Reagan and Religious Rhetoric
VTR Date: April 21, 1983
Guest: Wall, James
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I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey headlined his regular Watch on the Presidency, “The Right Reverend Ronald Reagan”, and in his column about the President’s March 1983 journey to the so-called “Holy Precincts” of the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, he wrote that the President’s fiery “sermon” mixed statecraft and religion. Of course, that was where Mr. Reagan revealed that there is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ to oppose it with all our might. About the Soviets, the President said, “Let us be aware they are the focus of evil in the modern world”.
Well, a couple of years ago I was joined here on THE OPEN MIND by James Wall, the learned minister who is Editor of the distinguished weekly publication, Christian Century. At the time he expressed fear that the often snide and hostile anti-religious Left, that had no compassion for the traditional concern for religious values, held by many Americans, might well bring about a devastating reaction by our country’s pro-religious Right. So I want to ask Dr. Wall today to what degree the President’s sermonizing bears out that concern.
Wall: that sermonizing, Dick, seems to me to bear it out totally. Because it seems that what the President has done is to take advantage of the strength of the religious Right and cater to it with that sermon that he delivered in Orlando.
Heffner: That’s not unfair, is it?
Wall: Well, it’s not unfair, it’s politics, and it struck me that in that particular sermon that what he is doing is playing to a particular audience, with a distorted view both of religion and of politics, and it’s…especially of American traditional politics.
Heffner: Is this any more dangerous than when a political leader distorts somewhat any thrust of the American public?
Wall: Well, it’s one degree of distortion, I suppose. But when you get right down to it, what he has done, is to take something very fundamental to the American psyche…theological belief, religious commitment, and played upon it, and played upon it in a very, I think, deceptive way. And the irony is that he hasn’t really been criticized too much by that snide Left that I alluded to, two years ago. A few columnists have complained about it, Hugh Sidey made fun of it, but the irony is that Mr. Reagan really doesn’t have the image of being a religious man, so people sort of accept this as political rhetoric and let him get away with it. It pleases the audience that heard it. He was interrupted twenty-three times by that group in Orlando. But otherwise, it doesn’t make much difference. In contrast, Carter…former President Jimmy Carter, who is known to be a very religious man, every time he said anything slightly religious was pounced upon by the media.
Heffner: Do you think that means that in fact, when there is a real attempt to mix real religion with politics, our political leaders will be pounced upon? But when it’s superficial, when it’s window-dressing, when it is strictly for the moment political, we just don’t care.
Wall: I’m afraid so, and I think that’s too bad because what Jimmy Carter was trying to do was to take his religious faith, and actually apply it to governing. Now I have some reservations about how he accomplished that. But at least that was his intent. I’m not questioning Mr. Reagan’s belief or his faith because who knows it except himself, and his God, but I am saying that I do not think there’s much evidence that he believes all of that material he was throwing out to the National Association of Evangelicals. There are those who even say that that speech, written by someone in the White House probably had some input from the likes of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, for example, because it certainly mouthed all the language that the Right Wing is using in a lot of television evangelism.
Heffner: But, Jim, if that’s the case, if indeed the President is using that evangelical approach, is that a demonstration of the strength of that approach in this country, or is this a matter of just appealing to one particularly small segment?
Wall: Well, bear in mind that there is a great tradition in this country, going back to the Founding Fathers and Mothers, of a jeremiad, the proclamation from pulpits calling the country to task, calling the country back to its original purposes of being the New Jerusalem, a phrase that’s often used by the New Right, but unfortunately what they mean by it, and their use of the jeremiad and Mr. Reagan’s use of the jeremiad comes from Jeremiah, the prophet, is not the same as it was meant originally. Originally it ws calling the people back to what it was they were meant to be. Mr. Reagan, Mr. Falwell and the New Religious Right do not call the people back to what they were meant to be, they identify the evil in the world as “somewhere out there”. That’s bad theology, that’s bad religion, that’s a bad use of any faith…Christian, Jewish or any faith…to identify evil “out there”…over in the Soviet Union…”the Evil Empire”, or in that secular humanism that is running around the country destroying the great human values, as they put it. Whereas the great tradition…the great tradition of American religion, and civil religion of American religious thought, is to acknowledge that “we” have fallen short…you have fallen short, I have fallen short, and therefore we have not been what we should have been. That’s the true tradition of American jeremiads and American religion.
