- - Friday, August 21, 2015

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the day GOP candidate Ronald Reagan stood before 15,000 Evangelicals and uttered the sentence that one historian called “the most famous lines of the Age of Evangelicalism.” Reagan told the crowd: “I know you can’t endorse me. But I endorse you, and what you are doing.”

One of the lead organizers of the event was Texas evangelist James Robison. And, though only 25 years old at the time, one of Robison’s key helpers in pulling the event together was Mike Huckabee.

When the two-day event opened, attendees and countless journalists showed up at Reunion Arena. Flags and patriotic bunting were draped all around. Reagan would speak last, and Robison planned for his own sermon to come just before that—to set up Reagan.

Members of Reagan’s team understood the particular nuances of the evangelical dictionary and prompted him of their importance—though Reagan needed no prompting when it came to his understanding of Christian redemption. He ignored the counsel from one of his advisors for him to stay off the stage during the lead-up to his own speech.

Robison recalls how he leaned into Reagan with counsel for a specific opening line he thought would go over well. “I suggested to Mr. Reagan that because it was a bipartisan [event] that it would be in his best interest since we could not and would not endorse him as a body. But it would probably be wise if his opening comment would be ‘I know this is nonpartisan so you can’t endorse me. But I want you to know … I endorse you and what you’re doing.’”

Reagan followed the Robison script, nailing it with perfect cadence and warmth. Then he went on to speak about all the things the folks came to hear—keeping the government in its place and restoring order and moral sanity. He had to stop repeatedly because of the applause and shouts of affirmation for what he was saying. Reagan ended with a folksy hypothetical picture—if trapped on an island with only one book, he’d take the Bible. “All the complex questions facing us at home and abroad,” he added, “have their answer in that single book.”

“We gave him a ten-minute standing ovation,” Paul Weyrich recalled. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole movement was snowballing by then.”

Historian Steven P. Miller, author of The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, called Reagan’s words here “the most famous lines of the Age of Evangelicalism.”

It was the first time Huckabee had met Reagan, and he was duly impressed. “No one had ever given so much attention to or paid respect for the evangelicals. It was magic and a major force in Reagan winning.”

Judge Paul Pressler, one of the architects of the conservative movement within the Southern Baptist Convention, recalled this about the event: “At the urging of some friends, I decided to go. I did not expect much, but when I arrived, I found a packed arena, full of enthusiastic individuals hearing great speakers. I went to the phone after the first few hours, called [my wife] Nancy, and said, ‘Get a baby-sitter for the children. You must come up here and hear what is going on.’ She flew to Dallas, and we had the opportunity to attend together. This was the first time either of us had met Ronald Reagan.”

Robison remembers a closing word he had for the candidate: “I looked at Mr. Reagan. I said, ‘We really like you; we really like you. We like the principles that you espouse. But you need to understand something about the nature of this group that you’ll speak to tonight and those of us in this room. We’re not partisan; we’re not pro-party; we’re not pro-personality. We’re pro-principle. If you stand by the principles that you say you believe, we’ll be the greatest friends you’ll ever have.’ But I said, ‘If you turn against those principles, we’ll be your worst nightmare.’”

It is at this very point that Robison’s influence on Huckabee was greatest. Being guided by principle over all other considerations has shaped Huckabee in both his pastorate and his politics. He said, “If I were to make decisions based on self-preservation or political preservation, then I would become everything I want to change.”

…As Mike Huckabee celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday at the end of August, national news coverage of Ed McAteer’s Roundtable stated: “Religious Conservatives Launch Bid to Influence Presidential Politics.” Newsweek magazine followed suit, placing Jerry Falwell on the cover of its September 15 issue, to accompany the lead story: “A Tide of Born-Again Politics.”

From the vantage point of thirty years later, such headlines seem unremarkable—religious conservatives and religious candidates do this routinely. But at that point in time, the “preachers and politics mingle” theme of the news story wasn’t commonplace. Many considered it sacrilegious, but nobody considered it routine. Something new was in the air among religious conservatives.

On November 4, Reagan defeated Carter and won the right to govern the nation. The revolution had begun.


The above is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming authorized biography of Huckabee, to be released in November by Thomas Nelson Publishers. 

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