's use of sectarian religiosity to promote a political agenda - is completely edited out of speech, and Lewis seems to be criticizing Reagan for merely being "simplistic" - in a mirror image of today's criticism of George W. Bush.