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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.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Reagan recalled that his father forbade the family from seeing DW Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation” because of its racial bigotry. Ahead of his time.

    In about 1960 the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein visited Moscow, and just for fun he watched the roads, railway tracks and canals, etc. He calculated (more or less correctly) that Moscow had to have a population about half of what the Soviets claimed, for lack of means to bring in the food they would have needed. Anyone in NATO or the CIA could have made the same experiment. Were they hamstrung by defeatism, or by because the growth of their budgets required a heightened threat?

    • I recall reading that essay from Heinlein, and was shocked that simply reading a map could reveal so much.
      Then, I saw Viktor Belniko’s book, and that cinched it… the Soviets were a “paper tiger” that was afraid of the USA.
      Only Reagan could see it.

  2. Testimony to the grand stupidity of western elites regarding communism is that during the height of the Stalinist terror prior to World War II, while the press and academia were generally having a field day reporting on Soviet progress, one of the only widely published source of truth in the West was Tintin & the Land of the Soviets, a comic book which managed to get it right. Those who were not reading the funny papers, instead relying on the experts, were misled about Stalin. That so many Americans found Reagan’s speech laughable is disturbing, and the effect of their overall ignorance of the nature of statism is directly reflected in the economic decline of the country.

  3. Outstanding piece by Professor Birzer!
    Reagan famously warned us in ‘Time for Choosing’ speech that we should not fall for the appeasers’ delusion that “if we only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he will forget his evil ways and learn to love us.” History has taught us that we achieve peace through strength, and weakness only invites aggression.

    Russell Kirk warned too that “History does repeat itself, although always with variations. There must be noted one sentence by Freya Stark that every conservative ought to grave upon his lintel–should he possess a house with a lintel–or at least upon his memory. ‘Tolerance can not have anything to do with the fallacy that evil may convert itself to good.’”

    • Mr. Moore: I don’t know who, if anyone, ever claimed that “evil may convert itself to good”; if Dr. Kirk was speaking metaphysically, his claim seems merely tautologous. But surely evil men (and women)–that is, men and women who do evil–can be converted to good (Saul of Tarsus comes to mind) and surely we’re obligated to try. No human is entirely “evil,” though many of us do evil things all too frequently. I’m not suggesting we can change or “convert” everyone, I’m just saying I don’t think we’re justified in writing anyone off. As for “tolerance,” isn’t the axiom “Hate the sin but love the sinner” easily amended to “Tolerate the sinner but do not tolerate the sin”? Evil manifests itself in thoughts, words, and deeds, not in persons; I suspect it would be one of Satan’s stratagems to get us to see only the evil and not the person enslaved by it. (That is, if I believed in Satan, which I don’t.)

  4. Professor Birzer: I won’t re-litigate the whole “Reagan defeated the Evil Empire” argument. I will point out that, contrary to your claim, plenty of people (not just the Gipper) in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s thought that the Soviet Union was weak and likely to rot, if you will, from within, and that its grip on its “empire” was tenuous at best; but since overstating the Soviets’ strength was clearly in the interests of our military-industrial complex, and of politicians who got elected by being (or at least talking) “tough on Communism,” then people who advanced the contrary thesis were disparaged as being “soft on Communism”.

    I do love the Lewis quote about evil: “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.” I would simply add that (a) America has, and always has had, plenty of such men–they were not confined to the USSR; and (b) such men don’t all work for the government.

  5. I think that a part you’re forgetting Mr. Shifflett is that with the commandment to Love comes the responsibility to correct or discipline when one errs. G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without conviction.” What I think Mrs. Stark (funnily enough, I’m actually reading “The Politics of Prudence” right now) wants to say is that only God can bring good from evil. Evil in itself is evil. Period. Humans might strive, with God’s grace and assistance, to bring good out of an evil situation or deny evil its full victory. Nevertheless, Mrs. Stark is correct, and Reagan in echoing the sentiment, that by simply ignoring evil it will go away or that it may bring about something good. Nothing intrinsically good can come of intrinsic evil. If you’ve never read Jean Raspail’s “Camp of the Saints” I would heartily recommend that you do. The greatest folly practiced in the book is the tolerance and indifference paid by the Western elites to their most serious threat until it becomes too late to stop and “those that scorn to weep over ruins, behold your ruin and weep.”

    You may be correct in saying that America has had her fair share of “quiet men with white collars,” but they have never had control of our nation in every aspect, as the radicals and Bolsheviks did with the corpse of the Russian Empire. They built a Frankenstein’s monster that devoured even its own creators and dominated nearly half of the terrestrial world with its ideology of abstract, unnatural “rights” and “progressive scientism” that was willing to efface thousands and thousands of lives in its vain attempt for its unattainable worldly utopia. Weak or not in reality, the idea of communism, and its parent Marxism, has lost none of its potentiality for mischief and ruin. We must combat it at every turn and deny that kind of overwhelming power to all those who seek it. We have thus far been mostly successful in that endeavor here in America, thanks to men like Reagan and Russell Kirk and the spirit of God.

    • Bryn Williams: I may not have made my position clear, but I certainly wasn’t suggesting we should tolerate–much less “ignore”–evil, and I agreed that “evil is evil” (that’s what I meant by a metaphysical tautology). By “tolerate the sinner” I meant we ought not confuse sinful actions–which we should identify, denounce, and resist–with the men and women who do them, because (for all we know) those men and women may not be beyond hope or conversion.

      I won’t argue your assessment of the Soviet regime, in part because I have no real argument to make, but also because the Soviet Union is gone, as are communism and Marxism, though they continue to make convenient bogeyman. I do think that identifying the USSR as “the focus of evil” was problematic, in that (a) it led many to think that vanquishing Soviet communism would vanquish evil–no such luck, any more than vanquishing terrorism could do so; and (b) to locate “evil” as residing (or “focused”) elsewhere always risks moral triumphalism. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between the evils of the Soviet regime and our own evils; I’m saying that to focus obsessively on the one easily leads to overlooking the other.

      I’ve never heard of, much less read, “Camp of the Saints,” but I’ll look for it–thanks for the suggestion. And perhaps I should read Freya Stark as well…

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