On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan stood before an audience of evangelicals and declared that the Soviet government was the “focus of evil in the modern world.” The arena erupted in unsurprising applause, standing ovations, and echoes of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” While many conservatives supported a hardline stance on the Soviet Union, the religious right gave Reagan the moral backing he needed to reignite the Cold War.
Pastors preached sermons about the godless, evil Russians. The 3.5 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals—who invited Reagan to address its annual gathering, where he gave that 1983 speech—became “a leading anti-communist voice.” And the Moral Majority purchased full-page advertisements in newspapers using charged religious language to frame the issues. “Recognizing the inherently moral nature of debates about nuclear weapons, the Moral Majority gave Reagan’s policies the weight of their moral authority,” as historian Jeremy Hatfield has observed.
More than three decades later, another Republican prepares to move into the White House, but unlike Reagan, President-elect Donald Trump seems to be cozying up to the former Soviet Union. If this weren’t enough to contradict Reagan’s legacy, some of his most loyal Cold War allies—conservative Christians—have advocated building bridges with Russia. As the new administration makes its plans, their collective moral voice may be just what Trump needs to thaw relations with the big bear across the sea.