“Keep alive this experiment in liberty”
President Reagan’s 1983 speech is deeply relevant today
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This month marks the 40th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s powerful 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). That speech was an important diagnosis of the moral health of the time, calling Americans to renew their commitment to the moral values of America’s founding and laying out a vision for religious liberty. It is a call for renewal for us today, to, as Reagan asserted, “keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.”
Few speeches are worthy of note after 40 years. This one certainly is. President Reagan shocked the nation as he spoke the truth to his evangelical audience. So, what did he say?
Reagan’s speech began with a defense of America’s Christian heritage and then turned to the social ills of the day. He asserted that “American democracy rests on this insight,” that “freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.” He buttressed this with quotes from the Founders: “William Penn said: ‘If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.’ Explaining the inalienable rights of men, Jefferson said, ‘The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.’ And it was George Washington who said that of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.’”
Reagan then turned the focus of the evangelicals to the moral ills of the time. The United States had just passed the 10-year mark (1973) since the Supreme Court imposed a “constitutional right” to abortion on American society. He pointed at laws restricting parental consent of minors in areas of contraception and abortion. He discussed the ban on prayer in public schools. He noted that the violent, atheistic ideology of Communism was a threat to freedom at home.
Reagan found a listening audience among America’s evangelicals in 1983. As they looked back on the previous two decades, they were mortified by the devastation caused by the Sexual Revolution and Roe v. Wade, they were uncomfortable with American voices that seemed to welcome defeat in Vietnam, they worried about radical secularism in the schools, and they dreaded that a wing of one of the major political parties was soft on Communism from the Far East to Cuba and Nicaragua. Evangelicals worried that America was on the wrong track.
Reagan believed in inherent human dignity and the desire for freedom and declared: “The source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual.” In other words, the wellspring of human liberty is not to be found in material success but rather proceeds from the religious character, the religious sentiment of the American people. He credited Alexis de Tocqueville on his observations of the importance of religious faith, religious morality, and religious organizations in guiding the young republic.
Reagan observed that a faulty understanding of so-called “separation of church and state” was being used to allow anti-religion activists to weaponize government agencies, actually using government to harass religious citizens and institutions. In his day, the effort was to expunge religious expressions from the public square. Today, so-called “human rights commissions” attack Christian bakers, florists, and other artists for their faith-informed values. During COVID-19 activist mayors and governors in Sacramento, New York, and D.C. barred priests from serving the dying, locked up houses of worship, threatened pastors, and shut down faith-based humanitarians. As Reagan declared: “When our founding fathers passed the First Amendment, they sought to protect churches from government interference. They never intended to construct a wall of hostility between government and the concept of religious belief itself.”
Finally, President Reagan’s NAE speech reminded America of its role as global champion for freedom: “American history … has been the story of hopes fulfilled and dreams made into reality. … America has kept alight the torch of freedom, but not just for ourselves, but for millions of others around the world.” President Reagan lived up to this statement.
Forty years on, Reagan’s diagnosis of our moral challenges, his understanding of our religious roots, and his hope for a better future continue to ring true. It is our time to keep the torch of freedom alive, not just for ourselves, but for billions of others around the world.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.