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The “evil empire” speech, 40 years later

The establishment hated it, but Ronald Reagan and evangelicals stand vindicated

President Ronald Reagan speaks to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983. Wikimedia Commons

The “evil empire” speech, 40 years later
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Evangelical support for Ronald Reagan’s resolve against the Soviet Union was crucial to America’s winning the Cold War. Today, March 8, marks the 40th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a key moment for evangelicals and Reagan. Reagan gave that speech because he knew that evangelical support was politically essential. He also knew that American strength against the Soviet Union and against communism was especially important to evangelical Christians.

Reagan’s speech was effective because it was sincere, reflecting his own deepest convictions, and echoing his audience’s equally passionate convictions. For him, and for them, the Cold War was not just a rivalry between superpowers but a spiritual struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. As Reagan told the NAE in Orlando, Fla.:

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.

Part of Reagan’s purpose with NAE was to warn against the nuclear freeze movement, which opposed Reagan’s rearmament plans, especially placing U.S. missiles in Western Europe to counteract a Soviet buildup. Some church officials, mostly but not entirely on the left, supported a nuclear freeze, which the Soviets also supported, since it would lock in their superiority. Reagan pleaded:

I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. 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, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

Reagan’s words to NAE became known as the “evil empire speech.” That the Soviet Union was wicked seems uncontroversial today. But 40 years ago, such rhetoric was deemed incendiary, possibly hastening the Cold War’s degeneration into nuclear apocalypse. Peacemaking required building bridges with the Soviets, not hurling verbal bombs that could ignite the world.

We now blithely assume that the USSR’s demise was inevitable. But nothing seemed inevitable in 1983.

In 1982, the U.S. Catholic bishops had called for eliminating nuclear weapons. The United Methodist bishops would later follow. Massive protests in Western Europe marched against U.S. missile deployments. Huge anti-nuclear protests also occurred in America. Disarmament, and not U.S. resolve much less rearmament, was deemed the world’s greatest need.

We now blithely assume that the USSR’s demise was inevitable. But nothing seemed inevitable in 1983. The Soviets seemed resurgent. They had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In 1981, their Polish proxies declared martial law and banned the new Solidarity trade union. A pro-Soviet regime seized Nicaragua in 1979 and was backing Marxist rebels in El Salvador. The Soviets armed and funded tyrannical regimes globally, including Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, among others.

In 1983, the United States was in recession, with unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates. Could rearmament be afforded? Could Reagan even be reelected? Wasn’t he a warmonger? He was undeterred:

I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration's efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination.

Reagan of course wanted peace and disarmament. But he knew a weak America could not pursue either. And he knew a strong America needed much more than weapons:

While America's military strength is important, let me add here that I've always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Quoting Whittaker Chambers, Reagan said America and the West could prevail but “only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism's faith in Man.”

Reagan’s faith and leadership were vindicated. The nuclear freeze failed. U.S. missiles were deployed. The economy surged. He was reelected. The Soviets negotiated. The Cold War ended. The Berlin Wall fell. The USSR collapsed. But also vindicated were evangelicals who applauded the American president 40 years ago this week.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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