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Ronald Reagan and the NCR in the 1980 presidential election – sincere friendship or political calculation?

Hausarbeit 2010 16 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: USA


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Research history on the NCR

III. Ronald Reagan and the NCR in general

VI. Reagan’s stand on social issues and the NCR
A) Public School Prayer
B) Anti-abortion
C) Women’s rights
D) Civil Rights
E) LGBT Rights
F) Explicit TV program

V. Ronald Reagan – a friend to the NCR or a political calculator?

I. Introduction

“America's evangelical Christians are anti-gay, pro-gun, keen on capital punishment and obsessed with lower taxes. And, of course, they all vote Republican.”[1]

This statement taken from an English newspaper in 2008 grasps what people commonly associate with the Christian Right in the United States.

Historically speaking, the Evangelic Right came up as a major political force during the late Seventies and early Eighties.[2] Before that time, they had politically not been massively active, but heavily involved in campaigning in the 1980 election. Consequently, the New Christian Right (NCR)[3] can be regarded a late twentieth century phenomenon.

This trend is generally and widely considered to be a major factor for this presidential election. According to numerous historians, sociologists and political scientists, it was this group of Americans who contributed to Reagan’s big electoral success.[4] My argument is that from the perspective of the Christian Right with its various subgroups, like the Moral Majority or Christian Roundtable, this may be evident. But no scholar has even taken Reagan’s view on this group. So, the question is: what did Reagan really think of these potential voters and their voice? What was his position towards these Christian-conservative hardliners? Did he openly declare his allegiance to them or not?

I will not give a detailed account on the question why Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. But I will go into detail on the issue that it was the Christian Right who aided the 40th president into office. If one takes a look at pre-election day newspapers, one will stumble over incidents between the leaders of Christian Right, especially Jerry Falwell, and the candidate from California. For example, both had diverse opinions over moral values, the most controversially discussed topics at that time. They did not agree on women’s rights or whether public school prayer should be allowed.[5] On the female issue, Phyllis Schlafly, who was also a Christian conservative, but Catholic[6], opposed the future president harshly.[7] Besides, Reagan was convinced that Civil Rights, contrary to the NCR, should be retained at any prize. But why then did the NCR still advise people to vote for him, although they had public arguments? The Religious Rights’ feeling, however, was that they “had a friend in Reagan”.[8]

These issues mark the paper’s main points. My thesis is that Reagan from his point of view did not support Falwell and other right-wing evangelists entirely, because of their conservative opinions on abortion, Civil or LGBT rights. Still, Reagan was a conservative president, especially with respect to economical or foreign policies.[9] On the other side, I assume that he thought that if he supported these people publically and openly, he might lose other, more liberal voters. In addition to that, I presuppose that Reagan moreover was a clever politician: he never dismissed the evangelic Christians for their radical ideas, but shipped around or circumvented clear standpoints when issues were debatable. To come back to the previous example, Reagan did not abolish school prayers, but rather stated: “I would be absolutely opposed to a state-mandated prayer, but I have always thought that a voluntary, nonsectarian prayer was perfectly proper.”[10] This statement ideally embodies Reagan’s attitude: do not oppose the Christian Right openly, but satisfy their needs and they will thus be helpful for your presidential election.

The paper will hence take the following approach. Firstly, the structure will follow the Christian Rights’ most important concerns, which are school prayer, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, Civil Rights and explicit TV programs. But before that, I will look at the Christian Right and Reagan more generally to get an impression of what their relationship was like before Election Day. In this part, I will contrast Reagan’s relation with that of President Carter to proof that he was – with regard to religion – the better partner for the Christian Right. In order to trace my assumptions, I will use newspaper article from the time before November 4th 1980, since the media coverage showed how the candidates dealt with the Christian Right and the NCR dealt with them.

Closing, I will come back to my starting point answering the question how Reagan coped with the NCR and then assess my thesis.

II. Research history on the NCR

Since its beginning in the late Seventies, the New Christian Right has been highly researched on. Scholars from different kind of academic fields such as history, social and political sciences have dedicated their time to investigate its origins, causes, aims and social composition. As a detailed survey of all works would go beyond the scope of this paper, just the most important historical works will be listed here. Among them are Ruth Brown’s For a Christian America, the various works of Steve Bruce, like The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right or John Green’s The Christian Right in American Politics. Other books are The Transformation of the Christian Right in the 1980s by Matthew Moen, An Unchanging Minority: Popular Support for the Moral Majority, 1980 and 1984 by Lee Sigelman or Clyde Wilcox’s The Christian Right in Twentieth-Century America.

As numerous and well researched these books and articles may be, they fall victim to one issue which is their perspective. All of them, as their titles already indicate, focus on the NCR from the outside or how they influenced (presidential) elections due to their mass mobilization skills.

