Reagan: Messiah, Antichrist or normal mainline church guy?

As a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid who grew up in Texas in the 1970s, I had lots of reasons to reject Ronald Reagan. That may seem strange to some of you, since it is now assumed that Southern Baptists and the Republican Party that Reagan built are wedded at the hip.

But people tend to forget that Jimmy Carter really is a Baptist. So are Bill Moyers, Al Gore and Britney Spears, while we’re at it.

People also forget that Reagan was not a Southern Baptist or even what most people would call an evangelical. He grew up in the Church of Christ, in the heartland of American mainline Protestantism.

Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that, for better or for worse, the current political divide in American life on moral issues is largely the result of three cultural earthquakes — Woodstock, Roe vs. Wade and the Reagan revolution.

These events shaped modern Democrats as well as Republicans. They shaped religious conservatives and the emerging bloc some call the anti-evangelical voters. And these events helped create or deepened cracks in most religious sanctuaries that remain today and have, if anything, only deepened.

Take the Southern Baptists, for one example. That massive flock of 16-million-plus believers was split by Ronald Reagan just as much, if not more, than doctrinal debates about “biblical inerrancy.”

Millions of Southern Baptists saw Reagan as a near Messiah.

For conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, the rise of Reagan offered hope that the cultural revolution of the Woodstock-Roe era might in some way be overturned. They were wrong, of course.

Nevertheless, the Reagan-loving Baptists lost their fear of politics and jumped back into the public square. But while the conservative grown-ups helped create the Religious Right, their children were alone in their bedrooms watching HBO and MTV. The parents thought they could vote in the kingdom. It didn’t work out that way. What they got was “I Love the ’80s.”

And there were some Southern Baptists who saw Reagan as the Antichrist.

I saw this close up. I had a dear friend in graduate school who literally lost his moderate Southern Baptist faith because of the election of Ronald Reagan. How could he believe in a loving God, if Reagan could be elected president?

The people who voted for Reagan hated the really cool movies then liked the really bad movies. They didn’t read the right books and magazines or laugh at the edgy comics. And Reagan was embraced by all of those fundamentalists who wanted to ruin their Southern Baptist Convention, which was on its way to entering the mainline Protestant world.

Most of all, my friend believed that Reagan was dumb. And if Reagan was dumb, that meant that hating Reagan was smart. Everyone who was smart agreed. If you didn’t agree, then, well, you must be dumb.

So defeating Reagan was the way to vote in a radically different Kingdom.

What these anti-Reagan Baptists and new evangelicals really needed was a smart, progressive, hip Southern Baptist in the White House — someone like Bill Clinton. That would be perfect. Then things didn’t work out precisely as they imagined, either. They ended up with “Sex & the City.”

Lots of them liked it. A few didn’t, but the alternative was worse. The alternative was being a religious conservative. The kind of person who yearned for the past and liked Reagan.

Was there another option?

But perhaps Reagan wasn’t a Messiah or an Antichrist.

Maybe he was just a normal mainline Protestant guy from the 1950s. Maybe he had good intentions and he did his best and he accomplished a lot of things on the global level and didn’t do so much on the national level. Maybe his beliefs were sincere, but not very specific. Maybe he made some people feel good and others feel bad.

Maybe his most important legacy in American religious culture is the Religious Right AND the Religious Left.

But questions remain. Was Ronald Reagan really a cultural and moral conservative? How about George W. Bush? He’s another fairly normal mainline Protestant guy with traces of evangelical style who is being called a Messiah on one side and the Antichrist on the other.

Did Ronald Reagan cause America’s deep divisions on moral and cultural issues? Did he cause the “Pew Gap” in all the election polls? I doubt it. Could he, if he had actually tried, overturn the culture of Woodstock and Roe? I doubt that, too.

There are things that politicians cannot do. It’s a culture thing. It’s a moral thing. It’s a faith thing.

UPDATE: The webworkers at Christianity Today Inc. have put together a major resource for reporters and other readers, collecting the various statements issued from the evangelical world about Reagan. I assume this will grow in the days ahead, so journalists might want to bookmark it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jema

    Wow, I grew up in the C of C, never knew Reagan did too! You learn something new everyday.

