Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to the Student Congress on Evangelism

July 28, 1988

To begin our time together, I just wonder whether you would all remain standing and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thank you very much. Well, now, before I say anything else, I want you to know just how much Nancy enjoyed being with you last evening. She's put her heart into the battle against drug abuse, and, well, it just plain did her good to see so many young people who are joining her in that crucial fight. And by the way, while having Nancy here yesterday was good news for you, it was bad news for me. You see, she's a tough act to follow.

But to all of you participating in this 1988 Student Congress on Evangelism, it's an honor to be with you. I know you come from all over America—some even from as far away as Alaska—and from a number of foreign countries as well. So, let me say welcome to Washington, and I hope you don't mind the heat.

But since I'm talking to a churchgoing audience, this heat reminds me of a story that took place back in my hometown of Dixon, Illinois. It was one sweltering summer Sunday evening, and the minister in our little church mounted the pulpit and announced that he was going to preach the shortest sermon he had ever given. And then he said just a single sentence: "If you think it's hot now, just wait." [Laughter]

Well, I'm not going to preach a sermon. I thought instead I'd simply share a few thoughts with you on a subject I've had the opportunity to think about quite a bit during the years I've held this office: the subject of moral and religious values in our public life. And first I'd like to spend a moment or two looking at the history of religion in our public life, and then I'd like to speak about the challenge before us today.

Whenever I consider the history of this nation, I'm struck by how deeply imbued with faith the American people were, even from the very first. Many of the first settlers came for the express purpose of worshiping in freedom. Historian Samuel Morison wrote of one such group: "Doubting nothing and fearing no man, they undertook all to set all crooked ways straight and create a new Heaven and a new Earth. If they were not permitted to do that in England, they would find some other place to establish their city of God." Well, that place was this broad and open land we call America.

The debates over independence and the records of the Constitutional Convention make it clear that the Founding Fathers were sustained by their faith in God. In the Declaration of Independence itself, Thomas Jefferson wrote all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." And it was George Washington who said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Well, later, the statesmen gathered in Philadelphia to write what would become our Constitution. They often found themselves at odds, their purpose lost in acrimony and self-interest, until Benjamin Franklin stood one day and said, "I have been driven many times"—oh, no, I'm sorry—"I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" And then he called that Constitutional Convention to open each day with prayer, which it did.

For decades, America remained a deeply religious country, thanking God in peacetime and turning to him in moments of crisis. During the Civil War, perhaps our nation's darkest hour, Abraham Lincoln said, "I have been driven many times to my knees by the conviction that I have nowhere else to go." Well, believe me, no one can serve in this office without understanding and believing exactly what he said.

During World War II, I remember a rally to promote war bonds that was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. The rally featured the great figures from government and great stars of the theater. And many times those people proclaimed-almost virtually every one of them who came out on the stage and addressed the vast audience—almost every one of them proclaimed that God was on our side. And then it remained for a $54-a-month buck private to speak words that no one there that day will ever forget. His name was Joe Louis—yes, the Joe Louis who had come from the cotton fields to become the world heavyweight prizefighting champion. And now, this $54-a-month private walked out to center stage after all those other celebrities had been there, and he said, "I know we'll win, because we're on God's side." There was just a hushed moment of silence, and then that crowd came to their feet with just about the most heartfelt applause and ovation that anyone has ever heard. The master of ceremonies was the comedian George Jessel, and George said, "Joe, you have just laid a rose on Abraham Lincoln's grave."

Well, during the civil rights struggles of the fifties and early sixties, millions worked for equality in the name of their Creator. Civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King based all their efforts on the truth that, black or white, each of us is a child of God. And they stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul.

And so it has been through most of our history. All our material wealth and all our influence have been built on our faith in God and the bedrock values that follow from that faith. The great French philosopher visited our country—Alexis de Tocqueville—150 years ago. He wanted to see if he could find the secret of our greatness already, as a young country. And then he observed that "America is great because America is good. And if she ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

This brings me to the challenges of the present day. For we must admit that in recent years America did seem to lose some of her religious and moral bearings. We saw the signs all around us. Years ago, pornography, while available, was mostly sold under the counter. By the midseventies it was available virtually on every magazine rack in every drug store or shop in the land. Drug abuse used to be confined to limited numbers of adults. During the sixties and seventies, it spread through the nation like a fever, affecting children as well as adults and involving drugs that were once unheard of, drugs like LSD and PCP.

