Ronald Reagan's ascent to office paralleled rise of Religious Right
The 40th president died at his California home June 5 at 93 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. The former actor, famed for his optimism and his ability to communicate it to the American public, was also famous for introducing many conservative Christians to real political influence.
Reagan was present -- and uttered one of his most famous lines -- at the meeting that many credit as the birth of the Religious Right, which molded evangelical Protestant conservatism into a cohesive political movement.
At the Religious Roundtable's National Affairs Briefing in 1980, after being introduced by a Southern Baptist evangelist as "God's man," Reagan -- then a presidential candidate -- told the gathering of conservative Christian luminaries, "I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you."
Reagan's quip launched a relationship with conservative Christians that would eventually reshape America's political landscape.
"He presented a conservative political philosophy that changed a generation -- and made a great impact on my life," Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in Baptist Press. "He transformed the presidency by demonstrating that conviction, rather than political calculation, would drive his policies and decisions...."
Reagan is credited with bringing the Religious Right fully into the Republican fold. The group now is generally considered by political experts to be the GOP's most dominant faction.
"I will remember Mr. Reagan primarily for his relationship with the evangelical Christian community in our nation," Moral Majority Founder Jerry Falwell recalled in 2002, in a column on the Web site WorldNetDaily.com.
Calling Reagan his "political hero," Falwell, a Southern Baptist, said of the president's 1980 election: "We had long been shut out of the White House when Mr. Reagan took office. But he realized that this community was largely responsible for his election and held the key to stalling our nation's moral collapse."
Falwell noted that Reagan introduced ideas to the Republican platform that were important to him and other conservative evangelicals -- such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and unwavering support for Israel.
Evangelicals helped elect Reagan -- a nominal Presbyterian whose wife was criticized for consulting astrologers -- over born-again Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Nonetheless, Carter praised Reagan's abilities.
"This is a sad day for our country," Carter said June 6, prior to teaching his Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. "I probably know as well as anybody what a formidable communicator and campaigner President Reagan was," Carter said, according to the Associated Press. "It was because of him that I was retired from my last job."
Reagan focused much of his presidential energy on fighting communism, strengthening national defense and promoting conservative economic policies. Despite promising to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion and to pass a constitutional amendment allowing government-sanctioned prayer in public schools, Reagan ended up devoting little political capital to those causes. But he was revered nonetheless by conservative Christians.
Adrian Rogers, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, recounted several meetings with Reagan -- both during Reagan's 1980 campaign and later in the White House. Recalling one Oval Office meeting, Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., said: "I told him, 'Mr. President, Southern Baptists love you and will stand behind you if you will stand for the things that mean so much to them. Stand for the home, for the family, for purity. Those are the things that mean so much to them, and I would hope that you would stand for them.' And he said he would."
Rogers described Reagan as "a man of principle" unswayed by "political correctness" or polls. "In that sense, I think he was comparable to our current president," Rogers told Baptist Press. "I think the same mosquito may have bit them both."
Some progressive Christian leaders criticized Reagan, however, for what they said was his warmongering and neglect of the poor. Others complained he failed to address the AIDS crisis as it was killing thousands of gay men and intravenous drug users during the 1980s. Reagan did not publicly acknowledge the disease's existence until 1987.
His official biographer, Edmund Morris, quoted Reagan as wondering aloud if "the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments." "Reagan often was able to instill confidence in the American public, yet around this issue -- this is one around which he failed even to communicate," Morris wrote.
Steven Baines, a Baptist minister and senior religious organizer for the civil-rights group People for the American Way, told Associated Baptist Press: "It's well documented that leaders of the Religious Right did not want to act on [the AIDS epidemic] because it was mostly killing gay men. [Reagan's] failure to deal with the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans from this disease simply because of who they are is not the best of American values."
Although his legislative legacy on social issues was limited, Reagan did have a strong hand in changing the face of the federal judiciary and church-state law. In his eight years in office, Reagan appointed many conservatives to the federal bench -- including three of the Supreme Court's current members. He also promoted William Rehnquist, a staunch conservative, to the chief justice's position.
Those changes led to judicial rulings that lowered the traditional "high wall of separation" between church and state, a wall that had been cultivated by the courts for at least two decades.
Robert Reccord, president of the SBC North American Mission Board, said Reagan "courageously corrected those who for so long have misrepresented the principle of separation of church and state." Reccord quoted a 1982 Reagan speech in which the former president said the First Amendment "was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.
"That kind of clarity, born in a personal and vital faith, made me thankful Ronald Reagan was my president, but more importantly, a fellow Christ-follower," Reccord told Baptist Press.
James Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and a frequent critic of Reagan's church-state policies -- said it was "inappropriate at this moment … to be overly analytical" regarding Reagan's legacy for religious freedom. But, Dunn told ABP, the late president "significantly revised and reinterpreted the American tradition in this vital area."
Dunn, now a professor of Christianity and social policy at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, did offer some praise for his former foe, however. "The optimistic spirit that pervaded Reagan's public presence did make a contribution to American life and is, at least in some measure, related to Christian hope," Dunn said.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.