  • Rod Dreher

    It’s hard to know if Reagan created the split, or was produced by it. I think the latter is more true. I was 13 years old when Reagan was first elected president, and I was growing up in a small town in south Louisiana. I remember very well — very well — lying in my bed that night, after my folks had gone to bed, watching my little black and white TV for Reagan, who had been declared the winner, to come make his victory speech. I fell asleep that night thinking, “We’re saved. It’s going to be all right.”

    I try to explain to my wife, who was too young to remember the Carter presidency, how crappy life was in this country in the 1970s. I remember getting up early one morning to go to school in 1979, crossing the hallway to the bathroom and hearing Jimmy Carter’s voice coming from the TV in my parents’ bedroom. He was telling the nation about the failed hostage rescue attempt. I remember hating Carter so much; everybody I knew did. He was an icon of American weakness and failure. Reagan repudiated everything he stood for.

    I come from a Methodist family whose theological views are a lot like I imagine Reagan’s were: viscerally conservative but non-specific. My folks were not regular churchgoers, and their minds were untroubled by theological controversy, or even theological distinctions. Yet they — and I (who was at that time a serious Evangelical, in my way) — thought for the first time that One Of Us was president. He said what we thought, stood for what we stood for, and he made all the right enemies. We were so encouraged by him because he showed that people like us weren’t permanent outsiders.

    Interestingly, when I turned 15 or 16 I lost my faith, went off to boarding school and became a big-time Reagan hater — something that didn’t leave me until I graduated from college in 1989 and left the kultursmog environment of campus. Reagan was to me and my crowd then the embodiment of everything we hated: unthinking right-wing religious nuttery. My feelings about the man then were no more thoughtful or considered than they had been when I admired him uncritically. Reagan was then what he had been before: a screen onto which to project myself and what I held most dear.

    Though I eventually became a political conservative and later a practicing Christian (as a Catholic), I’ve never felt so strongly about any president, not even Clinton. I thought he was a dirtbag, but not an iconic dirtbag. I didn’t feel that was about Bush 41, nor do I about Bush 43, whom I like and support. Reagan was the answer Nixon’s “silent majority” provided to the counterculture. I was tempted to say that if Reagan hadn’t existed, some politician would have emerged to have fulfilled his role. But he really is sui generis on the American scene. He was the right man at the right time in history.

  • MrAcheson

    Mainline today is not mainline pre-60s. A lot of churches changed, split, etc. during that period and their message changed similarly. A lot of the WWII generation probably had religious beliefs that would be considered evangelical today. Maybe its a result of growing up in the Great Depression. Or maybe its because when they were praying in their foxholes, it was to personal God who cared for them as individuals.

  • Steve Odom

    Jema, The reason you never knew RR grew up in the Church of Christ is because he didn’t. I don’t know how Terry made that mistake, but RR grew up in the very differenct Disciples of Christ, now called The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Disciples of CHrist are historically related to the Church of Christ, but are today very different denominations.

  • tmatt


    I knew that. In the Midwest, however, this is still called the Church of Christ. Check out the Reagan library references, etc. I knew that would be somewhat confusing. That’s why I stressed that he grew up in the MAINLINE Protestant world. When he was growing up — especially in the conservative Midwest — the lines between the major Campbellite bodies were blurred to a much greater degree than today.

  • http://Charterpop JGPearson

    I see someone else caught the error the author made; Pres. Reagan was a member of the Christian Church (Deciples of Christ), NOT the Church of Christ. There is a world of difference. It is a mainline church, as is mine (Presbyterian), and the Methodist. The Church of Christ is a world apart from the theology Reagan reflected in his life – it was mainstream Protestantism.

  • http://Charterpop JGPearson

    I see someone else caught the error the author made; Pres. Reagan was a member of the Christian Church (Deciples of Christ), NOT the Church of Christ. There is a world of difference. It is a mainline church, as is mine (Presbyterian), and the Methodist. The Church of Christ is a world apart from the theology Reagan reflected in his life – it was mainstream Protestantism.