Remembering Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire

Every morning during the Reagan era (1981-1989), my morning meditation was Psalm 23, as my prayer of protection. It was the first half of the fourth verse I repeated constantly during those days: “Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil.” And while I would like to say I walked sure-footed during those years, I didn’t. Throughout the Reagan years, my steps were tentative as I walked through my urban African-American enclave in New York City and witnessed folks dying from a mysterious virus that during its nascent stage had no name.

Our country’s AIDS epidemic during the reign of Reagan caused me to revisit the theological concept that, in my opinion, was used too cavalierly in my Christian fundamentalist growing up years — evil. Playing hooky from school, which I did a lot, was considered an act of evil, because you let the devil get the best of your judgment and actions. If you cut church, or bought candy with your offering money, which I also did, that was considered an unquestionable evil.

These transgressions, however, were seen not as acts of evil that could be altered with the right behavior modification therapy, but instead as intrinsic — evidence of an evil that was attributed to your ontological makeup. Or as my pastor would say, in an admonishing voice that trembled with the fear of God, it was an unalterable evil “way down deep in the marrow of your bones.” In trying to wrest myself from this oppressive use of the concept of evil that battered me in my growing up years, I shied away from it.

Evil, however, is indeed the best way to depict the Reagan era. It wasn’t until my seminary years when I took a course on theodicy, the study of suffering and evil in the world in light of the Christian claim that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, that I reexamined how it might be responsibly used in order to make systems of powers accountable for their actions.

Many religious conservatives believe that evil is born into a person; therefore, when you remove the bad seed you ostensibly remove the evil. However, evil exists in its various machinations because of systems, regimes, principalities, and, yes, presidencies of domination that allow it to give birth unchecked. As a system whose wheels churn on the absence of goodness, evil reduces people to objects, thus denying them of their basic human needs. And its strength to maintain human suffering is proportionate not only to its political and capital clout, but it is also proportionate to the strength of its religious ideological underpinning.

Many religious conservatives believe that evil is born into a person; therefore, when you remove the bad seed you ostensibly remove the evil. However, evil exists in its various machinations because of systems, regimes, principalities, and, yes, presidencies of domination that allow it to give birth unchecked.

With the emergence of the AIDS epidemic also came the emergence of the Christian Right, which propagandized the moment as a providential sign of God’s abhorrence for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But with no help from the Christian Right, Reagan, who saw the first signs of the AIDS epidemic in 1981, his first year in office, had his own theological view on the AIDS epidemic that influenced the laissez-faire attitude his administration exhibited. Reagan said “maybe the Lord brought down the plague because illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.”

In seeing the inherent value and goodness in every person’s life, 16th century English poet John Donne once said “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” However, with the theological belief that God’s will was indeed being done, Reagan unflinchingly watched the death toll climbed to over 41,000 deaths and over 60,000 diagnoses of full-blown AIDS before he spoke up about it in March 1987. For the Christian Right, it was a just way to exterminate us instead of making us wear pink triangles in a German concentration camp. And for others, tagging us was a more acceptable way of monitoring. In 1986, for example, Sen. William F. Buckley Jr., believing in a need to track who was inflected with the virus in order to stop its spread, suggested that people with AIDS be tattooed on their buttocks and forearms.

While it was clear Reagan was not an ally of LGBT people, he was also no friend to the poor: he cut subsidized housing and thus contributed to the exponential rise of homelessness. Reagan’s contumelious remark — labeling poor African-American women as “welfare queens living in Cadillacs” — became his signature statement in helping to turn a country’s blind eye to the disenfranchised.

The characterization of Reagan as a kindly grandfather figure ran counter to the experience of most school-age children, since he blocked bussing programs, slashed Head Start, cut school lunch programs and tried to pawn ketchup as a viable vegetable. He replaced vocational schools with prisons, and he offered no financial assistance to college students in need of it.

His disdain for African Americans was unabashed, constant, and exhibited in numerous ways. During his reign, African Americans saw the systematic erosion of hard-won civil rights gains and helped re-segregate the U.S. Reagan launched his presidential bid by speaking about “states’ rights” and upholding the voice of Southern segregationists at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. One of the grimmest episodes in the Civil Rights Movement occurred in that county in 1964. Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney — three civil rights workers — were slain by the Ku Klux Klan during “Freedom Summer” while volunteering to register black voters.

To an all-white audience in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a notorious enclave for the Ku Klux Klan, Reagan proudly proclaimed Jefferson Davis as one of his heroes. Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was an anti-abolitionist, and the only president (Thank God!) of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. John Wayne, movie legend known as The Duke, was also a hero to Reagan. Speaking about civil rights, John Wayne said, “We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership to irresponsible people.”

Lauded an “All-American” optimist who gave hope of a brighter national future, Reagan’s presidency in reality dimmed hope, dashed dreams, and damned the dispossessed. And if Reagan modeled himself after his heroes, Jefferson Davis, and John Wayne, his optimism for a brighter America was clearly one with the exclusion of me.

Lauded an “All-American” optimist who gave hope of a brighter national future, Reagan’s presidency in reality dimmed hope, dashed dreams, and damned the dispossessed. And if Reagan modeled himself after his heroes, Jefferson Davis, and John Wayne, his optimism for a brighter America was clearly one with the exclusion of me.

The problem with evil is not only in how it diminishes human life, but also how it denies the suffering it causes. And because it denies the suffering it exacts on the lives of people, remembering, therefore, is a radical act. It’s a radical act because remembering does not allow for the distortion or the erasure of a collective memory; thus, the history of a people.

On a trip home to NYC in May 2004, I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to view the UNESCO Slave Route project, “Lest We Forget: the Triumph Over Slavery” that marks the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution proclaiming 2004 “The International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition.” In highlighting the importance that African Americans should not be shamed by slavery, but instead defiantly proud by our memory of it, I read the opening billboard to the exhibit that said, “By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized and by assigning it its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.” I remember that many people suffered under the reign of Reagan, and the history of that suffering during the weeklong service canonizing him was often minimized, if not altogether missing.

While it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, Reagan’s death does not necessitate we rewrite history to create a hagiography of his life, but instead it calls us to respond to our duty to remember.

For those of us who don’t suffer from a national case of Alzheimer’s, let us dare to remember what our suffering was like. And in so doing, the sugar-coating of the Reagan era — which many of us witnessed on television during his funeral service as a phalanx of this country’s elite paid homage to him — still reminds us that it was anything but sweet.

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