Christian Conservatives Have A Very Selective Memory Of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan wasn't really much a of a "Christian Conservative."

James Joyner and I have both noted here several times the manner in which contemporary conservatives continue to invoke the name and legacy of Ronald Reagan despite the fact that, in more ways than one, they reject Ronald Reagan’s governing philosophy as it was put into action between 1981 and 1989. You can find two examples of that here and here. In today’s New York Times, Neil Young points out that when it comes to Christian conservatives in particular, memories of the Reagan Administration are highly selective:

In reality, religious conservatives were often dissatisfied with Reagan’s presidency. The Christian right of today – and Republicans generally – must stop using a mythic Reagan as their measuring stick for candidates because it drives them away from viable contenders who fall short of an impossible standard that Reagan himself couldn’t have met.

Believing themselves the key constituency that had guaranteed Reagan’s historic win in 1980, Christian conservatives felt the president owed them for their enthusiastic backing. Reagan had courted the nascent political movement on the religious right with a spirited defense of their most cherished political issues, including promises to restore school prayer, to work against the Equal Rights Amendment, and to attack federal abortion rights, legalized just seven years before.

But once in office, the Reagan administration claimed that it first had to address the nation’s weak economy. The social agenda of Christian conservatives would have to wait. In the meantime, the White House planned to muffle their grumbling. “We want to keep the Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms,” one Reagan staffer explained to the journalist Lou Cannon.

The complaints piled up. Evangelicals pointed out that Reagan had appointed too few of them to positions in government, despite his campaign promise that evangelicals in his administration would mirror their proportional representation in the American population – about forty percent at the time. In light of that snub, Reagan’s selection of Sandra Day O’Connor — who had made several pro-choice votes during her time in the Arizona state legislature — as his first nominee to the Supreme Court stung sharply.

During the campaign, Reagan had won the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement by pledging that he’d only nominate committed pro-life jurists to the nation’s highest court. Reagan’s tepid and ineffectual support for key school prayer and anti-abortion legislation in Congress during his first administration frustrated and angered religious conservatives who watched various bills die while the president did little.

Perhaps the best example of this discontent during Reagan’s first term came over the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. While Reagan saw the appointment as fulfillment of his campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Court, many on the right distrusted O”Connor on abortion and related issues and expressed that concern to the White House. Jerry Falwell said publicly that all “good Christians” should oppose O’Connor’s appointment, a comment that caused Barry Goldwater to say that “I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell’s ass.” O’Connor was confirmed, of course, and the religious right saw its influence inside the White House reduced.

Even being loyal during the 1984 election didn’t do much to increase the influence of the so-called “religious right” inside the Reagan White House. The only memorable socially conservative achievement during the final years of Reagan’s time in office came in 1986 with the release of the Meese Commission’s report on pornography. However, while the commission that produced the report was dominated by social conservatives who had long talked about the supposed evils of sexually explicit content, the report itself ended up being widely derided in the press and ignored by Congress. Though the report ran nearly 2,000 pages, it resulting in no significant legislation or changes to how obscenity was prosecuted in American Courts. Additionally, during this time and in years after the Supreme Court continued to hand down rulings that protected the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. The only other real sop to social conservatives was Reagan’s appointment of Robert Bork to a Supreme Court seat which, of course, ended in utter failure.

Young continues:

The political disappointments and painful realizations that marked the religious right’s rocky relationship with Reagan’s presidency have been replaced by the more powerful seductions of selective memory and wishful fantasy. But like any myth of history, there are small truths within it that alter the memory.

Reagan failed to achieve the religious right’s grandiose objectives, but he delivered on other issues religious conservatives cared about, like cutting taxes and increasing military spending. His full-throated espousal of traditional morals and Christian principles along with symbolic gestures like naming 1983 the “Year of the Bible” looked like crass politics to many observers, but linger as forceful evidence for many conservative Christians of Reagan’s unique example.

If Republicans want to appeal to an American electorate that increasingly has little direct connection to Ronald Reagan, they need to let go of romantic memories that produce only unrealistic expectations. Part of Reagan’s appeal came from his insistence on his own limitations, so Republicans would be wise to stop looking for a savior among a field of mortals.

In reflecting honestly on their own fractious history with Reagan, religious conservatives and other Republicans alike might better evaluate the candidates that stand before them rather than hopelessly praying for the second coming of a president who never really was.

They would also do well to remember that, while Reagan did acknowledge religion in public addresses and such, he was not himself an overtly religious man. He rarely went to church while he was in the White House, something for which conservatives routinely criticize Barack Obama. And, he was close friends with many people in Hollywood who didn’t exactly lead moral lives. That last item is probably one reason why Reagan never seemed quite comfortable with the religious right’s obsessive hatred of homosexuals. Unlike the Jerry Falwell’s of the world, he actually knew people who were gay, living in the world of Hollywood how couldn’t you? That’s not to say Reagan was some kind of crusader for gay rights, he wasn’t, although it is worth noting that during his time as Governor of California he opposed efforts to make it illegal for people who were openly gay or lesbian to teach in the state’s public schools.