But perhaps most important, the American family used to be the unquestioned basic building block of our society. And then families too often found themselves under pressure from government taxation, welfare policies that were spinning out of control, and social mores that were being undermined. Liberal attitudes viewed promiscuity as acceptable, even stylish. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of two-parent families dropped while the number of single-parent families almost doubled. Teenage pregnancies increased significantly. And although total births declined during the decade between 1970 and 1980, the number of illegitimate births rose about a quarter of a million.

These problems are still with us. But I believe there's been a change—a change that you young people here today are part of. The Bible says: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land." Many, many years ago, my mother had underlined that particular passage in the Bible. And I had her Bible that I could place my hand on when I took the oath of office in 1980. And I had it opened to that passage that she had underlined. Today more and more Americans are seeking His face. And, yes, He has begun to heal our land.

An overwhelming 9 out of 10 Americans pray. Audiences for religious books are growing. The modern communications media are being used for evangelism. Just consider, for example, the videotapes made by Youth for Christ or the wonderful programming on a new cable channel called Eternal Word Television, a channel started by a woman of immense determination and joy, a nun called Mother Angelica. I was struck when, in my reading a while back, I came across this quotation from the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox: "Rather than the cynical careerist types who supposedly have filled the campuses, I see young people who are intensely interested in moral issues, in religious history and beliefs."

Well, if I might interject a personal thought here, there's something I've always wanted to say to a group of young people like all of you. Yes, you get a lot of advice from those of us who are older. But I feel so deeply about what I'm about to say that, well, I'm going to go right ahead and give you one more piece of advice.

I'm sure that each of you believes that someday you'll find someone to fall in love with, and you will. And sometimes you may get frustrated, and, yes, finding the right one may take longer than you thought. But don't worry, it will happen. For each of you, out there someplace is that—to be a man or woman. And it's important for you not to pay any attention at all to all those who say that promiscuity is somehow stylish or rewarding. You know that when you meet that person, and meet them in marriage, that you will be true to each other. Well, did you ever stop to think you can start being true to that one special person beginning now?

But as I was saying, our administration has worked hard to reflect the return to basic values that you and so many others across the country have helped to bring about. Our administration has worked hard to reflect this return to basic values. In the courts, our administration has fought to defend America's cherished religious liberties, always opposing those who would promote government hostility to religion. To this day, it astonishes me that some would so misread the Constitution as to claim that it forbids us from displaying in public symbols of God's promise to mankind or prevents us from mentioning His name in the Pledge of Allegiance in our schools.

We won a major victory in the Supreme Court this year that you might not have heard about: the Kendrick decision. In this case, Congress had included religious groups in its program of counseling young people in order to prevent teen pregnancies. This only makes sense, since in so many other ways, churches are better at reaching young people than government could ever be. Some challenged this program. But I'm happy to say the Supreme Court rejected that challenge.

On another front, our administration has enacted laws making it tougher, much tougher, for criminals to do business in what is perhaps the lowest form of human exploitation: child pornography. And we're working to do still more. Indeed, last year we submitted to Congress a major piece of antipornography legislation: the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1987. We submitted that legislation to Congress for its immediate consideration and enactment, but today this legislation is still being held up. If the House and Senate leadership really care about family values, isn't it time they brought this antipornography legislation to a vote?

We enacted the Equal Access Act of 1984, giving voluntary religious groups the right to meet after school on the same basis as other groups. More legislation may prove necessary, but the basic principle is clear. I just have to believe, and I'm sure you agree, that if a math group or a chess club can meet after school, then so can a prayer group.

And there's another measure that we've worked for: school prayer. So far, we haven't succeeded in persuading the Congress to enact legislation that would once again permit voluntary prayer in America's schools. But I'm convinced that one day soon such a measure will be passed. If Benjamin Franklin rose to invoke the Almighty as the Constitution itself was being drafted, if the Congress of the United States opens each day with prayer, then isn't it time we let God back into the classroom? [Applause]

Now, although we Americans have done much to put our national life back on the firm foundation of traditional values, there is still a great deal to be done. And so, today I want to challenge you young people to see that our nation does still more to return to the life-giving values of faith and family. I want to challenge you in particular to work and pray with regard to four crucial issues.

First—a matter much on my heart—we must do our duty as a nation to generations yet unborn. We cannot proclaim the noble ideal that human life is sacred and then turn our backs on the taking of some 4,000 unborn children's lives every day. This must stop. Our Constitution guarantees "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but an abortion is the taking of a human life. Many who seek abortions do so in harrowing circumstances. And just as tolerance means accepting that many in good faith hold views different from our own, it also means that no man or woman should sit in judgment on another. I believe, and Vice President Bush believes with me, that we must rise above bitterness and reproach to find positive answers to the tragedy of abortion.

