On March 8, 1983, I was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. It was a Tuesday, so I might have had band practice, along with algebra, science, English, social studies, and Bible with Mr. Furman—a required course every semester at the private Christian school I attended in Connecticut.
After dinner and homework, I might have watched Happy Days on ABC, but I can’t be sure. Had it been a Wednesday, I’m certain I would have been in front of a television tuned to NBC at 9 p.m. for The Facts of Life because it was my favorite.
What I didn’t realize at the time, even though my parents were avid watchers of the The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, was that at a gathering of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Fla., earlier in the day, President Ronald Reagan had given a speech in which he famously called the USSR and the Russians an “evil empire.”
It was a theme I’d hear repeated at school, on television, and in church for many years to come.
1983 was the height of the Cold War and relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were precariously strained. In fact, six months later on Sept. 26 (the day after my 13th birthday) the Soviets early warning system malfunctioned, twice reporting (erroneously) the launch of US Minuteman missiles, and nearly prompting the start of World War III. Reagan had arrived at the evangelical gathering in Florida fresh on the heels of several briefings at the White House where advisers urged him to hold his ground against growing calls for a nuclear arms freeze. Reagan assured them his administration would staunchly oppose any freeze, a message he carried with him to the Orlando pulpit.
What he said toward the end of his half-hour-long address (sentiments that, reportedly, were added by Reagan after speechwriters had given him the original text) made it one of his most influential and memorable (or infamous, depending on your perspective).
He said in part:
I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
The only video recording of Reagan’s speech to the NAE ends just after he utters the line about the “evil empire,” and the last few minutes have been lost to history. But the full transcript of his remarks survived. The president goes on to say,
While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith. Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western World exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.” The Western world can answer this challenge, he wrote, “but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in Man.” I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man. For in the words of Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increased strength But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.” Yes, change your world. One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, said, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” We can do it, doing together what no one church could do by itself.
It’d be a stretch to say Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric defined my faith, worldview, or burgeoning political sensibilities at the time, but the idea of the godless, Communist Russians being “evil” and us god-fearing evangelical Christian Americans being “blessed” or even “chosen” was a spoken and unspoken mantra throughout my teen years.
How I emerged from the 1980s with what I hope is a humble Christian faith, decidedly left-leaning politics, open-minded stance toward the world, and openhearted approach to “the other” is nothing short of miraculous. Well, that and some excellent parenting by a mother and father with a deep faith matched only by their curiosity and wanderlust who went through life cancelling out each others (political) votes, inhaling and debating the news of the day, teaching my brother and me to think for ourselves, and to lean hard into our educational pursuits.
So it’s been with great interest that I’ve watched season three of The Americans unfold.
** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
The FX series is easily the best drama on television right now, chock-o-block with meticulously well-developed characters, relational pathos and intrigue, and an endlessly compelling story arc that, in large part, revolves around Paige Jennings, a precocious tween who, on her own, starts going to church and becomes a born-again Christian, and her parents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who are deep undercover Russian spies posing quite convincingly as the suburban owners of a travel agency in Washington, D.C.
Oh and their neighbor across the street is an FBI counterintelligence officer assigned to ferret out and eliminate the KGB’s sleeper cells, the so-called “illegals.”
(If you’ve not seen the first two seasons of The Americans or the earlier episodes from season three, they are, like most other shows nowadays, available for binge watching online.)
In seasons past, Paige (Holly Taylor) has been suspicious of her parents (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). Were they really who they said they were? Why were there so many travel agency-related emergencies that called them away from home in the middle of the night? Was anything they told her or taught her about life true?
Paige’s new-found religiosity startles her parents, who, unbeknownst to their daughter, are atheists, Communists, and basically hostile toward the whole opiate-of-the-masses God notion. Paige’s spiritual explorations, which began last season, prompt a number of difficult, intriguing conversations between parent and child, and the parents themselves about identity, values, beliefs—what they are, what they should be, and how they can pass them on to their progeny.
