It had been an eventful year: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had seized power in Iran, bringing on the Iranian hostage crisis; the Marxist Sandinistas took control of Nicaragua; and the Soviet Union was on the verge of invading Afghanistan.
So Graham and Bright called a two-day, round-the-clock prayer meeting at a Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport hotel. There were only a dozen or so ministers in attendance, among them Graham's brother-in-law, the Rev. Clayton Bell; Pat Robertson; the Rev. Adrian Rogers, the Rev. Charles Stanley; the Rev. Jimmy Draper, and the Rev. James Robison. For 48 hours they remained on a closed-off hotel floor, barely breaking to eat or sleep.
Robison, a Fort Worth, Texas, evangelist and adviser to George W. Bush, recalled the meeting in an interview with Beliefnet this week. "It was a powerful time," Robison said. "We realized that if the nation turned Communist, we would lose our freedom. We were certain of it." At the end of the meeting, "Charles Stanley slammed his hand down on the table and said, "I'll give my life, I'll lay everything down, to help this country," Robison remembered. "And I said I'd do the same thing."
The specific action these men ended up taking in the coming year was to get behind the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. By August 1980, Robison was riding in a limo with Reagan to Reunion Arena in Dallas, where Reagan wowed a crowd of 17,000 evangelicals with a line Robison had given him in the car: "You can't endorse me, but I want you to know I endorse you."
That appearance is widely believed to have cemented the relationship between Reagan and conservative evangelicals. Evangelicals voted 82% for Reagan.
"There is evidence he would have won the election without the new evangelicals and fundamentalists that he got to vote," says Rice University sociologist William Martin, author of With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. "Whether or not they made the difference, they certainly felt like they had.."
Lost in the discussion about Reagan's legacy in foreign affairs is a political legacy. It was Reagan who brought waves of evangelical Christians into the Republican Party-a major reason that the complexion and ideology of the party is so different today. The party's focus on social issues such as homosexuality and abortion all stem from the entry into the GOP of millions of evangelical voters starting in 1980.
What Reagan did offer was photo opportunities, legitimacy--and access, for the very first time, to the highest levels of government. That access counted for a lot. Twenty-five years later, according to Martin, conservative Christians now make up one-third of the Republican Party; they're the dominant voice of the party in 18 states, and in 23 states they represent a significant minority voice. There are other effects as well: Attorney General John Ashcroft is a well-known Pentecostal Christian, President Bush talks openly about his own Christian faith, and Congress will soon deal with a Constitutional Amendment pushed by conservative Christian lobbying groups that would ban gay marriage.
As many people have pointed out over the years, Reagan would seem an unlikely hero for evangelicals. He was a divorced movie star who wasn't particularly religious, although he was reared in the Disciples of Christ church. As governor of California, he'd signed legislation that liberalized abortion in California, and he'd opposed legislation that would have prevented gays from becoming public school teachers. He was so disinterested in "good works" that in 1979, he contributed less than 1% of his income to charity.