Graphic by Christopher Ikonomou/OutWrite
This article was originally published in our Fall 2022 print issue “Satanic Panic.“
The Satanic Panic almost perfectly coincides with former-President Reagan’s term, beginning in 1980 and dying out by the early 1990s while Reagan’s presidency lasted from 1981 to 1989. While Reagan himself did not acknowledge the moral panic, he created the perfect conditions for it and knew how to champion himself as its hero.
Moral panics are something most people have had the misfortune of seeing before, especially after Donald Trump’s presidency. A familiar contemporary moral panic is the current transgender panic sweeping through the United States, one which has conservative leaders in a chokehold. This moral quandry with gender, demonstrated through such things as asking soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Ketanji Brown “what is a woman?” in her interview with Congress and the Florida Board of Medicine voting to ban gender-affirming care for minors, exemplifies a hyperfocus on minute “issues” that are deemed out of control and in need of correction. By deciding what people can and cannot be, conservatives push an agenda of correcting what they perceive as deviant in society, forcing people to assimilate into traditional American values. One thing the political right worries so much about is these values, and of course, that worry is not unique to our current time.
Reagan didn’t start the talk about gender, but he did let a disease do the talking for him, as he kept silent about the AIDS crisis until 1987, when it had already killed nearly 28,000 Americans. By willfully ignoring a disease that effected the citizens he was supposed to represent, Reagan created an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ where intrinsic qualities of a person could be the deciding factor in whether or not they were included in American ideals.
Also, it’s important to remember that gay and trans liberation cannot be divorced from one another; an attack on one group means there’s soon to be an attack on the other, as both groups are viewed as sexual deviants. Facing different issues does not negate a common enemy. Nowadays, this common enemy takes the form of the rising evangelical Christian right. Of course, there has always been evangelical Christians in the United States, but social progress in the United States is typically — and unfortunately — followed by a harsh conservative backlash.
During the 1980s, the Christian right emerged alongside the Moral Majority, a conservative Evangelical lobbying group that mobilized conservatives in America, facilitating the creation of the political right we know today. They endorsed Reagan and are largely to blame for his election, as the Moral Majority created a dichotomy between two Americas: the one they envisioned, with Reagan as a hero correcting the deviants of society, and the one without him where deviants became Americans.
Reagan rose to power at a time when white Americans felt insecure about their social status in the United States. The late 1950s to early 1970s were marked by a time of social progress; civil rights, queer rights, and women’s rights groups had made tremendous strides, such as banning racial segregation, securing the right to contraceptives, and doing away with sodomy laws. These rights not only meant the United States acknowledged the existence of marginalized groups, but that these groups were starting to become a part of American values. Through these legislative changes that improved the lives of disenfranchised Americans, conservative Americans felt as though their standing in the country had been threatened; they believed they needed to weed out what they saw as non-American values, rather than expand them to include marginalized groups.
Since these marginalized groups were encroaching on their conservative lives, they needed to dealt with. And that’s where Reagan Satan came in, with fears of loud music, drugs, and hippies (all considered deviant), those who conservatives, especially the Moral Majority, took it upon themselves to correct.
For example, Reagan’s unsuccessful war on drugs was mirrored by the Satanic Panic’s fear of children abusing drugs. The war on drugs became a time of racially profiling people of color and queer people with little actual progress in curbing drug addiction, as the policies of the war focused less on rehabilitation and more on criminalization. Reagan focused on crack in order to place the blame of drug abuse on people of color; white Americans used the same drug (also called cocaine), but were not equally targeted by this legislation. Believers in the Satanic Panic applied this stigma behind drug usage to their children, fearing that drugs would cause their children to fall astray from American values, becoming like the racist caricatures Reagan waged war against.
While the Moral Majority never spoke on the Satanic Panic itself, they frequently attributed American values to Reagan’s policies and condemned the same groups of people that the panic implicitly criticized. The Moral Majority opposed queer liberation and the Equal Rights Amendment (that guarenteed rights regardless of sex), thus alienating queer people and feminists, casting them into the other America — the America of the deviant minority, the sinful America. Through picking and choosing which groups to include in their morality and endorsing Reagan in their campaigns, the Moral Majority made Ronald Reagan out to be a hero that would save America, keeping it as ‘great’ as conservatives believed it once was.
Author: Mia Riedel (She/Her)
Artist: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Copy Editor: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)