The Rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of tremendous change in America. The “Greatest Generation” had returned home from a world war and started a new generation. This generation was bringing about an America that was much different from the one their parents grew up in. Major events were happening throughout America and the world as well. The Soviet Union had emerged as a dangerous superpower. America was fighting an extremely controversial war in Vietnam. On the domestic side, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, a new feminist movement, the sexual revolution, legalized abortion, and the increasing implementation of a liberal political agenda were all fueling a massive change in culture. It was in this environment that a new political community rose to popularity called the “new right”, and brought with them a fearless leader: Ronald Reagan. There are three primary textual sources from this time period that help us better understand the rise of conservatism in America. They are “The Conscious of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater, “Listen America” by Jerry Falwell Sr., and the “Evil Empire” Speech by President Ronald Reagan.

In “The Conscious of a Conservative”, Barry Goldwater lays out some principles of what would become the “Reagan Conservatism” of the 1980’s. Goldwater makes the case for limited federal government, lower taxes, belief in the individual, and never apologizing for being a conservative (Goldwater, 1960). “The conscious of the Conservative is pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being…..Thus, for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom” (Goldwater, 1960, p. 5-6).  Conservative ideas have contributed to human progress and the extension and preservation of freedom more so than any others, and Goldwater argued that time is now to bring them back. As Goldwater wrote this source in 1960, the budding grassroots conservative movement considered him to be the “Chosen One” for the presidency. However, it was not the right time and he was not the right candidate. Perhaps it was his lack of charisma, the political mastery of Lyndon Johnson, or his inability to connect with mainstream voters that lead to Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election. It would be almost 20 years before Goldwater’s ideas enjoyed large support from evangelical Christians, with the impactful endorsement of a prominent evangelical leader, Jerry Falwell.

Jerry Falwell Sr., a preacher and the founder of the Moral Majority, had a huge impact on the rise of the new right and Ronald Reagan. In his piece, “Listen America” he rallies against increasing liberal secularism and moral decay in American culture.  Falwell calls for a return “to basics, back to values, back to biblical morality, back to sensibility, and back to patriotism. Americans are looking for leadership and guidance” (Falwell, 1980, p. 415). Falwell believed that the leadership and guidance that Americans were looking for could be found in Ronald Reagan, and the Moral Majority threw their influential support behind the former California governor. This had a far reaching impact. Social conservatives, who were largely evangelical Christians, turned out in droves for the Reagan-Bush team in the 1980 election. They agreed with Falwell. They had had enough with the culture rot of the past decade and a half. They saw in Ronald Reagan a strong leader whose Christian convictions would make sure America stayed true to its founding. Reagan would not let them down. He did all he could to deliver, and he highlighted his agenda in the next primary source, an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983. Ronald Reagan’s address at the association’s annual convention would become known as the “Evil Empire” speech.

In the Evil Empire speech, Regan highlighted his support for religious freedom, school prayer, and open recognition of America’s Christian heritage. He also voiced his opposition to abortion and atheistic Soviet communism, and famously referred to the Soviet Union as “The Evil Empire” which must never be appeased: “There is sin and evil in this world, and we’re enjoined by scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might” (Reagan, 1983, p. 421). This speech invoked issues that were very important to evangelical Christians, who made up a large portion of Reagan’s support base. Reagan acknowledged that their support was reciprocated: “I want you to know that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities- the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God” (Reagan, 1983, p. 420). Touching on his pro-life, pro-family, and religious liberty credentials, Reagan also made sure to take a stand against the atheistic underpinnings of soviet communism and the need for Jesus behind the iron curtain. Reagan’s tough and uncompromising position on the Soviet Union, as depicted in this speech, would eventually contribute to the demise of the communism empire and the inception of freedom in Eastern Europe.

There is a large amount of complex history to uncover in order to better understand the rise of Ronald Reagan and the new right. In his work, “From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt”, Darren Dochuk (2011) argues that a great wave of migration from the deep south-eastern United States to Southern California caused a wave of growth of evangelical Christianity that coincided with the breakthrough of a regional and national conservative revolution that had been brewing for years. Dochuk illustrates that with the growth of conservative Christian numbers and activism in California, the liberal state’s political landscape began to change. After being let down by Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, Southern California conservatives turned to state level politics to rebuild their movement. They turned to a rising star and candidate for governor that would put both himself and the Sun Belt evangelical conservative movement front and center of the national political scene: Ronald Reagan.

The election of Governor Reagan in 1966 was only the beginning of rise of the new right. Dochuk (2011) points out that developments in the 1970’s including the legalization of abortion on demand, the proposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and the success and popularity of Governor Reagan changed the goal and the make-up of the new right. In order to win the abortion war, stop the ERA, recover from the Watergate disaster, and bring conservatism back to the white house, the new right realized that it needed to be very inclusive and diverse. As a result, groups with longstanding differences began to tear down walls and work toward common goals. Catholics and Protestants, long time republicans and democrat defectors, and “Reagan conservatives” and “Reagan democrats” seemed to begin working together more to bring a conservative agenda to the national stage. The new right continued to unite through the 70’s, as Reagan lost the GOP primary to Gerald Ford, which eventually resulted in democrat Jimmy Carter capturing the white house. As Carter’s presidency dragged on with a weak foreign policy, liberal domestic policy, and a stagnant economy, the new right was getting ready to take their country back.

To cap off a movement years in the making, Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th President of the United States in November, 1980. The new right had built a broad collation of conservatives that brought about the “Reagan Revolution”. In 1984, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide, as the Reagan-Bush ticket carried 49 states. The rise of the new right in the years leading up to and during Reagan’s presidency is important to our understanding of modern politics and culture. The then “new right” has evolved since the 1980’s, turning into a large part of the modern republican party. Evangelical Christians have continued to be a force in modern American politics. Their conservative positions on abortion, LGBT issues, and national security are influential in the American political process. For example, in 2016, evangelicals and conservatives turned out in large numbers for GOP candidate Donald Trump, and propelled the New York businessman to victory. Trump and Reagan are similar in the fact that they heavily courted evangelical Christians for votes, knowing that their support was crucial. Another similarity is that some Christians and conservatives were skeptical of Ronald Reagan, the former democrat and movie star, just like they were of Trump, also a former democrat and casino owner who seemed to have some serious moral failings in his past. Nonetheless, both enjoyed large support from those who were part of the new right of the 70’s and 80’s. The rise of the new right had a direct effect on the rise of Ronald Reagan in the 1970’s and 80’s, it had a direct effect on the rise of Donald Trump in 2015-16, and it continues to have a lasting impact on American politics and culture today.


Dochuk, D. (2011). From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: plain-folk religion, grassroots politics, and the rise of evangelical conservatism. New York: W.W. Norton.

Falwell, J. (1980). Listen, America! Bantam Books.

Goldwater, B. M. (1960). The Conscience of a Conservative. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Reagan, R. (1984). The Evil Empire (1983). In Public papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1983 (pp. 419-422). Washington: GPO.