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.
In his book, Martin writes about an encounter between Charles Colson and Reagan during the 1976 primary. A reporter held up a copy of Colson's book and asked Reagan, "Are you born again?" According to Colson, "Reagan shrugged, like the fellow had landed from Mars. He didn't know what he meant."
So what was Reagan's appeal? Robison says that 25 years ago, conservative Christians weren't looking, necessarily, for an evangelical to become president. They were not even primarily looking for someone to overturn abortion rights or return prayer to public school or stand against the gay rights movement. He says they were primarily looking for someone to oppose Communism: "We believed it would take an orator with conviction to inspire the American people to take the necessary stance against the Soviet menace."
Some experts argue, however, that domestic issues were just as important as the direct fight against the Soviet Union. "Communism was not simply the threat of the Soviet Union or a threat abroad," says Lisa McGirr, a Harvard University historian and author of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. "What it meant was a broad rubric which included liberalism, socialism, anything related to the welfare state and social change that liberals were fostering in the 1960s...For Christian conservatives, the meaning of communism related to the Soviet threat, but it was also profoundly symbolic."
Evangelicals ended up embracing an a-religious Hollywood actor in part because of the unusual conservative melting pot that had developed in Southern California at the time. In the late 1800s, conservative Protestants from the Midwest had flocked there, building a reputation for strict, individualistic moralism. Later, the defense boom of World War II brought anti-tax, pro-business land speculators, Eastern-Establishment-loathing Midwesterners, and anti-Communist defense contractors.
This mobile new suburb needed a sense of community-and that was provided by an explosion of fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches. When people think of the religious right, they tend to think of rural Southerners, likely because Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are both headquartered in smallish Virginia towns. But McGirr points out that some of the best-known conservative Christian leaders got their start in Southern California: Tim LaHaye, Lou Sheldon, Bill Bright, James Dobson, Robert Schuller, and Chuck Smith.
Reagan, of course, spent his adulthood in this conservative matrix.
That makes sense, when you consider that in mid-century America, the Soviet Union was widely considered to be the land of Gog and Magog from the Book of Ezekiel, against whom the Battle of Armageddon was to be fought. (It's worth noting that until the appearance of the Left Behind book series--also about the end times--the best-seller of all time in the United States was Hal Lindsey's 1973 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which was about the end of the world.)
Thus, it's probably fair to say that Reagan's crusade against Communism was partly motivated by a kind of Christian belief in destroying evil. "There is sin and evil in the world," Reagan said in his March 8, 1983, "Evil Empire" speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, "and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." A year later he told a Joint Session of the Irish National Parliament that the "struggle between freedom and totalitarianism today" was ultimately not a test of arms or missiles but a "spiritual struggle."
But if Christian conservatives were happy with Reagan's anti-Communism, they were disappointed he didn't deliver the social agenda they wanted. "Some of my precious memories are of meetings in the White House when I reminded him that his staff wasn't doing what I'd asked him to do, and he reprimanded them," says Robison. "A lot of them were still uppity Republicans and they weren't concerned about our interests."
Yet Martin says that particular failure by Reagan may have ultimately been a blessing for evangelicals. "The fact that they didn't get what they wanted is what got Pat Robertson to run for president," Martin says. "They knew they needed more than a symbolic tie to the president." That is how the Christian Coalition, with its successful grassroots organizing, was born. "What happened to the religious right?" Martin asks rhetorically. "Well, they became the Republican Party."
By the 2000 election, conservative Christians were so powerful that the nation elected a president who is by all accounts one of their own--not just a symbol. You can hear the influence of Ronald Reagan in President Bush's speeches: the "axis of evil" term he used in his 2002 State of the Union Speech to describe Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; and in his use of the words "wonder-working power" in the 2003 State of the Union speech.
Today, the philosophy of conservative Christianity is at the very heart of mainstream conservatism. You can see it in the Republican Party's pro-life stance, in its embrace of "family values," and lately in its talk of a "new American empire," the empire Americans continue to hope will prevail over terrorism.