Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Ronald Reagan, “Address to the National Association of Evangelicals (‘The Evil Empire’)” (8 March 1983)

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  • Although some historians credit this speech with bringing an end to the Cold War, it was widely criticized at the time for its religious and moral absolutism. Reagan’s strong anti-communist message  placed the Cold War in  an explicitly moral context. Reagan cast the Cold War as a spiritual, rather than a diplomatic or political problem. The “Evil Empire” in question was the Soviet Union, and according to Reagan, the evils of communism denied the God-given moral rights to freedom and democracy. Within this larger framing of the Cold War, Reagan built his case against a proposed nuclear freeze, which he claimed would benefit the Soviets.  During his second term as president, however, he negotiated a deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that actually reduced nuclear weapons.
  • Reagan gave the address to the National Association of Evangelicals, an increasingly important segment of the Republican Party’s conservative base. The first half of the speech was intended to boost support by focusing on the domestic issues of abortion and school prayer. This strategy allowed Reagan to link morality on domestic issues to the Cold War, culminating in a call for a spiritual renewal in America against “evil” forces at home and abroad. This supported Reagan’s claim that the American system of government and Judeo-Christian values (peace, liberty, and freedom,) were inextricably tied together.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • Reagan’s purpose was to alter the American public’s view of the Cold War by placing it in a moral context. He cast communism in Russia as a spiritual, rather than an ideological threat. The values of the “Evil Empire” were hostile to religious morality and the proposed nuclear freeze would be a betrayal of America’s most fundamental values.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • A central argument that Reagan developed throughout the speech was that the American system of government and Judeo-Christian values were inextricably linked. He supported this idea through references to the founding fathers and their religious language, biblical and spiritual quotations, and the interweaving of the domestic issues of abortion and school prayer with the foreign policy issues surrounding nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

Ideas for Pre-Reading Activities and Discussion

  • Have students consider public attitudes toward communism in America in the 1980s. Outside of class will interview an older friend or family member about their views on communism and the Cold War and how it affected their lives at the time. Also have students inquire if their interviewee’s moral values have changed since they were young. Students should be prepared to share their findings in small groups.
  • Start class by showing this two minute “mini-biography” of Reagan: http://www.biography.com/video/ronald-reagan-mini-biography-2088455777. Students should then write down three-to-five things they find interesting about the video and share their list with a partner, looking for common themes.
  • Provide students with information about domestic and international issues addressed in the speech. Why were abortion and prayer in the schools such contentious issues at this time? Then introduce the idea of a “nuclear freeze.” Who proposed a nuclear freeze and what did the proposal entail?  Why did Reagan oppose the nuclear freeze? Research the proposal for a nuclear freeze and discuss the pros and cons of Reagan’s proposal.
  • In a class debate or discussion, consider the role of the U.S. president in debates over morality and religion. In this speech, Reagan expressed concern about a number of “moral” issues in the United States, such as abortion and prayer in the public schools. Do students think the president of the United States should speak out on such “moral issues? What are (or should be) the moral principles that govern U.S. policies, both foreign and domestic?
  • America’s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, was often described as “atheistic,” while America’s enemy at the beginning of the twenty-first century (post September 11th ) has been described by some as “Islamic extremism.”  What differences, if any, are there between these two “enemies” of freedom? Does it make sense to describe both as “immoral” or “evil,” even though atheists profess no religion, while the 9/11 terrorists were allegedly motivated by religious zeal? After considering this question, have students discuss their views on the role of religion in politics and the differences they see, if any, between “atheistic communism” and “Islamic extremism.”