But nobody ever questioned the role of the elected and in this particular case, the role and function of the president. How did he cope with the evangelic Christians, how did he use them for his purposes and how? What did he say or do before Election Day with regard to the NCR? Even biographies on Reagan do not cover this question and as this has not been done yet, the paper will start there.

III. Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right in general

Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected U.S. President on the November 4th 1980. Up to this time, he had served as Governor of California for two terms and been a member of the Republican Party for years. He had also run for presidency several times, but did not make it as candidate for the GOP.[11] Reagan had been a Democrat until 1962 and claimed, “I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”[12] This should have been the first problematic point for the Christian Right, but it did not turn out to be awkward for them at all.

Secondly, and even more morally challenging should have been Reagan’s divorce in 1949 from his first wife Jane while they already had children together. In 1952, he was then engaged to Nancy and later married her. Interestingly, this made him the only U.S. President to be divorced.[13] The newspapers did not report about that before the election and make it an issue, yet this was the opposite of what the NCR propagated and the televangelists put across in their programs.

But the Christian Right never took offence at this. Normally, according to Rainer Präterius, the leaders of the NCR searched for personal flaws and pursued a “pinprick”-like tactic: they would make failings public and thereby destroy the candidates’ reputation, which would then potentially lead to a electoral defeat. This was often used and especially against candidates who opposed strong morals or were liberals. Especially Jerry Falwell is a perfect example of this procedure. He was the one who criticized politicians by assessing their (moral) behavior according to conservative standards.[14] This was due to the early days of electoral strategies, where the NCR faced problems finding candidates and so turned to discredit the opponents, which was easier for them than keep on looking for suitable candidates.[15]

Yet, this did not matter at all in Reagan’s case. He was never accused by Farwell, Robertson or other televangelists of being divorced. Even more to the point, Reagan’s contender Jimmy Carter should have been even closer to the evangelic Christians, as he was a deacon of a Baptist church, preached in Sunday school and was still married to his wife. All that should have made him the ideal candidate for the Christian Right. In White House meetings between him and Farwell, he stressed their common faith und thus tried to (re-) gain his support[16] that he had enjoyed in the 1976 election.[17] However, he took rather liberal standpoints on social issues like abortion and was therefore detested by the televangelists who consequently dismissed him in their broadcasting shows. Jimmy Carter helplessly reassured them that he was “born-again Christian running for re-election”.[18] Reagan was on the other side able to evoke the evangelists’ dreams and he said about his presidential campaign: “It isn't a campaign. Let's make it a crusade.”[19] Even more after their fancy was what he said about him being a Democrat in his early years: Reagan declared that he had underwent a conversion from liberalism to conservatism and so satisfied the audience at a party convention.[20]

He also gave a lot of speeches at these meetings; one of them in front of “at least 7,000 [evangelic] ministers from 41 states”, while President Carter had turned down an invitation to address the rally.[21] On another occasion, organized by James Robison, Reagan spoke before 10,000 pastors who belonged to the Christian Right.[22] He spoke at these meetings where Robison “equated liberals with leftists with Communists with homosexuals [...] From this same podium Ronald Reagan later accepts the endorsement of the fundamentalists and spouts some pandering placation.”[23] He gave a speech in front of nearly 4,000 members of the Moral Majority in which he said that he believes that all answer to life are contained in the Bible, a phrase which was accompanied by tremendous applause from the audience.[24]

But this is only part of the story. Tensions were not a long time coming, caused by the nomination of his Vice-President George Bush. “Such New Right figures as Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus; Phyllis Schlafly, […] and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television evangelist, were with Mr. Reagan already, warning him against choosing George Bush, whom they opposed as too liberal.”[25] The future president regardless nominated him and did not take their opposition into too much consideration. For him, nominating Bush meant appealing more liberal voters, but according to his memoirs he was only the second option after Ford.[26]

In spite of that, Reagan had a former member of Falwell’s Moral Majority as campaign aide on religious issues. It was Rev. Robert J. Billings[27] and so the close ties between Reagan and the Moral Majority remained in the background and only visible to insiders. How great this man’s influence on Reagan was cannot be assessed here though.