Heffner: What damage, though, does what the President says…what damage does it do? I mean you say it’s not in a tradition, but I’m sure you mean more than that. I’m sure you mean that it is not in a tradition and for that reason it is dangerous. It undermines, it divides, it is divisive. Is that…is that fair that you…
Wall: All of those things…all of the above. It exploits religion. It takes the emotional conviction of a lot of people in this country, about family, about virtues that have been traditional, about truth, beauty and all the great virtues, and says “We know what they are, we practice them”. “We” being a rather narrow band of people in this country, fundamentalists. “Those secular humanists out there don’t practice this, and therefore they are different from us, we’ve got to bring things in line our way”. That’s damaging. It polarized the country, and of course, you know, I have heard it said…who knows…I have heard it said that…and you would almost assume that it was said, frankly, that before Mr. Reagan gave that speech calling the Soviet Union “Evil Empire of the word”, he notified the Soviet Union…”You know, don’t take this too seriously. I mean we’ve still got to negotiate an arms agreement, we’ve still got to get along in the détente world. But I’ve got to talk for domestic consumption”. Now, if he didn’t say that, he should have, because it’s dangerous.
Heffner: You’ve got him both ways, though.
Wall: Well, it’s dangerous for him to call such an adversary such loaded terms.
Heffner: But, you know, that…it interests me that you say that because it reminds me of a comment you made in the March 23rd-30th, 1983 issue of Christian Century, you started off the second paragraph, and you were referring to the President’s Orlando sermon…
Heffner: …and you were referring then, you were less generous, you referred to twenty-nine times that…
Wall: Was it twenty-nine? I counted them in the White House transcripts, so I’m accurate.
Wall: It was twenty-nine.
Heffner: Okay. You wrote “Having failed to deliver on a single legislative promise to his Far Right religious constituency…”etc., etc., etc. Are you suggesting that the President’s speech was designed to be limited to reception…
Heffner: …by those who haven’t gotten anything else…
Heffner: …so he was giving them words?
Wall: This is the remarkable thing about this President. It is that he has such good public reception, such a positive image out there among the general public, of all religious persuasions, really of all political persuasions, except for extreme Left. This is believed to be a genial, well-intentioned human being, so that he can identify a narrow audience such as the Fundamentalist Right…and say, in full view of the entire public these things and then the rest of the world will say, “Well, that’s just old Ronald Reagan talking rhetoric”. Whereas most politicians who lack that kind of public acceptability and I think Jimmy Carter is a good recent example, anytime they make a slight reference of this sort, that has religious overtones, they’re pounced upon. It’s a lack of public credibility, a lack of public acceptance which he very much enjoys.
Heffner: I suppose it’s only fair to share with our audience the fact that you were, as you once quoted someone in the White House as saying, “One of Jimmy Carter’s God-people”. You were a friend…
Wall: A friend, a supporter, a believer in what he was trying to do, and greatly disappointed when it did not work out as…
Heffner: And one of his God-people.
Wall: They called me “one of his God-people, the secularists in his campaign” (Laughter).
Heffner: But if you’re concerned with the mixture of religion and politics, on the present President’s part, on the part of Ronald Reagan, weren’t you at all concerned with the mixture of religion and public affairs…
Heffner: …on the part of your President?
Wall: I think any President, any leader, will come into the office and will function out of a perspective that is informed by, fueled by, some religious point of view, or no religious point of view. Something, however, will make them get up in the morning and be concerned about A, B and C and not concerned about D, E and F. Any leader has a religious perspective. What I’m concerned about is how it’s used, or misused. I think Mr. Reagan has grossly misused it. I think Mr. Carter’s theology, his religious world view, was not he Niebuhrian world view that he often mentioned, because you know, Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian who had such an awareness of ambiguity, such an awareness of the irony of all the…you know Niebuhr is the man that said, “Every good intention has an underside to it that’s negative”. Any time you’re dealing with power, be ready to recognize that there’s an underlying motive that does not show on the top. Mr. Carter, I think, simply did not acknowledge that. He, he was a rational man who said to Jane Bryne, “If you say you’re for me in the city of Chicago, then I trust you, you’re for me”. Two weeks later she’s fooled him, she’s not for him anymore. You see he lacked that sense of feeling of ambiguity in politics, and that hurt him as President.
