Remembering Reagan: The Evangelical Model for Republican Success in 2012

The curious story lives on in evangelical memory, though few outside American Christendom are familiar with even its faintest details. Considering the current state of politics, and the celebration of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday on February 6, perhaps it deserves repeating.

On a fall day in 1970, California's governor invited friends over to his Sacramento home. With Herbert Ellingwood, the governor's legal affairs secretary, taking the lead, Pat and Shirley Boone, businessman George Otis, and pastor Harald Bredesen joined Ronald and Nancy Reagan in an afternoon of conversation and prayer. Much of the former revolved around the subject of prophecy; having just talked personally with Billy Graham about teachings in the Book of Revelation, Reagan wanted to hear how they related to events in the Middle East. After chatting for a while, he and Nancy joined hands with their guests for prayer. What came next stunned them all. During his supplication, Otis's arm began to pulsate with an emotion he attributed to the Holy Spirit. Then, with his hand shaking (the same one holding Reagan's hand), Otis prophesied that Reagan would someday be president. Sheepishly, Otis ended the prayer, leaving Reagan and friends speechless and eager to say good-bye. Otis was hardly sheepish some years later, however, when, he began telling others about what had happened that fall day. Released just in time for the 1980 presidential race, his much-publicized testimonial conveyed one basic message: born-again, Bible-believing voters needed to vote for Reagan, the only true born-again, Bible-believing candidate in the running.

Cut beneath the peculiarities of Otis' prophetic utterance is a deep accord between evangelicals and Reagan that took root in California long before it blossomed on a national stage. This marriage was forged during Reagan's run for governor in 1966. Reagan's inspirational presence in Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 campaign had already convinced evangelicals that he was their new hero, and in the months that followed they begged him with letters and prayers to seek office. Reagan seemed right to them, on so many levels. First of all, he had a spiritual narrative that rang true. In the months surrounding the 1966 election, the actor-turned-politician turned earnest as he described his recommitment to Christ. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he answered his adoring fans with heart-felt missives that spoke of his devotion to Christ and his determination to pray more. And Reagan met other standards of association as well, by surrounding himself with evangelical powerbrokers like Graham and Boone, businessmen like Otis and Ellingwood, and investing himself in his church, Bel Air Presbyterian, known for its dynamic pastor Donn Moomaw. Of course, Reagan also boasted a political narrative that resonated with California evangelicals too, particularly those who had moved west from Texas and Oklahoma in search of defense industry jobs (some 2.5 millions southerners had settled in California by 1970). In his public pronouncements against radicals and the Red Menace, campaign promises to get socialism and secularism out of schools and God back in, and switch from the Democratic Party to GOP in 1962, he spoke the language and walked the political steps familiar to these southern sojourners.

For his part, Reagan asked something of these devotees, and they came through. First off, he asked for civility. During the Goldwater campaign, recalcitrant preachers had captured the spotlight by railing against "secular liberalism" in all its forms, helping earn them and their candidate the "extremist" tag. Reagan wanted to shed this label, so he purged the California GOP of zealots and issued his Eleventh Commandment ("thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican"), and within the evangelical camp, sifted out the fundamentalists from the moderates in order to debilitate the former and empower the latter. Secondly, he asked for creativity. Whereas Goldwater's "conservative conscience" had galvanized the hard core, Reagan wanted a softer platform that could win the center. With the help of his evangelical allies and their churches, business associations, women's groups, and youth ministries, Reagan constructed his vision of "Creative Conservatism," a philosophy of small government, law and order, "color-blindness," and family values, animated by faith in God, country, and free enterprise. Empowered by their proximity to this politician, and provoked by the culture wars of the 1970s, California evangelicals spent a decade marshaling a campaign to sell this centrist conservatism to the rest of the country. After fits and starts, they finally thrust their favorite son into power. For all of their efforts, Reagan offered his hearty thanks; at his inaugural presidential address (delivered thirty years ago last month) he took his oath of office facing west instead of east so that he could speak to his frontier and his people in a language they knew so well. After Pastor Donn Moomaw opened the ceremonies in prayer, Reagan quoted 2 Chronicles: "If my people ... shall humble themselves, and pray ... then I will hear from heaven ... and heal their land." And with this, George Otis' divination came to pass.

This is how evangelical conservatives remember it, at least, and the memory now stirs up mixed sentiments as they look ahead to the next election. Along with their peers in the GOP, evangelical activists remain uncertain about a leader and an agenda, and even though they emerged from the 2010 midterms much like they did in 1966 -- reenergized by better prospects -- their future remains gray. Racked with internal tensions between hard-liners and centrists, they find themselves struggling to envision, let alone enforce, the civility that Reagan took so seriously. And although still eager to tap the issues of yesteryear for leverage -- gay rights, abortion, tax breaks, and patriotism -- many of these seem worn and predictable, and hardly the product of creative thinking. Still, many hold out hope that if prophecy was fulfilled once, it can be fulfilled again in 2012. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether their prophet and prophetic figure can emerge in time.

Darren Dochuk is author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.