Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals

What is the connection Reagan sees between religion and liberty? What does Reagan mean by secularism? Why does he see it as a threat to America?
Is the connection Reagan sees between religion and liberty similar to or different from the view expressed in the Northwest Ordinance and Washington’s Farewell Address?

Although they were less important for his victory than was thought in its immediate aftermath, conservative evangelical Christians were a part of the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980. In a manner similar to FDR’s appeal to Catholic voters in 1933, Reagan addressed an organization of conservative evangelicals to highlight those policy goals of his administration, such as prayer in school and limiting abortion, most likely to resonate with the interests of the movement.

The speech generated a lot of negative commentary because of its reference to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” These remarks and the explicitly religious language of the speech were unusual for a presidential speech at that time but not in the larger context of American history.  Even two decades before, President Kennedy in his inaugural address had stated his “belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God,” a view that Reagan reiterated in tis speech by quoting a famous remark of Thomas Jefferson’s; and in 1962, citing Lenin as Reagan would, Martin Luther King had already argued that communists held that any action was moral as long as it promoted world revolution (see “Can a Christian Be a Communist?”). Here, Reagan framed both his anti-communist foreign policy and his domestic “social” agenda as efforts to combat the rise of secularism, an issue his audience, as the heirs of Dixon and Machen saw as critically important.

—Sarah Morgan Smith, Ellen Deitz Tucker, David Tucker

Reverend Clergy all, Senator Hawkins, distinguished members of the Florida congressional delegation, and all of you: I can’t tell you how you have warmed my heart with your welcome. I’m delighted to be here today.

Those of you in the National Association of Evangelicals are known for your spiritual and humanitarian work. And I would be especially remiss if I didn’t discharge right now one personal debt of gratitude. Thank you for your prayers. Nancy and I have felt their presence many times in many ways. And believe me, for us they’ve made all the difference.

The other day in the East Room of the White House at a meeting there, someone asked me whether I was aware of all the people out there who were praying for the President. And I had to say, “Yes, I am. I’ve felt it. I believe in intercessionary prayer.”1 But I couldn’t help but say to that questioner after he’d asked the question that if sometimes when he was praying he got a busy signal, it was just me in there ahead of him. I think I understand how Abraham Lincoln felt when he said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go”2.…

I tell you there are a great many God-fearing, dedicated, noble men and women in public life, present company included. And yes, we 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.

The American experiment in democracy rests on this insight. Its discovery was the great triumph of our Founding Fathers, voiced by William Penn when he said: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.”3 Explaining the inalienable rights of men, Jefferson said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”4 And it was George Washington who said that, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”5

And finally, that shrewdest of all observers of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it eloquently after he had gone on a search for the secret of America’s greatness and genius—and he said: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”6

Well, I’m pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others can we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.7

I want you to know that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities: the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that this puts us in opposition to, or at least out of step with, a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism, discarding the tried and time-tested values upon which our very civilization is based. No matter how well intentioned, their value system is radically different from that of most Americans. And while they proclaim that they’re freeing us from superstitions of the past, they’ve taken upon themselves the job of superintending us by government rule and regulation. Sometimes their voices are louder than ours, but they are not yet a majority.

An example of that vocal superiority is evident in a controversy now going on in Washington. And since I’m involved I’ve been waiting to hear from the parents of young America. How far are they willing to go in giving to government their prerogatives as parents?

Let me state the case as briefly and simply as I can. An organization of citizens, sincerely motivated, deeply concerned about the increase in illegitimate births and abortions involving girls well below the age of consent, some time ago established a nationwide network of clinics to offer help to these girls and, hopefully, alleviate this situation. Now, again, let me say, I do not fault their intent. However, in their well-intentioned effort, these clinics decided to provide advice and birth control drugs and devices to underage girls without the knowledge of their parents.

For some years now, the federal government has helped with funds to sub