I use the term religious imaginary to refer to the religious stratum of what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary, that is, the ways “people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” It’s a “common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” Our seminal religious imaginary, or, more accurately, the one to which most white Americans ascribe, emerged from John Winthrop’s 1630 homily to fellow travelers on the Arbella. “A Model of Christian Charity” is usually remembered for its invocation of “a city upon a hill,” and for almost four centuries, pundits and politicians have used the phrase to remind Americans of their providential calling. But Winthrop’s shipboard audience was as concerned with financial prosperity as religious freedom. As Sacvan Bercovitch notes in a 1998 lecture, many “came to the New World at a time of severe economic depression in England, not only as rebels against Anglican rituals, but equally as youngish (thirty-something on the average), ambitious, mobile professionals who had been enticed by the promises of a chartered profit-seeking corporation.” Accordingly, Winthrop began by reminding listeners that God had good reasons for creating inequities in wealth, power, and social station. His saints were not responsible for making everyone equal, but rather for extending justice, mercy, and, whenever possible, economic assistance. (But only after one’s own material security was assured.) Winthrop’s charge laid the groundwork for a holy society that bound citizens in Christian love in order to serve God, watch over one another, and pursue financial rewards. The American religious imaginary, then, underlies the conviction in America’s uniqueness and in personal freedom. Yet the manner in which those beliefs are engaged and enacted has shifted over time.
Before the Reagan revolution, the United States’s religious imaginary tilted to a Rawlsian liberalism that justified first the welfare state and, later, a Great Society. But the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, followed by the cataclysms of the 1970s (from Vietnam and the oil embargo to the Iranian hostage crisis and stagflation), doomed that expansive outlook. What Jimmy Carter called “malaise” was actually the disintegration of the “common understandings” that inclined citizens to care for their neighbor, trust in their government, and believe in a beneficent universe. In 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan offered voters a new vision that affirmed the rightness of faith, the wrongness of Communism, and the importance of free markets and limited government. At the heart of this Reagan-tweaked imaginary was the conviction that the United States is an exceptional country because it is God’s chosen nation, and where freedom is the divinely ordained human condition. The former justified unilateral action on the global stage, while the latter asserted the sanctity of the individual, made in God’s image, as a free agent. Freedom is more than an existential notion; it is embodied in the political freedom of democracy, the spiritual freedom of religious liberty, and the economic freedom of free markets and limited government. The entwining of religious and political freedom was written into the First Amendment, but a full-throated religious rationale for free markets and small government is more recent. Beginning in the 1920s, with works such as Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1925), clergy and businessmen promoted the idea, but it was not widely disseminated until the 1970s, when the evangelical mass media made it axiomatic via radio and television.
Reagan, a Christian believer, likewise assumed Biblical support for free markets and limited government, as well as for personal responsibility and social conservatism. The flip side to his commitment to democracy was his aversion to godless Communism. Following the 1980 election, Reagan mainstreamed this religio-political vision through speeches and interviews that wove current events into narratives that reflected his worldview. The news media, bound to cover the commander-in-chief, reported his positions as objectively as possible. Even when editorialists disagreed, they restated Reagan’s narratives, normalizing them through repetition. Mainstreaming particular positions, however, could not in itself produce lasting political change. That change would require a new understanding of the American religious imaginary, which tied political, social, and economic issues to a divine plan. The Reagan-inspired imaginary did just that, and also resonated with diverse publics. Libertarians and political conservatives agreed that Americans needed to be free while many of the faithful believed that God’s people should be strong, successful, and self-sufficient.
Modern presidents, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt, have drawn on religious language to promote their agendas. Most employed a generic Protestantism that respected religious pluralism. But early in the 1980 presidential race, Reagan signaled his support for a particular religious group with a specific political agenda. Applying the same “Southern strategy” that boosted Nixon’s 1972 reelection, Reagan targeted white Christians, especially those below the Mason-Dixon line. He launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been slain 16 years earlier. Just a few weeks later, he appealed to 15,000 conservative evangelicals meeting in Dallas. “I know […] you can’t endorse me,” he told them. “But I want you to know that I endorse you.”
