Thirty years ago, on March 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to a group of evangelicals in Orlando, Florida.
Most of what Reagan said that day has been overshadowed by a single, memorable phrase: he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Within a decade, of course, that “empire” had fallen and the “Cold War” disappeared from view.
Reading Reagan’s text uncovers more fully what the speech was about as America was in the midst of a very hot “Culture War.” Reagan spoke about ending abortion and passing a constitutional amendment that would once again permit prayer in public schools. Only near the conclusion of his remarks did he turn his sights to the Soviet Union.
Reagan’s text was peppered with cherry-picked references to America’s Christian past and quotes from some of the “Founding Fathers” –William Penn, Washington and Jefferson among them. But these remarks to an evangelical group led to an odd choice as Reagan concluded:
“One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, said, ‘We have it within our power to begin the world over again.’”
The pamphleteering Paine is best known as the author of Common Sense and The Crisis, among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine ended up in France and was caught up in the bloody Revolution there, winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine.
After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release. This was a serious case of bridge burning and Paine fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible. In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
That essential part of Thomas Paine’s philosophy was notably missing from Reagan’s words about the role of church in America.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate –as well as Ronald Reagan’s presidency– in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.