by Bradley J. Birzer
On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech that shocked many, amused some, and inspired more. Attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, Reagan decided to address the topic of sin and evil in the modern world. Drawing significantly upon C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Reagan offered a personal testimony about his faith and about his convictions regarding the state of the modern world.
Famously, Reagan stated:
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. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.
Reagan, of course, held almost no prejudices based on skin color or religion–or any of the accidents of birth. For Reagan, a man was a man, a woman was a woman, and individual was, well, an individual. Repeatedly, Reagan addressed the topic of the humane, promoting the equality and dignity of persons throughout his political career. As with Barry Goldwater, Reagan simply had no time for such nonsense. Most famously, Reagan apologized to all Americans of Japanese decent who had been so brutalized by the wretched Franklin Roosevelt and his dictatorial Executive Order 9066, confiscating the property and concentrating entire Japanese American families into camps.
Reagan continued that the recent rise of racial and ethnic intolerance shocked him, and that America must–as the leading power of the free world–get its own house in order as quickly and as permanently as possible.
Not only would this benefit the free world and humanity, it would also allow the free world to challenge totalitarian ideologues from a meaningful and non-hypocritical foundation.
The solution, Reagan noted, was to pray.
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.
All ideologues, Reagan thought, served the Evil One, as they asked us to worship what is Caesars and to give to Caesar what belongs only to God. Then, a long quotation from Lewis:
The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
Evil, Reagan continued, sounding as much like Lewis as he did Tolkien, always learns. With each failure, it changes its strategy, appears in a new guise, and attacks with even more subtle ferocity. The honest man must always beware the soothing tones of Evil.
Well, because these “quiet men” do not “raise their voices”; because they sometimes speak in soothing tones of brotherhood and peace; because, like other dictators before them, they’re always making “their final territorial demand,” some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses. But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom. So, I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
And, there it was, the two words that so many journalists and academics dreaded and mocked: “evil empire.”
Reporters screamed that day. Had Reagan–always a simple minded buffoon in their eyes–lost his mind, or had he simply watched Return of the Jedi? Either way, the media and political elite mocked Reagan with everything they had.
This was not Reagan’s first anti-communist statement as president. On May 17, 1981, he had told the graduating class of 1981 at the University of Notre Dame that the West would not bother spending time dismissing communism, as the West would simply transcend it. A year later, Reagan made a similar statement before British Parliament and in a private audience with Pope John Paul II. As early as 1963, Reagan had been playing his own version of “fantasy baseball,” except this was: “how to destroy empire.”
In hindsight–counter almost every academic, journalist, public intellectual, and politician of his era–Reagan knew the Soviets were weak, as they possessed no real understanding of reality. In 1968, Reagan had argued that only the “Creative Society”–the society which allows for the individual talents of each individual to thrive–could survive in the long run. All totalitarian societies ran counter to the very nature and dignity of man. Whatever stability they might project, they were always ephemeral.
Now, thirty years later, scholars and politicians still want to know what made Reagan so very successful and so very right. At root, Reagan believed that Whittaker Chambers (probably the most important intellectual influence on his own thinking) was wrong on one very important issue. We were not on the losing side of history. The Soviets were.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. Dr. Birzer is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). He teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.