Not satire! This piece is not satire! Everything here can be found in the citations named.
In 1984 during the Presidential debate between Mondale and Reagan Marvin Kalb famously asked about Reagan’s belief in a biblical nuclear Armageddon. Reagan replied that he had engaged in “some philosophical discussions” on “the biblical prophecies of what would portend the coming of Armageddon.” Reagan further stated that “a number of theologians for the last decade or more” both believe in a biblical Armageddon and believe that “the prophecies are coming together” but no one knows if it “is a thousand years away or the day after tomorrow.” (Commission on Presidential Debates, 1984). Reagan followed it up by saying that he does not act upon any belief in a biblical nuclear Armageddon in his role as the president of the United States. After that debate Reagan dropped in the polls and is even rumored to have walked off the stage saying “I blew it.”
What Reagan didn’t blow was the question on Armageddon. He was prepared for someone to ask about his belief in prophecy and his answer is what scholars call polysemous, speaking multiple messages to different audiences in the same address. Reagan knew that a huge portion of his base were evangelical and believed in a biblical Armageddon (somewhere between 20-60% of the United States in 1984, estimates vary greatly depending on how “evangelical” is presented in the questionnaire) and he needed to make sure they were not insulted by his answer. He also knew that there had been a significant amount of push-back from the press regarding his statements about biblical prophesy and that push-back represented a high level of anxiety in the public sphere about what Reagan actually believes. His answer both lets evangelicals know he considers biblical prophesy legitimate and worth engaging with “many theologians” as well as directly answers the concerns that his beliefs mean he cannot be trusted with the safety of the United States.
Reagan’s belief in biblical prophesy and more specifically his growing concern that Armageddon would begin with a nuclear war was already a matter of public debate in 1984. Revelations that Reagan believed in biblical prophesy was not a surprise due to his frequent statements affirming that fact over the years. In 1980 on Jim Bakker’s PTL he stated that “this very well may be the generation that sees Armageddon.” Wolf Blitzer reported that Reagan told the Executive Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that “I turn back to your [Jewish] ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if–if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through” (Blitzer, 1983). That report generated a lot of traction in newspapers around the nation, many of whom focused on Reagan’s reference of Armageddon. Later, in an interview with People Magazine, Reagan reaffirmed his belief that theologians are saying that the end of the world very well may be coming. In 1984 NPR broadcast a special titled “Ronald Reagan and the Prophecy of Armageddon.” There are even countless second hand accounts where evangelical leaders and political allies recount personal conversations with Reagan regarding biblical prophesy and nuclear Armageddon; however, several of these accounts were revised when they caused controversy for Reagan (see Dugger 1984 for an example of a story changing after it is reported). Readers can assume four things from Reagan’s statements.
1. He believed in prophesy and the biblical interpretation of world events.
2. He had a strong belief that the end times may be upon us, but was quick to state that he could not be certain.
3. Armageddon would involve Nuclear war.
4. His belief was not isolated but rather he drew from many different unnamed theologians and as such can assume he was personally connected to a larger evangelical body that focused on biblical prophesy. That larger evangelical body was the premillennial apocalyptic conservatives who recently found their way to national politics.
Evangelicals and politics:
Reagan’s evangelical belief is significant because it points to an interesting time in evangelical politics. The 1980’s can be considered a heyday with evangelical political activity largely due to Reagan’s election and the rise of the Moral Majority. Evangelicals have been active in politics since the early 1900’s, but sometime between the 60’s and 80’s evangelicals began to push into the public stage as a political group in of their own right. They had been active in politics, famously in the Scopes Monkey Trial, but rarely did they actually move forth as a separate group preferring to speak to political matters that concerned them as part of larger movements. This tendency for believers to organize alongside other social movements has caused scholars to brand particular events as “the true founding of” evangelical political activity but such claims ought to generate skepticism due to the many different flavors of evangelical thought as well as the ability for people to use the language of faith to support their own personal issues.
The evangelical political rise came about due to two major factors working into the 70’s: the first was a political backlash from the social changes in the 60’s, the second was a growing body of work in popular culture that reinforced evangelical beliefs and made their expression more acceptable. The 50’s and 60’s saw an increased acceptance of previously held societal taboos and the federal government intervening in issues such as Civil Rights and public education. Evangelicals have historically taken a skeptical view of an expansive federal government because it is viewed as a precursor of the age of the Antichrist, and
conservative evangelicals viewed the social changes as signs of moral decline. Popular culture also began exploring themes of prophesy and spiritual warfare with movies and books in secular society taking seriously an evangelical worldview. Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson published the book The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. This book gave a prophetic interpretation of current events from an apocalyptic premillennial viewpoint. It was picked up by a secular publisher, inspired a movie adaptation narrated by Orson Wells, and started a series of books on prophesy and current events. The New York Times reportedly called it the #1 bestselling non-fiction book of the decade. Hollywood at that time was also using evangelical belief as source material particularly in the horror genre. Movies such as The Exorcists, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen all drew from End Times philosophy in the horror genre. This comes alongside secular movies regarding nuclear apocalypse all of which demonstrate the anxiety of the time. These events created a social climate where the language of evangelical faith was being discussed among secular audiences.
Evangelical leaders took hold of this opportunity and began speaking from a national level. Nuclear apocalypse was on everyone’s mind and the public discourse was full of people looking for answers. Evangelicals offered both an explanation of the times, as well as direction on how to move forward. Progressive evangelicals saw Carter, a self described born again christian, as the leader America needed and helped bring him to the presidency in 1976. Conservative evangelicals formed the Moral Majority and pushed for Reagan’s candidacy in 1980. In many ways the presidential election of 1980 can be viewed as a competition between conflicting evangelical visions and Reagan took the premillennial vision and brought it to the center of the political stage.
Blitzer, W. (1983). Reagan felt worried before Beirut Bomb. The Jerusalem Post. Oct 28. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. 3.
Commission on Presidential Debates (1984). October 21, 1984 Debate Transcript. Retrieved on July 14, 2017 from http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-21-1984-debate-transcript