The Reagan campaign put evangelical social concerns on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Whether the “liberal” media agreed with what they reported was irrelevant. Professional standards assumed the president was newsworthy, which is how Reagan introduced the concept of evil into the debate about the nuclear freeze movement. By pitting the “good” United States against the “evil” Soviets, Reagan framed an international political issue as a cosmic moral choice at the heart of a divine plan. Aligning secular news narratives with evangelical media messages gave additional dynamism to the new religious imaginary, as mainstream and countercultural narratives converged.
Secular reporters repeated Reagan’s language and framing, amplifying the religious perspective through sourcing, story organization, and writing style (especially the purple prose favored by newsmagazines). Subsequent repetition — news stories followed by features, analyses, op-eds, and editorials — further disseminated Reagan’s ideas. While it may not have been the primary focus of reports on nuclear weapons, nor even an angle that most journalists might have chosen to include, the “evil empire” became a significant theme in coverage and in public discussion. Despite its evangelical terms, the trope’s appeal to right and wrong engaged secular as well as non-Christian Americans.
In the early 1980s, reporters at major metropolitan newspapers introduced readers to a new cadre of political “crusaders.” The New York Times ascribed the group’s ascendancy to the influence of televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, in league with Beltway conservatives. The latter group had previously campaigned to protect tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. They also proactively linked free enterprise to Christianity, but their current “pro-family” agenda sought to register voters offended by “abortion on demand,” homosexuality, and the ban on school prayer. Reagan courted this group throughout the 1980 campaign. Routinely noting “the erosion of the American family,” he lamented that prayers were forbidden in public school but that sex education was permitted. While some journalists concluded he was playing to the crowd, others recalled his reliance upon religious allusions earlier in his career.
Reagan’s mother was a pious woman who made sure her son had a religious education. After college and a stint as a radio sports announcer, Reagan went to Hollywood, where, during his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, he secretly informed on colleagues whom he suspected of Communist sympathies. Between 1954 and 1962, as a spokesman for General Electric, he traveled nationwide, touting the links among American business, free enterprise, and religious values. If asked, he shared his strong anticommunist sentiments, disparaging containment — the Cold War policy of restraining the Soviet Union rather than defeating it outright. By the mid- to late 1960s, Reagan had had a born again experience, was a member of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, and was active in the Southern California evangelical network — a group that provided a dependable base for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign and subsequent presidential race. But by 1983, his standing with evangelicals was shaky. Reagan had not fulfilled many of his campaign promises, and religious leaders were questioning whether to support his reelection.
This was the context for Reagan’s March 8, 1983, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Orlando, Florida. His advisors wanted to reassure religious conservatives that they had not been abandoned. But Reagan had a different agenda: he needed to rally support against a nuclear freeze, even though many listeners disagreed with his position. The freeze movement had coalesced in the early 1980s as an international response to growing concerns about nuclear war. In 1982, almost one million people convened in New York City to support a weapons ban, and, according to polls, roughly 74 percent of the country agreed with the freeze’s goals. Even evangelicals supported it by a three to one margin. Yet Reagan feared that a freeze would put the United States at a disadvantage with the Soviet Union, which could not be trusted to uphold it. He preferred “peace through strength,” which required increased defense spending.
Press corps expectations were low for what was being projected as a quasi-stump speech to a sectarian audience. But Reagan’s 33-minute “Evil Empire” address claimed a special place in presidential annals, intermingling the themes of military strength, economic prosperity, religious conservatism, and divine destiny. The speech reaffirmed the primacy of religion to American identity, along with its consequent obligations: “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” Even as Reagan professed the need for the United States to embrace conservative social issues, such as ending abortion and restoring school prayer, he took the larger step of defining its international mission in terms of good and evil, sin and salvation.
Searching for the hook, members of the press corps and other journalists homed in on the president’s denunciation of the freeze. Several started their stories by noting that he termed it a “dangerous fraud.” Many also noted Reagan’s harshly alliterative judgment of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” His surprising language — modern statesmen criticized nations along political or economic lines not metaphysical ones — was newsworthy. The Associated Press, whose coverage appeared in scores of local papers, tied the two themes together, “Reagan asked church leaders to spread his anti-freeze message from their pulpits because the United States and the Soviet Union are locked ‘in a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.’”