The more important point, though, is that once again, the right’s hagiography of Reagan has almost nothing to do with the reality of Reagan. Rather than trying to recreate something that never existed, they’d do better to try and understand what really made Ronald Reagan successful, and it sure as heck wasn’t because he was a 1970s version of Rick Santorum.

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    “…the right’s hagiography of Reagan has almost nothing to do with the reality of Reagan…”

    That’s a cruel joke…you know full well the wingnuts are going to have to look up the word hagiography.

  2. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Hell, “Christian Conservatives” have selective memories about just about everything, to the extent they even can remember things in the first instance. Most of those people have brains like sieves. They don’t recall what happened yesterday, much less 25 years ago. Save for the occasional petty pet peeve on some micro issue about which they’ll fester and fume.

    It’s really an absurd demographic. Quite an ironic one too, for in large part, once you step away from pure social issues, they are some of most liberal people you’ll ever meet. From welfare programs, to tax policies, business regulations, criminal justice policies, foreign policies, entitlement policies, immigration policies, etc., their viewpoints often are well to the left of what we’d all consider to be the left. They can’t even grasp the irony. They’ll often stay home and not vote in general elections, to “send messages” or to “prove points.” To add insult to injury they’ll do so after mucking up the primary contest. Then in the final analysis they’ll cop out by saying it’s all God’s will. Brilliant.

    The biggest mistake the GOP ever made was to align itself with Protestant evangelicals. Having them as necessary political allies is like trying to clap with one hand.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    From the Daily Intel Blog…
    Number of Times the Candidates Said Reagan: 15
    Number of the Times the Candidates Said Bush: 1, in a reference to George H.W. Bush.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    Reagan was the last reasonably popular 2-term Republican POTUS. He’s all they have.

    GHWB was a 1-termer who they never much liked anyway.

    Bush the Lesser… obviously you can’t talk about him (at least not yet). Just you wait, though, there will be a rehabilitation project at some point. But not now.

    Thus, Reagan. But real Reagan actually governed. With a D Congress, no less. Which means something Conservatives currently distain with extreme prejudice: compromise. So you can’t talk about real Reagan. You have to talk about mythical St. Ronaldus.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I should have said “movement Conservative” or, in keeping with Doug’s post, “Christian Conservative” instead of just Conservatives. Those subgroups seem to be the most virulently anti-compromise (though they’re not the only such factions).

    In terms of the relationship between CC’s and the GOP in general, it seems to match up reasonably well with the left wing of the Democratic party: platitudes are mouthed, occasional bones are tossed their way, but in the end they always end up disappointed and bitter… and mostly show up and vote D again, because what’s the alternative? Well, staying home or voting Nader, which occasionally happens too. The results speak for themselves.

  6. Hello World! says:

    Hmmmmm….Reagan was no friend of the gay community. In fact, he set the fight against AIDS back by at least 7 years. His only statement on the subject was “when it comes to AIDS we will let morality do medicanes work”. A pretty horrible and judgemental position to take on fighting a disease. He also opposed any kind of federal and private protection. As far as the California thing goes i bet there is more to his opposition of banning teachers than the idea itself.

  7. Hey Norm says:

    @ Rob…
    And Obama is probably the most conservative President since Reagan.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    The biggest mistake the GOP ever made was to align itself with Protestant evangelicals

    .What else could they do? When the party that represents the “elite” needs a message to con people into voting for the elite party, and against their own interests, religion and xenophobia are pretty much all there is in the playbook.

  9. Septimius says:

    That last item is probably one reason why Reagan never seemed quite comfortable with the religious right’s obsessive hatred of homosexuals.

    Maybe you don’t remember, but Ronald Reagan is blamed by the gay community for the AIDS epidemic. I think they might have a different opinion about his hatred of homosexuals.

  10. Fiona says:

    The right seems to forget a lot about Reagan. Aside from his lukewarm embrace of Christian conservatism, he was also known to raise taxes both as governor of California and president. He compromised with Democrats when necessary, and certainly never vilified them in the manner of today’s Republican party.

    I was never a huge fan of Reagan’s when he was president, but I’d take him over anyone of the 2012 Republican presidential contenders.

  11. Hey Norm says:

    @ Septimius…

    “…Ronald Reagan is blamed by the gay community for the AIDS epidemic…”

    Do you even believe the crap you write???

  12. the truth says:

    Reagan was against the Briggs initiative and this position was widely seen as having a big impact on the repudiation by the voters.

