Dordt College News

Doing scholarship: Fessler's research on Reagan's speech appears online

January 15, 2010

Dr. Paul Fessler is teaching more students than those he meets in his history classes each day.

He’s helping provide teaching and learning materials to teachers and students across the country who use the Voices of Democracy website (

Voices of Democracy: The U.S Oratory Project (VOD) promotes the study of influential American speeches in order to “bring history alive for students, promote historical and civic literacy, and encourage robust democratic deliberation.” Although the project began in 2005, its website became available to the public only this past September.

Fessler found that work he did for the Voices of Democracy project was also useful in teaching American history.“I believe this project highlights an important aspect of public life in the United States and its history that is often overlooked,” says Fessler. “It is worthwhile to recognize the impact that important speeches can have.”

Fessler, who is a member of the editorial board of VOD, has contributed a peer-reviewed interpretive essay and classroom activities on Ronald Reagan’s 1983 address, known as the “Evil Empire” speech, to the National Association of Evangelicals. In it he explores how Reagan’s view of the world shaped not only this speech but also how he led as president.

Fessler’s goals, as noted in his essay, were to put the speech into the historical context of Reagan’s past and of Cold War politics and diplomacy, to show how the speech played a role in changing the framework of Cold War policy and rhetoric, and to demonstrate how Reagan’s worldview affected his rhetoric and his foreign policy. Fessler’s contribution falls under the Religion and Morality in Public Life section of the VOD website.

Fessler notes that Reagan’s childhood in a denomination that “assumed that capitalism and the middle-class work ethic were fundamental parts of Christ’s message”; his radio, television, and political career experiences; and his intuitive oratorical skills helped him change “both the tone of presidential rhetoric and the dynamics of diplomacy and politics.”

About his work for the project, Fessler says, “It’s harder than you might think to find what was actually spoken rather than simply read the written version of important speeches.” He worked closely with an archivist at the Reagan Presidential Library who sent him not only several drafts of the speech, but also Reagan’s substantial handwritten revisions, done the day before he delivered the speech.

Reagan, Fessler observed, deleted large sections that were, among other things, too partisan and wrote long paragraphs and inserted anecdotes, jokes, and stories to make his speeches connect with his audience. Although he never wavered in his belief in the American system and in his opposition to communism and détente with Russia, he spoke of the conflict as between the systems of capitalism and communism, not between American and Russian people.

“When you write, you learn,” says Fessler about the project. Even with the assistance of two former students, Ashley Kasper and Donald Roth, he spent a great deal of time researching and writing the essay, time that is hard to find while teaching four courses per semester.

“I read everything I could on Reagan and this speech,” he says, noting that as he did so, he consciously asked questions that grew out of his understanding of the world. Reagan’s faith and worldview shaped the way he worked; Fessler’s, which helps him see life as a whole, made up of many parts but all driven by one’s worldview, helped him to understand how Reagan could have the effect he did.

As he reflects on what engaging in scholarship means as a Christian, Fessler notes that sometimes he asks some of the same questions and comes to some of the same conclusions as anyone else might. But the lens through which he looks can also help him give a slightly different interpretation to events he studies—he describes it as an extra lens that allows him to see some things others might not.

Fessler, who has numerous other academic publications to his credit, admits that it is sometimes easier to teach students how to think about scholarship from a Christian perspective than to actually do it. He’s been writing throughout his professional career but appreciates the benefit of being part of a Christian scholarly community. He believes that his participation in Dordt’s new faculty orientation program when he began teaching at Dordt seven years ago as well as ongoing conversations with colleagues help him keep growing as a historian. He’ll continue to sharpen his skills as a Christian scholar through articles such as the one included in the Voices of Democracy project.

Fessler’s complete essay is found at


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