Reading the speech as political theater, Juan Williams of The Washington Post said it was a “double-edged campaign for the defense budget and against a freeze” as well as a bid “to reenergize his conservative base.” Williams’s perspective was widespread; according to Jon Richard Peterson, who wrote a dissertation on the address and its fallout, many television reporters “characterized [it] as a work of political propaganda that appealed to evangelical Christians.” These reporters heard the president’s call for support and quoted his evocation of the United States’s divinely ordained destiny, but few unpacked the political or cultural significance of casting an international problem in metaphysical terms.
Reagan’s audience brought a different frame of reference to the speech, which began with three religious allusions. He told the assembled ministers that their welcome “warmed my heart,” a nod to 18th-century British evangelist John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who felt his heart “strangely warmed” when listening to Martin Luther’s preface to a Pauline passage on “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.” Reagan thanked them for their prayers and affirmed his own prayer practice. Then he told a joke about a minister and a politician receiving their just rewards in heaven. When the former is shown to a modest room and the latter installed in a mansion, St. Peter explains, “You’re the first politician who ever made it [here].”
After appreciative laughter, Reagan moved into his main point: the deep bond between God and the American nation. He clarified that there were indeed “a great many, God-fearing, dedicated noble men and women in public life, present company included.” Next came the crux of his message, two sentences that telegraphed the essence of American exceptionalism:
[W]e need your help to keep us ever mindful of the ideas and the principles that brought us into the public arena in the first place. The basis of those ideals and principles is a commitment to freedom and personal liberty that, itself, is grounded in the much deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.
Making a case for the United States’s “goodness” and tying it to godliness, Reagan announced several of his administration’s achievements, including introducing a constitutional amendment that would restore public school prayer and ordering federally funded clinics to notify parents when underage daughters sought abortions. Turning to the international scene, Reagan argued that the Soviet Union, a nation whose government denied God, could not be trusted:
Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
Modern presidents typically did not evoke the language of fire-and-brimstone preachers, and in the days following the speech, editorial writers decried Reagan’s words — even as they circulated them. His remarks were “illegitimate” (Anthony Lewis in The New York Times), his view “smug” (Tom Wicker in The New York Times), and his message a summon to “jihad” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Wall Street Journal). But the very terms that nettled editorialists inspired many whose faith in God and country had been tested during more than a decade of social upheaval, economic loss, and international failure. For these people, Reagan’s implicit recognition of the United States’s divine standing was good news, and the NAE reported that churches nationwide had ordered video copies of the speech and that it had been aired on many of the major Christian television stations.
Reagan’s insistent linking of religious faith and national strength, in line with the tenets of the Religious Right, would become a dominant news motif as the year unfolded. Even when he did not specifically mention religion or morality, he described the implicitly religious virtues — personal responsibility and love of country — that informed his policy initiatives, ranging from welfare reform and tax cuts to “peace through strength” and Star Wars (SDI). The American religious imaginary, which had, since the era of FDR, affirmed the welfare state, a multilateral foreign policy, and a religiously neutral public square, was shifting. The “evil empire” speech spurred a recalibration of the religious imaginary by reintroducing normative notions of good and evil into a political discourse accustomed to the relativizing terms of the past two decades.
The “evil empire” speech offers an example of how Reagan’s ideas, broadcast to a secular culture by the mainstream news media and to a religious counterculture by the burgeoning Christian media, affected and expanded the reach of the American religious imaginary, that “common understanding” that produces “a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” The most basic understanding that took root in the Reagan era was that politics could be measured in terms of good and evil. That notion would inspire true believers to strong words, harsh stands, and terrible acts, ranging from murdering doctors who provide abortions to rabid anti-gay protests to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. The expansion of the imaginary also gave rise to ideas about personal freedom and self-reliance that justified deregulation, tax cuts, and the dismantling of many welfare state and Great Society programs.
Donald Trump is both the beneficiary and the apotheosis of that perspective. His exercise of economic freedom — evident in his lust for winning and enjoyment of wealth — makes him a popular hero to many. His commitment to political freedom — reflected in statements that denigrate international alliances and lambaste “politics as usual” — likewise endears him to frustrated voters. Trump does not need to be a conventional churchgoer, because his words and actions show his adherence to a certain “common understanding,” “a shared sense of legitimacy.” By using the media to redefine American norms and values, Reagan set the nation on what he believed was a godly course. Now, more than three decades later, the Second Coming is upon us.
Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and teaches on the faculties of Journalism, Communication, and Religion.