    Also, reagan’s tax on the upper income earners was the highest in california history – 10.8%.

  13. anjin-san says:

    It’s hard to imagine that the genial and pragmatic Reagan would have any use for the vitriolic obstructionists who call themselves conservatives today.

  14. Septimius says:

    @Hey Norm:

    “An entire political movement grew up around the silence of the Reagan administration. The AIDS activist movement took as its call to action ‘silence equals death’ because literally the silence of the Reagan administration was resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of gay men in our communities across the country.”- Sue Hyde, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

    So they created the SILENCE=DEATH poster which at the bottom said: “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable…Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.” -ACTUPNY

    “Our murderer is dead. The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world, is dead. More people than Hitler even.” – Larry Kramer, founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis on the death of Ronald Reagan

    “We wonder today how far we would be in solving the Aids crisis if Reagan had both recognised the scope of the tragedy and had more respect for the plight of gay men who were dying by the thousands from Aids.” – Jon Beaupre, a gay journalist and Los Angeles radio talk show host

    “Those of us who were out and involved in queer community life during the 1980s, watched as our friends and lovers dropped dead around us while America looked the other way. Reagan’s disgraceful and willful failure to speak out on AIDS and take action for those seven years mirrored much of the nation’s failure to acknowledge the terror visited on our communities.” – Eric Rofes, Director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Center

    “I will never forgive my fellow actor Ronald Reagan for his genocidal denial of the illness’ existence, for his refusal to even utter the word AIDS for seven years, and for blocking adequate funding for research and education which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” – Barbra Streisand, speaking at an AIDS Project Los Angeles fundraiser in 1992

    “I wouldn’t feel so angry if the Reagan administration’s failing was due to ignorance or bureaucratic ineptitude. No, Steven, we knew then it was deliberate. The government’s response was dictated by the grip of evangelical Christian conservatives who saw gay people as sinners and AIDS as God’s well-deserved punishment. Remember? The White House Director of Communications, Patrick Buchanan, once argued in print that AIDS is nature’s revenge on gay men. Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, and his domestic policy adviser, Gary Bauer, made sure that science (and basic tenets of Christianity, for that matter) never got in the way of politics or what they saw as “God’s” work.” – Matt Foreman, Executive Director National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

  15. MM says:

    @Septimius: So your argument is based on quotes from the 80’s and early 90’s and people saying that Reagan was ignoring or minimizing AIDS, and one guy who made a Hitler reference? If you want to get a pulse on what the gay community thinks, wouldn’t it make sense to find something post “AIDS from a toilet seat era”?

  16. Septimius says:

    @MM: Actually, no. Most of these quotes are from right after Reagan died in 2004. My argument is simply that most in the gay community would dispute that Reagan “never seemed quite comfortable with the religious right’s obsessive hatred of homosexuals.” To argue otherwise would be to display a very selective memory of the Reagan years.

    Even last year, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, many in the gay community (and on the left in general) were still criticizing Reagan’s record on AIDS.

  17. mattb says:

    @Hey Norm & @MM:

    Septimus is totally correct in saying that the Gay community at the time had very little love for Reagan or GWB when it came to AIDs. Older activists will still blame both of them for dragging their feet (at best) on pushing for funding and, among the most hyperbolic ones, accuse them of genocide.

    There’s a reason beyond the entire rights thing as to why people in the community scratch their heads at gay republicans.

  18. anjin-san says:

    were still criticizing Reagan’s record on AIDS.

    Which is a somewhat different thing than

    Ronald Reagan is blamed by the gay community for the AIDS epidemic

    You can’t even be consistent in a single thread. Hack city.

  19. Septimius says:

    @anjin-san: You don’t think blaming Ronald Reagan for the AIDS epidemic counts as criticism? Seriously?

    Can you read to without moving your lips?

  20. Seerak says:

    If you want to get a pulse on what the gay community thinks, wouldn’t it make sense to find something post “AIDS from a toilet seat era”?

    How about this?

    I only put that up because it’s the fourth hit I got when Googling “Ronald Reagan epitaph”. I was doing that to post it here, because it expresses a sentiment that is considered profoundly liberal by many conservatives:

    I know in my heart that man is good.
    That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.

    Not exactly the Original Sin doctrine, is it?

  21. anjin-san says:

    @ Septimus

    Words mean things:

    Ronald Reagan is blamed by the gay community for the AIDS epidemic

    were still criticizing Reagan’s record on AIDS.

    You do realize there is a difference between actually blaming Reagan for the AIDS epidemic, and “criticizing his record”. A very large one. It’s kind of like the difference between an atom bomb and a stick of dynamite.

    You have a tendency to make weak to nonsensical arguments. Don’t get whiny when people notice you trying to walk them back.

