The Role of Evangelism & Christianity in the Reagan Era

Ronald Reagan's alliance with evangelical Christians changed U.S. politics.
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In 1980, the United States of America was gripped by what President Jimmy Carter called “a crisis of confidence.” Inflation, energy shortages and the seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran were the latest injuries to morale. Evangelical Christians diagnosed the crisis not as one of confidence but of morality. When former California Governor Ronald Reagan opposed Carter in the 1980 presidential election, evangelicals re-entered the formed a bond with Reagan that changes the American landscape. But it was an uneasy alliance.

1 Evangelical Christians See the U.S. in Moral Decline

In the 1970s, evangelical Christians were alarmed by rapid social changes, including legal abortion, homosexual rights, the legal availability of pornography, equal rights for women and a ban on public school prayer. To the New Christian Right, as this bloc was known, these changes constituted a crisis that threatened the American nation.

2 Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority

President Jimmy Carter was defeated by Reagan with help from evangelicals.
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An organization founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell, a popular television preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia, transformed the Christian Right into powerful political force. Called The Moral Majority, his group was said to bring in $500 million per year in contributions. The organization operated direct mail campaigns for conservative candidates and lobbied for legislation on its favored social issues. Falwell’s group also staunchly supported lower taxes, decreased government spending on social programs high defense spending. These issues formed the core of Reagan’s candidacy. When Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, the Christian Right believed it had its own man in the White House.

3 The Rise of Ronald Reagan

Reagan was unabashed in his expressions of support for causes of the New Christian Right, though some noted that Reagan himself was not a regular churchgoer. But he stated his belief that all of the answers to America’s problems could be found in the Bible. In his 1981 inaugural address he called for each inaugural day to be declared “a day of prayer.” He frequently stated his opposition to abortion. In 1983 in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals he described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” casting the Cold War in starkly moral terms. He opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which called for equal protection under the laws for women. The ERA died in 1982, despite polls showing that U.S. public supported it by a 2-to-1 margin. As a result, Reagan won reelection in 1984 by a landslide.

4 Evangelicals' Disappointment with Reagan

Reagan’s rhetoric electrified evangelical Christians but his policies frustrated them. Pledging to fill his administration with evangelical Christians, he appointed few. Reagan named Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court despite her decisions in favor of legalized abortion. Reagan had promised to appoint only abortion opponents. In fact, his administration took no significant action on any social issues of concern to evangelical Christians, leading one top evangelical to criticize Reagan for his “lip service,” while "Christianity Today" wondered if Reagan was insincere in his beliefs, merely using Christian conservatives for their votes. Evangelical Christians remain an influential voting bloc. In the 2004 election 78 percent of 26.5 million voting supported Republican George W. Bush, the same percentage who voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.