The Political Virtue of Moral Clarity: Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Address at 40

Looking back 40 years, it is remarkable the extent to which Ronald Reagan’s voice still thunders through
his 1983 speech before the National Association of Evangelicals. Upon revisiting this address, more
commonly known as his “evil empire” speech, I was struck by the moral clarity of Reagan’s words and
the lesson that those words have for Christian leaders, pastors, and officials today.

To start, Reagan offered a clear articulation of the principle of subsidiarity. As the president put it, “If
America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great… I want you to know that this
administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her
people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities—the institutions that foster and
nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.” Not only did Reagan
declare that he cherished the little platoons that sustain American civic life, but he also acknowledged
that these institutions—church, family, neighborhood—are necessary to the social order of the nation.

Indeed, Reagan even went so far as to contrast this stance with the “prevailing attitude of many who
have turned to a modern-day secularism, discarding the tried and time-tested values upon which our
very civilization is based.” As if to hammer the point home, he closed his speech by denouncing Marxist-Leninist materialism as “the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” For Reagan, there existed a direct line between a purely materialist
view of the universe and the abuses of the communist regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere.

It therefore may be tempting for many of us to read Reagan’s words with wistful eyes, nostalgic for an
era when the president might speak so forthrightly to an audience of evangelical pastors. Yet we should
not minimize the challenges of Reagan’s day. His party lost the 1982 midterms. Unemployment had
eclipsed 10%. The Soviet Union intensified its occupation of Afghanistan. And Iran had begun turning the
tide in its war against Iraq, looming over the Middle East as an anti-American would-be “hegemon.”
Reagan—as well as the Christian leaders he was addressing—faced many difficulties in his time, no less
than we do in our own. As Paul Fessler notes, Reagan’s attempt to situate the Cold War as an explicitly
spiritual problem elicited sharp criticism the moment after he gave the speech. Even so, by the end of
Reagan’s presidency the “evil empire” was well on its way to collapse, and his vice-presidential successor
won a third GOP term over his overmatched opponent, both signs of evident political success.

Reagan’s address thus holds two lessons for us today. First, there is power that flows from moral clarity.
To put it bluntly, Reagan stayed the course. He had spoken of the Soviet Union as a source of evil in the
world for decades by the time he had entered office; he had a long track record of combating Marxism,
hearkening back to his cooperation with the FBI to expose communist infiltration of the film industry in
the 1940s. Reagan’s anti-communism was public, not merely a private disposition. As early as 1952, he
exhorted the graduating class at William Woods College to embrace individual liberty and so to oppose
communism: “Within the heart of each one of us is something so God-like and precious that no
individual or group has a right to impose his or its will upon the people.”

Although the world is richly complex and there are quite a few shades of gray—as those who work in
Washington know all too well—Reagan’s speech reminds us that nuance is not in itself a virtue. The sort
of political diagnosis that sees anti-Muslim concentration camps meant to exterminate Uyghur culture in
Xinjiang and reacts with whataboutism of American racism, for example, represents a kind of moral
colorblindness that ends in impotence. Reagan understood that some actions—and indeed, some
regimes—truly are evil and deserve opposition. While such a diagnosis does not absolve us of reflecting
on the past and repentance for wrongdoing, it does mean that the imperfections of the American
experiment should not cloud our ability to arrive at a clear moral judgment when such judgment is
deserved. Reagan had many faults, but his consistent clarity about communism was not one of them.

Second, Reagan’s address also reminds us that moral clarity is not enough. Reagan proved particularly
adept at translating precepts into policies, such as when he authorized the U.S. military buildup to
engage the Soviet Union from a position of strength. But he also knew how—and when—to separate
moral judgments from political actions. For example, Reagan entered into arms negotiation talks with
Soviet leaders, met with Gorbachev at Reykjavik, and even visited Moscow in June 1988, all actions that
would seem incommensurate with the puritanical anticommunism of his 1983 address in Orlando. As he
told James Baker, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.”

Hence, strong as his condemnation of the “evil empire” was, Reagan possessed the wisdom to avoid
equating moral diagnosis with strategic choices. His ability to avoid this pitfall while still prosecuting a
foreign policy deeply informed by his understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition provides a helpful
example for those of us today grappling with the onset of fresh partisan divisions at home and a new
Great Game with China abroad. It is vital that we do not abandon good-faith debate and respectful
dialogue toward those with whom we disagree, even as we recognize the paramount importance of our
challenges today. Evil, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, exists in each person’s heart no less than in the
concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or modern-day Communist China. We should
never allow moral outrage at the sinfulness of such regimes to overwhelm our capacity for prudential
judgment or productive dialogue. As H.W. Brands observes, Reagan knew the purpose of politics “is to
govern, not preserve ideological purity.”

Christian leaders, thinkers, and policymakers should take these lessons to heart. What we can offer is
vital to the healthy operation of our political system: a recognition that the best policies must respond
to humankind’s yearning to achieve justice while being chastened by an acknowledgment of the reality
of evil in our world. Reagan’s speech gives us a chance to reconsider this prospect for such a time as

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