Heffner: It’s funny that you choose such a positive word, or neutral word, at worst, as “ambiguity” to describe what others might describe as “deception”.
Wall: Ambiguity is a better word because in every positive act in dealing with power…we’re talking about how you deal with power in public affairs…maybe as opposed…Niebuhr called it “moral man in immoral society” because once you’re dealing with power you’ve got to acknowledge that there is an underlying motif there that is not immediately available. I’ve got to question motives. If I’m a politician, I’ve got to question everyone’s motives because they’re in…they’re after something and I have to protect myself. One of my…one of the persons who has influenced me in my thinking, politically, is a former Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daly. He always assumed that somebody had something else in mind, and he always protected his flanks accordingly.
Heffner: What a reformer you are.
Wall: That’s nothing…you call that “non-reform”. Is that your implication?
Heffner: No, no. I’m…it’s just an exclamation point that I put at the end of it. It’s not…it’s not negative. It’s positive, in fact.
Heffner: But, an interesting…as you used the word before…”informed”, only not informed by necessary religious thinking, the reform informed by…not “reformed”, “informed”…
Heffner: …by a little bit of practical politics.
Wall: Well, if you’re going to be in the political world, you’ve got to be very practical.
Heffner: Well, then the question…
Wall: But you were saying that ambiguity was too neutral a word…
Wall: …I think it’s…it means that in every situation there’s an underside that you’ve got to take into consideration. The point I’m making about Carter is that I don’t think he realized…he didn’t take that into consideration. He was a man who has a certain rational, liberal religious view of the world. If something is good, if something is right, then it ought to work. The rest of the people ought to accept it. Not so at all, from my theological point of view. Not so at all from Niebuhr’s theological point of view. And, therefore, you have to kind of “sell” it. But he took the position that “I know this is right. I’m going to adopt this plan and by May the first, and I know that country will buy it”.
Heffner: Are you suggesting, or am I just hearing it, without your saying it, without its really being in your mind that Presidents don’t get into power or, at least, don’t stay in power if they don’t have that sense of ambiguity…
Heffner: …that capacity to appreciate ambiguity.
Wall: I think the President who handles power best is a President who understands that ambiguity, and my earlier point was that every President has a theological perspective, whether or not they are willing to acknowledge it or not, and that theological perspective could very from being very positive about humankind to being very cynical about human kind, to a more moderate guardedness about humankind.
Heffner: Isn’t it better though to park that awareness, at least Mondays through Saturdays, some place else and take it out only on Sundays, or Saturdays, as the case might be?
Wall: I hope that’s a rhetorical question. Because it is absolutely impossible for any thinking human being to “park” their world view on any moment of the day.
Heffner: Except that your statement that President Carter didn’t have this sense of ambiguity that you look for, seems to imply to me that there was this dichotomization on his part.
Wall: No, no. No, no. I…what, what I guess I’m suggesting is that he does have a religious view; it’s not Niebuhr’s it’s not ambiguity. It is a rational, liberal point of view that…it’s trusting, it’s believing in goodness, it’s believing that if you tell me that something is going to be in the best interests of the country, then I can sell the country on that. So…he…he had a religious point of view, it just was not the old Calvinistic ambiguous understanding of the irony of history.
Heffner: If we were to put President Reagan’s religiosity, if were to take this sermon, and use…and put it up against the yardstick of American public opinion, where…do you think we would come out in measuring it in terms of approval or disapproval?
Wall: I suspect the American public, in general, is more sophisticated about a) secular humanism as he terms it, and b) the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, as he terms it. I don’t think the average American feels that negative about those two enemies that the President has identified. I think he’s playing to that narrow audience. I don’t think he feels that negative about it, either. I just think he’s playing to a particular audience.
Heffner: And that’s what you meant about “he probably made a call to the Soviet Union”…
Wall: …I said he should have.
Heffner: …or he should have.
Wall: I’m convinced of it, but I don’t know it. I’m just…I’m…as I say, he should have done it, I have a suspicion that he did.