Especially these connections appeared to be difficult for the two candidates in the 1980 election. Carter did not single out the Moral Majority or equivalent organizations for the reason that he feared the loss of millions of votes from liberals or African-Americans. On the other hand, these Christian conservatives disapproved President Carter for his proposed Equal Rights Amendments, his stand on abortion and civil rights for homosexuals. More to that point, it became clear that a lot of the various church denominates had different opinions on these political issues, which made it ever more difficult for candidates to take a clear stand.[28]

Additionally, a lot of political campaigners were certain that public support for the right-wing Christians would alienate voters in the industrial north of the United States, African-Americans, Jews or other minorities and thus they decided not to do so. This can be underlined by a lot of newspaper articles in which these groups had one’s say and furiously uttered their discontent.[29] But even before November 4th, 1980, there were discussions among evangelic Protestants who claimed that Falwell did not represent them all. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, also had 13 million people associated with them. This church treasured the separation of church and state, which Falwell tried to soak through with his daily school prayer. Another group was The Church of Christ in America, whose approximately 2.5 million members were “[…] scattered from Maryland southwestward to Texas and Southern California.”[30] Most important, they differed from the NCR insofar, as they did not obey the Scripture literally to solve current political problems.[31] However, they were very conservative Christians and mostly shared the other views on social issues, but it shows the religious and political diversity of that time.


[1] Giles Fraser: God moves to the left. The Guardian 8. Februar 2008. Opinion.

[2] Heideking, Jürgen: Geschichte der USA, München 62007, S. 445. Im Folgenden zitiert als: Heideking: USA.

[3] A brief working definition: The terms Christian right and Religious right are often used interchangeably, although the terms are not synonymous. Religious right can refer to any religiously motivated conservative movement, whether specific to one religion or shared across religious lines. The term Christian right is used by people from a wide range of conservative political and religious viewpoints in the United States, for self identification and outside commentary. Vgl. Butler, Jennifer: Born Again: The Christian right Globalized, London 2006, S. 4-12.

[4] Just to name the most prominent examples: see part II. Research history on the NCR

[5] Lou Cannon: Reagan Disagrees With Fundamentalist Teaching on Prayers. Washington Post 9. Oktober 1980. First Section, A 6. Im Folgenden zitiert als: Cannon: Teaching.

[6] Sean Willentz: The Age of Reagan. A History 1974-2008, New York 2009, S. 135. Im Folgenden zitiert als: Willentz: Reagan.

[7] Judy Mann: So Clear and Simple and So Much Trouble. Washington Post 16. Juli 1980. Metro, C1. Im Folgenden zitiert als Mann: Trouble.

[8] Katy Sawyer / Robert G. Kaiser: The Republicans in Detroit. Evangelicals Flock to GOP Standard Feeling They Have Friend in Reagan. Washington Post 16. Juli 1980. First Section; A15. Im Folgenden zitiert als: Sawyer: Friend.

[9] Willentz: Reagan, S. 127-128.

[10] Cannon: Teaching.

[11] David Mervin: Ronald Reagan and the American presidency, New York 1990, S. 68. Im Folgenden zitiert als: Mervin: Reagan.

[12] Ebenda, S. 37.

[13] Willentz: Reagan, S. 131.

[14] Rainer Prätorius: In God we trust. Religion und Politik in den USA, München 2003, S. 113.

[15] James L. Guth: The New Christian Right, in: Robert C. Liebman (Hrsg.): The New Christian Right. Mobilization and Legitimation, New York 1983, S. 35.

[16] George Vecsey. New York Times 28. Januar 1980. Section 2, Seite 5, Column 2.

[17] Sawyer: Friend.

[18] New York Times, 22. Januar 1980, Colum 2, Seite 17.

[19] Howell Raines: Man in the news. From Fimstar to Candidate: Ronald Wilson Reagan. New York Times 17. Juli, 1980. Section A; Page 1, Column 5.

[20] Ebenda.

[21] Kenneth A. Briggs: Evangelical preachers gather to polish their politics. New York Times 21. August 1980. Section B; Page 9, Column 3.

[22] Dudley Clendinen: Rev. Falwell inspires evangelical vote. New York Times 20. August 1980. Section B; Page 22, Column 1.

[23] Tom Shales: Preaching Politics The Born-Again Way. Washington Post 26. September 1980. Style; F6.

[24] Evangelicals find their Political Ally in President Ronald Reagan - Part 5 of 13,

[25] Dudley Clendinen: August 18, 1980. Section B; Page 7, Column 1

[26] RonaldReagan:Erinnerungen.EinamerikanischesLeben,Frankfurta.M.1990, S. 216.

[27] Dudley Clendinen: 18. August 1980. Section B; Page 7, Column 1.

[28] Kenneth A. Briggs: Dispute on religion raised by campaign. New York Times 9. November 1980. Section 1, Part 1, Seite 31, Column 1.

[29] Hyer: Right.

[30] Timothy L. Smith: Protestants Falwell does not represent. Section A, Seite 31, Column 2, 22. October 1980.

[31] Ebenda.


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Ronald Reagan New Christian Right Achtziger Parteiengeschichte USA




Titel: Ronald Reagan and the NCR in the 1980 presidential election – sincere friendship or political calculation?