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Robertson and the Reagan Gap

By Editorial Staff
Published April 1, 1988

Review of Time magazine article

by Garry Wills

An editorial columnist for Time magazine said presidential candidate Pat Robertson is striking a chord in the hearts of the American people – and that political analysts are making a serious mistake if they ignore Robertson’s message about the need for a return to traditional values. The articulate defense of the Robertson presidential bid (“Robertson and the Reagan Gap,” February 22, 1988) was unprecedented for a secular news journal like Time.

Garry Wills, a professor of American Culture and Public Policy at Northwestern University, said in his political analysis in Time, “A moral alarm clock is going off in America, and not many politicians hear it. Pat Robertson does, and so do more of his fellow citizens than we less godly folk have been willing to admit.”

Dr. Wills has written six books on American presidents, including his most recent Reagan’s America. Wills proposed in his editorial that much of what Pat Robertson has been saying about prayer in schools, abortion, collectivism, the Supreme Court, creationism, drugs, and homosexuality have all been a part of Ronald Reagan’s message at one time or another … “Only Robertson means it.”

In the 1984 elections, President Ronald Reagan’s support was primarily among the youth, and his message on the need for morality in the nation catapulted him into office. “Reagan did have an uncanny ability to address the spiritual discomfort of his followers, their sense that America was ceasing to be what it had always been in its own citizens’ eyes: a moral nation.

“Reagan renewed the sense of an America shaped historically by spiritual hungers,” said Dr. Wills. Belief in America and belief in God complemented each other in Reagan’s message. However, these beliefs which were the foundation of our nation’s institutions have been kicked out from under them, and today Americans see their children “growing up in an atmosphere abuzz with libidinous solicitings, sitting transfixed before Technicolor celebrations of greed and lust and violence, lured through many conduits toward experiment with drugs or rebellion.

“The signs of moral revolt have been there for some time,” said Wills, adding that Robertson is picking up these warning signs and addressing them in his campaign message. These signals include the undermining of parental authority by teachers who are “morally adrift as they continue to try to control student bodies bordering on thuggery,” pornography on cable television, divorce, open “living arrangements” by the unmarried, and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.

Even the Democrats have tried to attract this quiet yet growing movement toward morality, added Wills. An example is Jesse Jackson’s political program to curb teen pregnancy.“America has until very recently been a moralist and a moralizing country,” stated the professor.

“The most glaring evidence of a moral hunger in today’s electorate has been, as Robertson points out, the Reagan popularity,” continued Wills. Although Reagan accomplished little on social issues, his annual addresses to religious broadcasters and pro-life organizations went beyond Pentacostals or Evangelicals. “Most Americans nodded along with Reagan’s regular mentions of prayer, his claim that he survived assassination by a special providence of God, his assertion that all the answers to life’s problems can be found in the Bible.”

Today the Republican Party is suffering from a “Reagan Gap,” he said. “Robertson offers Reaganism without the actor’s human face. Those advocating writing off Robertson as a viable candidate,” Wills warned, “need to tread with caution.”

One of the common arguments against Robertson is “that he cannot go beyond his base of Pentacostals and Evangelicals.” Although this may be true, Wills affirmed that Robertson’s base is a large one. According to a Time poll in January of this year, one-third of Americans called themselves born-again. Fifty-seven percent agree with the statement, “We are a religious nation and religious values should serve as a guide to what our political leaders do in office.”

Robertson opponents also say that his voters are mainly first-timers who may be one-timers.“Robertson may be bringing in new voters, but they are people who have been specifically mobilized by a sense of mission, by the feeling that they must ‘take back’ this country for God,” Wills said. The lack of political sophistication or financial clout hasn’t stopped the movement from growing.

Robertson opponents also claim that his supporters have low income and less education, and are traditionally less active and influential in party politics. However, Wills pointed out that Robertson “got the youngest vote in Iowa, just as President Reagan carried the young in 1984.” Fifty-four percent of evangelicals are under 50 years of age, and these figures are in line with Robertson’s present support base.

Others dispute that the “kook factor will do Robertson in,” said Wills. However, he referred to a University of Chicago National Opinion Research council which reported that 29 percent of Americans have had visions of some sort, and 67 percent have experienced the supernatural.“Obviously, there are a lot of people out there who believe the Spirit of God is touching them,” he said.

“What makes Robertson a threat is not the medium but, precisely, the message,” Wills said. “Thus Robertson’s foes must be careful about overkill. Calling him an Ayatullah points to a truth not intended – that religion is a powerful national force, not only in exotic places but also in their own familiar country.”

Wills ended his editorial by stating that“Americans need to become more attuned to their country’s desires before concluding that today’s moral crisis is easily handled with secular expertise.”


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