  22. anjin-san says:

    @ Septimus

    One more thing – “the gay community” is actually millions of people with viewpoints that are are quite varied. Trying to tell us that they think as a block, or that you are qualified to speak for them just makes you sound kind of simple.

  23. Septimius says:

    @anjin-san: You are so ridiculous. I posted 7 quotes from prominent gay activists who blame Ronald Reagan and his administration for the AIDS epidemic. Most of which were written upon his death in 2004. They believe his silence and lack of federal funding during the early years caused the deaths of thousands and thousands of gay men.

    Last year, on his 100th birthday, many in the gay community reiterated these same criticisms. I didn’t walk anything back.

    I’m not going to rehash every point in every post. If you want to attack something I write, then at least read all of my comments on the matter. Otherwise, keep your idiocy to yourself.

    And, your other post about the gay community being millions of people with varied viewpoints is about the most absurd thing you’ve ever written. And, that’s saying a lot. Any community has people with varied viewpoints. To believe that we can’t make judgements about what a particular group thinks because there are some with a differing view is a joke.

  24. anjin-san says:

    I posted 7 quotes from prominent gay activists who blame Ronald Reagan and his administration for the AIDS epidemic

    7 whole quotes? Wow. Thats conclusive. Your “point” as your points tend to be, is kind of meaningless. Lots of people despised Reagan. Not really news. Barbara Streisand does not speak for “the gay community”. No one does really. You have people giving opinions, that’s it.

    If you want to attack something I write, then at least read all of my comments on the matter.

    I did. They simply were not very impressive You are not really bringing anything to the table that is not pretty common knowledge.

    To believe that we can’t make judgements about what a particular group thinks

    You can make all the judgements you want. Pat yourself on the back for being clever. No one else will. You have already had quite a few people point out the flaws in your arguments on OTB, and you don’t seem to be bright enough to follow what they are saying.

    At any rate, as someone who has lived in the SF Bay Area for over half a century, working with gay waiters in the Haight when AIDS was still known as “the gay cancer” I feel pretty safe in passing along the opinion that gays can speak for themselves, they don’t need your display of how you have mastered cutting edge cut and past technology to let everyone know what “they” think.

    Ronald Reagan is blamed by the gay community for the AIDS epidemic

    Like most of your output, something you would expect from a high school senior on a term paper.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Using the same standards that Septimius does with this argument, we could say that Republicans, particularly Southern Republicans, are racists…after all, I’m sure it wouldn’t that hard to dig up quotes from Newt Gingrich, Tom Tancredo, Haley Barbour, etc….

  26. merl says:

    @Hey Norm: Exactly, he was such a good “christian” that he never even went to church. Never mind his treason in arming the Contras, cutting and running from Lebanon after the unavenged attacked on the Marine Barracks, selling missiles to Iran, etc. The man was a traitor who violated his Oath of Office many times.

  27. merl says:

    @Hey Norm: They don’t remember George W. what’s his name. They shoved him down the memory hole the minute he left office.

  28. sam says:


    To believe that we can’t make judgements about what a particular group thinks because there are some with a differing view is a joke.

    Where o’ where was this guy educated? He is due a refund.

  29. MM says:

    @Septimius: Let me point out what people who can read call a conjunction.

    So your argument is based on quotes from the 80′s and early 90′s and people saying that Reagan was ignoring or minimizing AIDS.?

    That means quotes from the 80’s as well as others.

    @mattb: I understand that and I’m not disputing it it all. I’m saying that “Reagan dragged his feet and/or minimized AIDS and/or delayed potentially lifesaving research” is not the same as “Blaming Reagan for AIDS”.

  30. mattb says:

    @MM et al.:
    While I totally agree it’s a dangerous thing to let any individual speak for a “community” (or pretend that a community has a single opinion on anything), and that Septimius has a tendency to change his line of argument midstream, I still think his general point is correct.

    I guess the key thing is how you interpret what was meant by the “AIDS epidemic” (as anjin-san notes, often referred to as “the gay cancer” in the community). If we’re talking about it in terms of “created the virus”, then that’s not accurate.

    But there are a lot of people in the gay arts and political community that blamed (rightly or wrongly) GHWB (I left out the critical “H” last time), Reagan, and the US government in general, for allowing it to become an epidemic through their combined inaction/ignoring the problem.

    I don’t have the references in front of me now, but you can look at Tony Kushner’s writing from that period (essays, Angels in American Part I, and Bright Room Called Day) where this repeatedly surfaces. Yes, I realize this is only one source. I also remember a lot of this in the Village Voice at the time.

    I’m not arguing the validity of the claim these folks were making — just simply that the record does show that people did pretty broadly blame Reagan for AIDs (or at least how bad it was).