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Alexis de Tocqueville [para 10]: A French intellectual popular in the nineteenth century for his book, Democracy in America, which shared his observations about politics and history in the U.S. A main theme in his work was how the Puritan religious sentiments shaped American democracy. He reflected on how the Puritans provided a synthesis of religious liberty and political liberty, which he argued went hand-in-hand in defining America’s great democratic experiment.
  • “Judeo-Christian tradition” [para 18]: Literally, the term “Judeo-Christian” ties together the religions of Judaism and Christianity. The more modern political meaning, however, emphasizes the shared values and traditions of all Western religions, particularly as they define morality and civic affairs. Thus, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” is what most American scholars have in mind when they talk about “American civil religion.”
  • “Supreme Court decision” that allowed “abortion on demand” [para 25]: The Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which struck down state laws that the Court considered overly restrictive of a woman’s right to choose.  The decision did not legalize abortion under all circumstances, however.
  • S. Lewis [para 46]: Christian British novelist and theologian most famous for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters, which Reagan quotes in the speech, was a satirical, Christian apologetic written from the Devil’s point of view and emphasizing the importance of believers resisting temptation and taking a deliberate role in promoting Christian values.
  • Thomas Paine [para 54]: Introduced by Reagan as one of America’s founding fathers, Paine was a radical activist who championed independence from England and a utopian vision of the new American nation in the most influential pamphlet of the era, Common Sense. Paine went on to become a harsh critic of institutionalized religion, which he saw as contrary to rational or critical thought.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading Activities and Domestic Policies (First Half of the Speech)

  • Students will complete pre-reading activities of teacher’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • [Read paragraphs 1-28]
  • Students will analyze how Reagan used the first half of the speech to construct his argument that the American government and Judeo-Christian values were inextricably linked.

Day 2: Foreign Policies and Post-reading Activities (Second Half of the Speech)

  • [Read paragraphs 29-55]
  • Students will assess how Reagan cast the Cold War as a spiritual, rather than diplomatic or political problem.
  • Students will complete post-reading activities of teacher’s choice.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Prompts

