O n March 8, 1983, at 3:04 P.M., President Ronald Reagan stepped to the podium before a group of evangelical Christians at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando, Florida. Knowing he had a friendly crowd, he began by thanking all those present for their prayers. He cited a favorite quote from Lincoln, about often being driven to his knees by the overwhelming conviction that he had nowhere else to go. He then commended the role of religious faith in American democracy.

That was all nice enough—standard fare, no surprise, preaching to the choir.

Reagan then took a sharp theological-philosophical turn. He spoke of sin and man's fallen nature: "We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin." He then gave a glimpse of where he was heading: "There is sin and evil in the world, and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might."

Particularly possessed of that sin and evil, he told the National Association of Evangelicals, was America's principal foe: the Soviet Union was the "focus of evil in the modern world"; it was an "evil empire."

Reagan's audacious assertion was a shot heard 'round the world—and certainly within the packed Citrus Crown Ballroom of several hundred people. "It was a surprise to all of us," said Thomas McDill, president of the Evangelical Free Church, "but especially to the reporters down in front." It did not take long for the ripple effect to make waves outside the auditorium. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen asked, "Question: What does Ronald Reagan have in common with my grandmother? Answer: They are both religious bigots." Historian Henry Steele ...

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