Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s
Columbia University Press, 2015
392 pp., $36.00
Heath W. Carter
On March 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan vowed that a nuclear freeze agreement with the Soviet Union would leave the United States vulnerable to "the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." The world would not soon forget this incendiary turn of phrase, which secured the "evil empire speech" an enduring place in the annals of the 20th century. But in later years few would remember that Reagan had turned to the nuclear issue only in closing. The address was focused in the main on the work his administration was doing to counteract the dangers of "a modern-day secularism" that opposed prayer in public schools and supported a woman's right to choose. The overall theme was perhaps sensible enough, given that Reagan delivered the speech at the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
While such particulars would soon be lost to many, they were entered into evangelical lore. When the Gipper died some 21 years later, Christianity Today cited his decision to include the NAE in the historic occasion as evidence that "Ronald Wilson Reagan and evangelicals became inseparable." The piece went on to argue, "After giving him the presidency, conservative Protestants shaped Reagan's policies, and in turn Reagan's presidency shaped American evangelicalism." The NAE continues to tell a similar story. The organization's own institutional history declares that, during the Reagan years, "The NAE, increasingly consulted about administration appointments and policy, seized opportunities to influence government further and enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House."
In The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, Doug Rossinow argues that such memories of a special relationship between Reagan and evangelicals have little basis in history. More important, the book drives home that, had such close ties actually existed, they would—or at least should—be cause for overwhelming shame. ...