By the way, I was impressed and moved to learn that one young woman here today has done just that. Carolyn Deming, who became involved with Campus Life as a young person, has begun a home for unwed mothers. Who knows how many unborn children's lives Carolyn and others like her have saved? Using love and imagination to save lives, my friends— [applause] . It's clear that you agree that that is the answer.

Then there's the battle against drug abuse. I don't have to say much here because Nancy said it all last evening. So, let me just ask you: Won't you join Nancy, Vice President Bush, and me in urging all America's young people to just say no? [Applause]

Then there's an issue you're not too young to begin thinking about, even now: a restoration of the American family. When we obey the commandment, "Honor thy father and mother," we're recognizing all the sacrifices our parents made to raise us. But we're also honoring the institution our parents entered into and carried on: the institution of marriage and the family itself. The family provides children with a haven of love and concern. For parents, it provides a sense of purpose and meaning in life. When the family is strong, the Nation is strong. When the family is weak, the Nation itself is at risk.

There's one specific issue that's important to mention here, an issue being discussed in the current Presidential campaign: child care. Vice President Bush has proposed an innovative plan, one that would strengthen the family for poor and working families. The Vice President's plan would provide a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per child. Now, the basic idea here is that the Government would simply let families keep up to $1,000 more of their own money. That's money the family itself can decide on how to spend. Working mothers could put the money toward child care. But by giving each family this tax credit, the Vice President's plan would also permit thousands of mothers to choose to stay home with their children.

Many of you also are already of voting age. And so, in the name of the family itself, I urge you to join me in doing your part in local, State, and national politics. And with regard to voting, I like to paraphrase Will Rogers. He pointed out that people holding public office are no better or worse than the people who voted for them to send them there. But he said they're all better than those who don't vote at all. So, if this democracy of ours is to be preserved, we must all exercise our precious right to vote.

Finally, in this age when electronics beam messages around the globe in a few seconds, we must work to separate half-truths from the whole truth, including the truth about the difference between free and totalitarian societies. Today there are profound changes underway in the Communist world. My trip to Moscow convinced me of that. And of all the changes underway, perhaps none holds more hope for the future than Mr. Gorbachev's statements that the Soviet Union would soon grant its believers certain new freedoms. But while we pray for those inside the Communist world, we must cherish the freedoms that we already enjoy, cherish a nation founded in freedom. Just think of those words we recited a few moments ago. The Pledge of Allegiance asserts that our nation is under God—an unthinkable statement in too many countries around the world today. And it proclaims the ideals of liberty and justice, ideals that we may not have completely achieved but that as a free people we're constantly striving toward.

If I could interject here something. You know, I know in our land of freedom everyone-if they want to choose atheism instead of a belief in God, that's their right to do so. But I have always felt that I would like someday to entertain an atheist at dinner and serve the most gourmet, perfect dinner that has ever been served and then, at the end of the meal, ask that atheist if he believes there's a cook. We must cherish our nation, work to make her better still, and never stop saying this simple prayer: God bless America.

Permit me to close now on a personal note with a few thoughts from my heart. You know, hardly a day goes by that I'm not told—sometimes in letters, sometimes by people I meet—that they're praying for me. It's a warm but humbling feeling. I know that many of you pray probably for me and for all our government leaders. Well, I appreciate your prayers more deeply than I can say. I grew up in a home where I was taught to believe in intercessory prayer. I know it's those prayers and millions like them that are building high and strong the cathedral of freedom that we call America, those prayers and millions like them that will always keep our country secure and make her a force for good in this too troubled world. And that's why as a nation we must embrace our faith, for as long as we endeavor to do good—and we must believe that will be always—we will find our strength, our hope, and our true happiness in prayer and in the Lord's will.

I'd like to tell you a story that is related by Dr. Paul Brand, the noted leprosy specialist, in his book, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made." Dr. Brand tells of how, after World War II, a group of German students volunteered to help rebuild a cathedral in England that had been a casualty of the Luftwaffe bombings. And as these young Germans worked, progressed and progressed—and debate broke out on how best to restore a large statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched and bearing the familiar inscription, "Come Unto Me." Careful patching could repair all the bomb damage to the statue except for Christ's hands, which had been destroyed by the bomb fragments. Should they attempt the delicate task of reshaping those hands? And finally the young workers reached a decision that still stands today. The statue of Jesus has no hands, but the inscription reads: "Christ has no hands but ours." Isn't that really what He was trying to tell us? [Applause]

Thank you all, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in Hall A at the Washington Convention Center.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to the Student Congress on Evangelism Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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