Heffner: But, of course, when it comes down to the more practical applications that others will pick up, anti-abortion, for one, and a number of other activities…school prayer, for instance, should we put those in the category of points that the President will press, but not that hard?
Wall: He won’t press them very hard. If he really wanted them passed, the White House would have been working to get them passed by now. I mean that’s the point of my editorial…
Wall: …I said he didn’t really want that passed, he didn’t want to put out that kind of energy, he just sort of throws a little sop every once in a while to the New Right to keep them happy. He’s not serious about wanting…he knows how much political damage it would mean to him to have to get all that passed. Only a relatively small number of people really want a school prayer amendment. Abortion’s a little more serious because that affects a larger number of people. One can arrive at abortion stands from the theological position very legitimately, in either direction. Either a more, moderate understanding of freedom of choice, or a very strong conviction that abortions are wrong. The problem, then becomes how politically do you implement those positions? You see, that’s what we must always bear in mind, that you have a theological conviction about abortion, one way of the other, then in a pluralistic setting, in a Congressional setting, in the public arena, you work out some conclusion that’s in the best interest of all the people.
Heffner: Well, you know, I’ve heard it said on this program, or FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK, and elsewhere when we’ve talked about the President’s insistence, in quotation marks, upon a balanced budget amendment…
Heffner: …that this insistence fits somewhat into what you see as a hypocritical approach to religion in politics. Yell it, say it, preach it loud and clear and then you don’t have to do too much about it. But what hard does it do…you’ve said it is divisive, you’ve said it does damage. Do you see any real damage?
Wall: It demeans the public debate, that’s what harm it does. If you start out…
Heffner: Excuse me, may I just interrupt.
Heffner: Are you, perhaps, as much concerned with the possibility that it demeans religious feelings? Religious right?
Wall: Well, you mentioned the balanced budget…
Wall: …amendment, which I don’t think he was serious about because he knew it wouldn’t pass, but it was a good rhetoric for a certain constituency. When you begin by saying things that are strictly rhetorical, without any serious effort to get them passed, you’ve demeaned that subject. If it’s religion, you’ve demeaned it. If it’s a serious way of solving economic problems, you’ve demeaned public debate on that subject. And we…we need to elevate in this country the dialogue, not…not make fun of the public and cater to little, smaller self-interest groups.
Heffner: Well, of course, I go back then to this…and I’ll struggle to find it here in my, in my papers, the point that you had made some time ago. Here we are. In The Christian Century in 1980, when you were talking about the attitudes of people who lean toward the Left, toward a religious spirit in this country. In fact, you were then quoting The New Republic in talking about a British writer, Henry Fairlie…
Heffner: …writes of the bizarre coincidence of all three major Presidential candidates describing themselves as “Born-Again Christians”. “This has led to a state of affairs”, Fairlie says, in which, quote “it seemed that all candidates for the President were falling to their knees at factory gates at dawn just in time for their devotions to be caught by the ‘Today Show’”. And then you went on and said, “It is this kind of snideness that prompted American magazine’s recent editorial observation ‘among secularized elites in the United States, if religious faith itself is not considered a lapse in taste, public profession of faith is’”.
Heffner: And I remember, Jim, that when you were here about that time, you were really very much concerned…
Wall: Well, you see, I’m…
Heffner: …about this elite.
Wall: …I’m basically saying “a plague on both your houses”. I’m saying a plague on the elite, the liberal intellectual, sophisticated East Coast elite that makes fun of any kind of religious expression, if it’s well-intentioned and meant, that ignores the expression of Mr. Reagan which they know is not well…is not serious, but only political rhetoric. And I’m bothered greatly by the Right Wing exploitation of religious viewpoints in the public arena. When that editorial was written, we had a man in the White House who was considered deeply religious, and the elitists were sniping at him. What I see today is an exactly the opposite problem.
Heffner: You can…it’s a little bit like “do as I say, not as I do”. Because we turned out the man who seemingly was deeply, profoundly religious, we elected a man who speaks in those terms, and the possibility is we’ll re-elect him.
Wall: But he doesn’t really speak in those terms. I mean he has certainly never, he has not had the consistent reference to religion that Carter has. He, as a matter of fact, never mentions personal faith. He never mentions the personal religious views that Carter frequently referred to. Carter is traditional evangelical. In a recent interview in Christianity Today he cited his role in the White House as one who prayed constantly, as a man who sought very much to make a witness and to testify to people about his belief. These are very traditional things for evangelicals. As I say, you don’t hear Mr. Reagan talking that way.
