On Aug. 21, 1980, 15,000 Christian conservatives gathered in Dallas for probably the single most important religio-political moment in modern American life. With Ronald Reagan, then the Republican nominee for president, joining a who’s who list of conservative Christian leaders on the stage, the event served in many ways as the marriage ceremony between Southern Baptists and the Republican Party.
Southern Baptists joining Reagan in speaking at the event included W. A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, then Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith, Charles Stanley, James Robison and Ed McAteer. Other prominent evangelicals at the event included Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly and D. James Kennedy.
Evangelist James Robison, who led the rally, told EthicsDaily.com that the rally “had a profound effect on human history.” He argued that the ministers present spread out across the nation and helped turned the polls in Reagan’s favor. Robison added that he thinks Reagan then “changed the course of history.”
Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, similarly called the event “a transformative moment.” Land, who attended the event, told EthicsDaily.com that the rally indicated that “the evangelical involvement in public policy reached critical mass.”
Robison and other leaders of the National Affairs Briefing insist the effort was nonpartisan, noting that both Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter and Independent candidate John Anderson were also invited but declined to attend. Yet, Reagan’s speech effectively convinced many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals to join the Republican cause.
During his speech in Dallas, Reagan famously told the Christian leaders, “I know you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” He expressed his belief that America needed to return to God and “that old-time religion” in order to become “that shining city upon a hill.” He also urged people to recognize that the Bible has the answers to all the questions and problems confronting the nation, and he endorsed the teaching of creationism in public schools.
Robison not only introduced Reagan at the event but also suggested Reagan use the “I endorse you” line to start the speech. Robison called the line, which quickly became the most quoted moment of Reagan’s speech, “something that the Lord put on my heart.”
Robison claimed that he is not part of one political party.
“I have never been pro-party, I’ve always been pro-principle,” he explained. “I want to see all parties and all candidates move toward necessary first principles and essential principles for freedom to stand.”
However, Robison’s admiration for Reagan – then and now – remains clear.
“I obviously really liked him,” Robison said of Reagan. “I saw that he was a principled man.”
Robison noted during the interview he was looking at a photo of the occasion when Reagan told him during a private meeting that “Jesus is more real to me than my mother.”
Robison explained that when he contacted Reagan about the event and explained the vision for the rally that Reagan “heard it loud and clear” and “was the only one – none of his leadership staff agreed.”
“It was something he knew he must do and did it out of conviction in agreement with what was on my heart,” Robison explained. “He believed in the vision. … He really thought it was a great idea.”
Robison later served as a spiritual adviser for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush prior to Bush’s first presidential run.
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At the Dallas event, Reagan claimed that “religious America is awakening,” by which he meant conservative Christians. Echoing this sentiment, Robison urged evangelicals at the event to “crawl out from under the pews and stop looking through stained-glass windows” and instead get involved in politics to “take over this country.”
The ties that Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders have with the Republican Party remain firm. While president, George W. Bush spoke via satellite each year during the SBC annual meeting – a practice that stopped once Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office.
Many Southern Baptist leaders actively engaged candidates during the 2008 presidential election, and one former Southern Baptist pastor made a strong run for the Republican nomination. That individual – Mike Huckabee – got his start in grass-roots politics at the National Affairs Briefing in Dallas. Huckabee worked for Robison at the time and was in charge of logistics for the rally.
Land noted Huckabee’s work at the rally, calling it “Mike’s coming-out party.”
Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and president of the Norman chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, holds a different opinion of the 1980 rally. He also sees it as a significant moment but is critical of what it accomplished.
“For those who have eyes to see, the Religious Roundtable’s 1980 National Affairs Briefing reveals the secular political motivations behind the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Prescott told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail. “From the beginning, the fundamentalist oligarchy leading the SBC takeover movement viewed the Convention as a base from which to gain political influence and exert control over secular politics. In the process, they transformed Southern Baptists from being the strongest advocates for separation of church and state in the country to being its worst opponents.”
Although Land holds a different perspective on many separation-of-church-and-state issues, he did express his regret that many evangelical leaders today have gone well beyond the approach taken by Robison and others at the Dallas rally 30 years ago.
“They did not maintain the stance that Reagan had offered them,” Land argued. “That is, we should not be endorsing candidates, we should be looking for candidates that endorse us.”
“I wish that that spirit had stayed in the movement,” Land said.
“I don’t endorse candidates,” Land added. “I look for candidates who endorse me, and endorse my values, and endorse my beliefs.”
Although Land technically has not endorsed candidates, he often makes his personal voting preferences quite clear. During the 2008 Republican presidential primary race, he often spoke highly favorably of Fred Thompson. During the general election, his comments indicated his clear preference of John McCain over Barack Obama. Land even recently indicated that he liked the idea of Florida Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio mounting a presidential run in 2012.
Robison similarly laments changes that have occurred in the 30 years since the rally. In particular, he is disappointed with American leaders today who have moved away from Reagan’s policies.
“We’re heading the wrong direction,” Robison stated about today’s national leaders. “We need an about-face.”
In many regards, Robison’s and Land’s comments contain not just an excitement for what occurred 30 years ago, but also a hope for a similar movement today. Both men claim to be beyond partisan labels, but both clearly supported Reagan 30 years ago and hope for a similar politician to defeat Barack Obama in 2012.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.