  • Paragraphs 1-7: Discuss with students the opening of the speech. Who was the audience? What was the tone of Reagan’s introduction? How did Reagan attempt to establish his credibility? What sort of personal image did he cultivate, and how did he try to shape his relationship with his audience? Evangelicals were a growing segment of the Republican base at this time, but Reagan himself was not known as a particularly devote Christian. How did he use humor and storytelling to establish common ground with his audience?
  • Paragraphs 8-12: After the opening, Reagan immediately proceeded to tie religious morality to politics, saying “freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.” He then went on to quote some of the Founding Fathers. How did these quotations suggest a particular interpretation of U.S. national identity and history? Did they suggest that the founders were strong advocates of separating church and state? How did the quotations support Reagan’s argument  that the American government and Judeo-Christian values go hand-in-hand? How did Reagan account for “America’s greatness” in this section of the speech?
  • Paragraphs 13-21: Here begins Reagan’s argument about “modern-day secularism” and the issue of reproductive rights. How did Reagan describe or characterize these modern-day secularists? How does he account for their success at shaping policies in Washington? Did he portray these political activists as evil, or as merely mistaken or misguided?  How did he make the connection between these activists, “Washington-based bureaucrats and social engineers,” and the abortion issue?
  • Paragraphs 22-28: In these paragraphs, Reagan turns to the issue of prayer in public schools by discussing a proposed constitutional amendment. He also offers his interpretation of the First Amendment’s implications for prayer in the schools. How does he say the First Amendment relates to the issue of prayer in public schools?  Does he explain why a new constitutional amendment is needed?  What other sort of legislation does Reagan endorse regarding free speech in schools?  Reagan criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. How does Reagan characterize that decision and its implications for other issues, like the treatment of handicapped children? What, if any, evidence does he use to support his argument that legalized abortion has contributed to a “decline in respect for human life?”
  • Paragraphs 29-35: In this section, Reagan argued that a “great spiritual awakening” was underway—a “renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America’s goodness and greatness.” Citing opinion polls, he noted that the vast majority of Americans believed in God and the Ten Commandments (i.e. Judeo-Christian values), and that most Americans disapproved of “adultery, teenage sex, pornography, abortion, and hard drugs.” This “new political and social consensus,” he proclaimed, gave cause for hope and a “positive view of American history.” Yet Reagan tempered that optimism by noting that there was still “sin and evil in the world,” and by recalling the “legacy of evil” in American history, particularly with regard to civil rights. Casting his audience as opponents to the resurgence of “hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice,” Reagan, in effect, absolved the evangelicals for any blame for the dark side of America’s character and focused attention again on the “positive view of American history”—a story of “hopes fulfilled and dreams made into reality.” It is through that story that America “kept alight the torch of freedom,” not just for ourselves, but for “millions of others around the world.”
  • Paragraphs 36-37: Reagan’s discussion of sin and evil created a transition to Reagan’s critique of the Soviet Union. Although Reagan did not use the now famous phrase “evil empire” until the end of the speech, he  painted a picture of Russia as godless and anti-religious. How did Reagan characterize Marxist-Leninist philosophy and morality? When he spoke of the “refusal” of “many influential people” to see totalitarian powers for what they are, he mentioned the 1930s, invoking comparisons to the rise of Nazi Germany. Reflect on how people viewed Nazism in the 1980s or even still today.  Do we think of Hitler and Nazism as merely misguided, or as simply another political ideology?  Or do we automatically think of “Nazis” as “evil?”  Was it fair or logical for Reagan to imply that the Soviet Union was no different than Nazi Germany?
  • Paragraphs 38-39: After implicitly comparing the Soviets to the Nazis, Reagan pledged “an understanding” with them. Pledging to do “everything I can to persuade them of our peaceful intent,” Reagan reminded the Soviets of America’s restraint when it enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, and he mentioned U.S. proposals for deep cuts in both nations’ nuclear arsenals.  At the same time, he warned the Soviets that the U.S would never “compromise our principles” or “abandon our belief in God,” and concluded by speaking against the proposed nuclear freeze
  • Paragraphs 40-45: Reagan called the Nuclear Freeze Movement a “dangerous fraud.”  Why do you suppose Reagan used such strong language?  Why did Reagan consider the nuclear freeze such a bad policy?  Next, Reagan told the story of a young father—a “prominent young man in the entertainment world”—who told a large audience that he would rather see his young daughters die, believing in God, than have them grow up under communism.  Why do you suppose Reagan told this story?  Finally, Reagan calls on his audience to “pray for the salvation” of all who live under totalitarianism, before suggesting that until they find God, the Soviets would remain “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  Have students think about why Reagan chose to use such strong language.
  • Paragraphs 46-55: Reagan concluded by speaking out against secularism and “moral equivalency.” This was the crux of Reagan’s argument, wherein he claimed that the Cold War would be a test of our spiritual values more than our military might. What did Reagan say were the lessons of history relevant to the Cold War?  Why did he consider the Cold War a spiritual, rather than a military challenge?  Why did he close by declaring communism a “sad, bizarre chapter in human history”? Did Reagan end on an optimistic or pessimistic note?  Why did he close by quoting Thomas Paine?

Ideas for Post-Reading Activities and Assessment

  • Students can consider the following questions, in discussion or in writing. What were Reagan’s goals in this speech? Do you think he attained his goals? Why or why not? What were Reagan’s main arguments? What evidence did he provide to support those arguments? Did you find his arguments convincing? If you were a journalist at this time, how would you have reported Reagan’s speech? What would have been your headline? If you were to write an editorial or opinion piece in response to the speech, what would you say?
  • Is it appropriate for U.S. political leaders to use religious rhetoric in the public sphere? Should public officials use language from the Bible or any other religious text in speeches to the American public on political issues? When political leaders do use such language, are they violating the constitutional separation of church and state? Identify a current political debate that involves religious issues. You might go to the C-SPAN website (http://www.c-span.org) and search for political speeches on religious topics.  Or visit the websites of organizations concerned with the role of religion in politics, such as the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org), the Center for Public Justice (http://www.cpjustice.org/), or the Ethics and Public Policy Center (http://www.eppc.org/). How would you describe each group’s position on the role of religion in politics?
  • Compare newspaper coverage of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002. How did news and editorial reactions to the two speeches compare?