The Reagan Centennial and the Rise of the Christian Right

As right-wing conservatives celebrate the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth, Bill Daehler takes a look at how Reagan’s policies shaped the political debate and gave rise to the religious right.

On January 20, 1981, thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president of the United States on the backs of the newly christened religious right.

Thirty years later, celebration and nostalgia have gripped the Republican Party and right wing Christians as they rejoice the “Reagan Centennial” on February 6, 2011.  One hundred years after the birth of the 40th president, we can look back on his legacy: 30 years of lower taxes for the rich, wage stagnation, bloated military budgets, and deregulation; of environmental standards, worker safety, the banking industry, the financial system, and consumer protections.  This was the beginning of the 30-year crusade of the religious right to attack women’s rights, science-based education, religious tolerance and blocking progress toward LGBT civil rights. Conservative Christians are celebrating enthusiastically as they continue to tear down the wall between church and state, brick by brick.

Thirty years later, the country debates teaching students a science-based curriculum centered around biological evidence and scientific consensus, juxtaposed to that based on ancient scripture. This is a frustrating and dangerous debate when we consider a report released in December 2010 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development which ranks the U.S. 17th in science and 25th in math scores. Recent data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers indicates only 28 percent of teachers consistently provide evidence of evolution in the classroom while 60 percent of teachers “fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments.” It’s troubling to imagine what kind of resources could have been better allocated for a real education. Surely China doesn’t fret over whether or not to teach its children that human and dinosaur co-existed.

Thirty years later, we can plainly see the destruction of the HIV and AIDS among gay and straight alike. Today there are numerous Christian charities doing terrific work to combat this plague. But what did Reagan and the far right do when we saw AIDS in its infancy and spreading?  Little to nothing. In fact, they believed it was a righteous plague sent by God to destroy the sinners. As Reagan said, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.” It’s again troubling to imagine how history could have changed had the leader of the free world addressed this crisis in its infancy instead of taking an approach of ignorance and malevolence.

Thirty years later, religion—chiefly the evangelical community—has become the gatekeeper to political power. Republicans need not even attempt to run for president without endorsements from evangelical leaders. Though the influence of religious affiliations has been a major theme throughout American history, the empowerment of the evangelical movement correlated with the rise of Reagan. The religious right holds enough power today that Barack Obama and John McCain attended a forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren to discuss faith. The pandering to the right is so important to Republicans that during the primary debates three serious candidates said they did not believe in evolution. Again, it’s troubling to think what the country would be like were it to elect a president who actually believes in creationism and campaigns on theocratic governing philosophies. But didn’t that happen in 2000?

Thirty years later, it seems appropriate to reflect on the cultural effects of the Reagan revolution, particularly on the social progress of America. We are significantly behind many developed democracies in recognizing civil rights for the gay community. We lag behind on education, for among many reasons, not having a rational, reality-based curriculum in our classrooms. We mire ourselves in meaningless political debates over religious ideology instead of discussing real issues. A prime example is the segment of the population concerned over President Obama’s religious beliefs and birthplace, evidence of a once progressive society out of touch with social progress and reality.

Thirty years later, Reagan’s residue still blotches and blurs the realities of the problems facing our country. Before Reagan, there was another president who discussed issues of faith and governance. In his speech about the role of religion in America, John F. Kennedy said “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Too bad Reagan and his disciples did not uphold that tradition.