When Elizabeth and Philip’s KGB handler tells them that “the center” wants Paige to become one of the first “second-generation illegals,” Philip is horrified. He doesn’t want his daughter to follow in her parents’ footsteps of subterfuge, violence, sexual manipulation, and incessant anxiety. But Elizabeth is more open to the idea.
“Philip, she does need something,” Elizabeth tells her distraught husband. “She’s looking for something in her life. What if this is it?”
Against Philip’s wishes, Elizabeth agrees to begin preparing Paige to learn the truth about her parents. But before she can tell her, Paige announces that for her birthday she wants to get baptized. It’s not clear which mortifies Philip more, the idea of his precious baby girl becoming a spy-like-us or a Bible-thumping Christian. But not wanting to further ostracize their moody teenager, the Jenningses agree and, in an episode aptly titled “Born Again,” Paige gets the full-immersion baptism experience one Sunday (just as I did at the same age) while her parents do their best to look supportive from a pew toward the back of the sanctuary.
“When we immerse ourselves in these baptismal waters, we symbolically allow God’s grace and forgiveness to wash over us—it’s the beginning of a new life in Christ,” Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) tells the congregation. “Now when I look at Paige, I am reminded of that verse in 1 John: ‘Let us not love with words and speech, but with actions and truth.’
“Paige gives her whole heart in every political action that we engage in at this church, whether it’s drafting letters to the White House to demand that President Reagan end his support for the dehumanizing racial segregation in South Africa, or picketing the insanity and waste of the nuclear arms race, Paige is always on the front line, challenging, questioning, yelling,” the pastor continues. “But, Paige, this is your most defiant act of protest yet, because today, you make a public declaration that you are a child of God. Are you ready to be renamed and reclaimed in the name of Jesus?”
Paige’s answer? “Absolutely.”
A few episodes later, after she does a little more snooping and Elizabeth gently begins to try to tell her about their lives by taking her on a field trip to an impoverished, largely African-American neighborhood where her dead lover, Gregory, used to live, Paige confronts her parents.
“I’ve felt it for a long time now, and I thought it was me. I thought I was crazy,” Paige says as the trio is seated around the kitchen table. “But it’s not me. It’s you. And I talked to Pastor Tim, and he agrees. I need to know the truth. I don’t care what it is, but if you love me, if you really love me, then just please tell me. What, are you in the Witness Protection program? Did you kill somebody? Are you guys drug dealers, like your friend Gregory? Am I adopted? Are we aliens? What?! You’re just gonna keep lying to me.”
Cue Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children.”
Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
Paige’s parents tell her the truth, or their idea of it anyway. They’re Russians. They’re spies. They’re working for the greater good, for freedom, for the people. And she can’t tell anyone. Not her little brother, Henry. Not Pastor Tim. Nobody.
Now Paige knows her family’s truth. She knows their story, she knows who they are, what they believe, and what the don’t.
And she must bear the burden of their secret.
What she chooses to do with it, and who she decides she wants to be—American or Russian, Christian or atheist, spy or schoolgirl, revolutionary or regular Jane—is up to her.
Will she choose faith and country over family?
A recent study by the Barna Group about what most influences self-identity among Americans found that most Americans rank “family” as No. 1, with “being an American” coming in second, and “religious faith” in third place.
Paige and I are members of Generation X. I wonder, were she to have made it to her 40s with perhaps a teenager or two of her own, how she would respond to the question the survey posed, and how her religious faith would affect her identity today.
Would she, like many members of our cohort, be wary of institutions of any kind? Would she have moved away from the church and her youthful zealotry, only to inch back toward it when she had a family of her own?
And if she chose to follow in her parents’ footsteps?
We’re likely to learn more about which direction Paige chooses and what it will mean for the fates of her family, faith, and country in tonight’s season finale.
The episode’s title?
“March 8, 1983.”