Heffner: How do you feel when…
Wall: He doesn’t even go to church, by the way, on Sundays. I mean, that’s his business, but…
Heffner: You don’t want to antagonize a very large segment of our, of our audience.
Wall: Well, I mean it’s just not…
Heffner: Non-Sunday church-goers.
Wall: It is simply not one of things that interests him very much. He simply…you see him coming home every Sunday from Camp David waving to the television cameras in the sporty jacket, but he hasn’t been to church.
Heffner: Jim, are you pleased, not so pleased, concerned a little, when the man in the White House does let us know how frequently he goes down on his knees to praise God?
Wall: I would think we could do without that. And I’ll be honest with you. Why? Because I don’t think it sells very well in the public arena.
Heffner: You mean that’s the only reason you would be concerned with that? Because it may not sell?
Wall: Well, it sells in the sense of the image that it creates as to the man in the White House. Mr. Carter…I think that’s why the White House staff used to be uneasy about his “God-people”. They did not want him doing too many religious things because…but that was his nature. He believed this. That’s the problem, you see. He actually believed what he was saying.
Heffner: Now, now, now, now…look…
Wall: He did…
Wall: …he was a man of faith, and he wanted you to know that. And I’m just…
Wall: …saying that does not go over well with the public, and I…and I think in politics you have to say what goes over well with the public.
Heffner: Could I get you to take off your practical hat for a moment…
Wall: Alright. And be idealistic?
Heffner: And be…be ministerial, unless you want to say…and you may, that being ministerial is being practical. But let’s, for the moment, accept our traditional notion that there is something of a split between those two things. Would you be pleased if there were a man in the White House who did turn to his God most frequently and in traditional ways, but who also had the political sense to obviate the negative aspect of that phenomenon?
Wall: Of course, for me, personally, I would like for the President to have a deep religious faith. No question, I mean I want his world view to be shaped by the traditional Judeo-Christian point of view and the more profoundly involved he is in a religious community, to my way of thinking, the better off. That’s my personal preference. All I’m saying is that…
Heffner: Keep it quiet, keep it under the lid.
Wall: Well, not keep it quiet, but just not let it be exploited, or negatively, attacked by the secular press, because it will be so attacked.
Heffner: There is one other point…there are many other points that I want to ask you about, but I was fascinated in this…by this article on President Reagan and the Bible, and he speaks out strongly for the importance of scripture, and talks about the religious broadcasters. He said when he made 1983 the Year of the Bible…
Heffner: …”In a time when recession has gripped our land, your industry, religious broadcasting, has enjoyed phenomenal growth. Now there may be some who are frightened by your success, but I’m not one of them. As far as I’m concerned, the growth of religious broadcasting is one of the most heartening signs in America today”. What’s the James Wall posture on that?
Wall: Well, the message of many television evangelists is the message of…the old positive thinking message. It’s the Norman Vincent Peale…you can be happy and you can be successful. Very little in the evangelistic preaching of television today that talks about the suffering of the world, that identifies the sin that’s within each person. Very little of today’s television evangelists that would have us turn away from our evil way, and begin to live a more positive life, a more creative, a more supportive life to people in need. But always, as he did in his evangelistic sermon in Orlando, which is, as I say, was influenced by this group of evangelistic preachers, evil is identified “out there” among the pornographers, among the homosexuals, among the dirty movies, among all those things that we, who are hearing this, don’t have to worry about because we’re not guilty of this. It’s the old positive thinking, be successful, we’re good people, and the rest of the world is bad.
Heffner: But religious broadcasting, you seem to be saying, isn’t very religious.
Wall: I don’t think that what you hear on these television evangelistic fundamentalist sermons are very religious. I think they are self-help and success. And those two ingredients, kind of a blending of Norman Vincent Peale’s old positive thinking and Bruce Barton’s old “you, too, can be successful” and that hasn’t a lot to do with the Christian faith. No, really.
Heffner: Dr. James Wall, come back again on THE OPEN MIND. We’ll continue our talk.
Wall: Thank you.
Heffner: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.