In 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan transformed American politics when, speaking to an audience of Evangelical Christians, he declared: "You can't endorse me, but I endorse you."
It was the culmination of a grand coming-out party for a group of heretofore marginalized Americans who had spent decades wandering in the political wilderness, shunning active political participation because politics was evil, and living under laws that were increasingly failing to reflect their values.
Those eight words were to domestic politics what Reagan's six words, "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall," were to the Soviet Union: they instantly changed political and cultural equations that had governed things for decades.
Many mainstream critics snickered at the time at what they considered pandering of the worst kind, but what they failed to understand was that Reagan was speaking to his own and that, in fact, his faith hadn't been labeled Evangelical only because it predated the creation of the term. Reagan was Evangelical before Evangelical was cool.
Reagan biographer Edmund Morris goes so far as to label Reagan a fundamentalist, a term that grew out of the publication of a series of books on Christian doctrine in 1911 called "The Fundamentals," which 35 years later gave way to the softer term Evangelical, used to describe the likes of Billy Graham, who were to Fundamentalists what George Bush was to Ronald Reagan: kinder and gentler.
Reagan's faith was a hybrid of fundamentalism and evangelicalism with a touch of the Charismatic movement, which was characterized by, among other things, prophetic utterances. Biographer Paul Kengor records that Reagan's born-again experience as an 11-year old was so strong that he received special permission to be baptized a year before his church normally allowed for baptisms among youth under the age of 12. Years later, as governor of California, Reagan participated in a prayer circle in which an influential Christian leader named George Otis delivered a message from God to Reagan that if he continued to walk righteously he would one day live in the White House.
When leaders of the so-called religious right began to organize in the late 1970s, spurred on by Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and abortion, it was Reagan who won their hearts not only because he was one of them, but because he endorsed their agenda and made it his own.
Much has been made about whether or not Fred Thompson is the second coming of Ronald Reagan, and while it's clear that he's not, it's also becoming fairly clear that the oddly constructed coalition that Reagan built combining fiscal conservatives, defense hawks, libertarians, Evangelicals and working-class conservative Democrats is about to fall apart unless Thompson can reinvent it.
If Rudolph Giuliani gets the nomination, he will in all likelihood lose the largest part of that coalition, the 45 percent of Americans who, according to Gallup surveys, define themselves as Evangelicals and, unable to stomach his liberal social values, will either go fishing on election day or run a quixotic third-party campaign and do what conservatives loved to do pre-Reagan: make their point by losing.
Should Mitt Romney get the nomination, the coalition will likely collapse, albeit less spectacularly, because of the candidate's Mormon faith, which, according to a Rasmussen poll published late last year, 53 percent of Evangelicals claim to be unable to stomach.)
Romney's recent conversion on so many social issues also has struck many as simply too recent to be taken seriously.
With Hillary Clinton building up a 20-point lead over Barack Obama in national polls and dominating the race for the Democratic nod, it may very well be the case that the only person standing between her and the White House is Thompson, but only if he carefully reassembles the coalition that was built by Reagan, barely held together by Bush 41 and left in shambles by Bush 43.
To do that Thompson will have to be careful not to pretend he is something he's not: Unlike Reagan's hybrid fundamentalism/Evangelicalsm/Charismatic beliefs, Thompson appears to be just a regular Christian, the kind that if approached by a pollster would not be among the 45 percent who consider themselves Evangelical, but the 84 percent who consider themselves "Christians," period.
And that's OK. He should avoid any attempts to pretend he is anything more or less than that. No need to name Jesus as his favorite philosopher or use pseudo- religious phrases like Al Gore tried in 2000 when he attempted to impersonate an Evangelical by clumsily describing himself as a "child of the Kingdom."
"I'm Fred, Christ is my Savior, I believe in the Bible, and I'm from Tennessee" will likely satisfy millions of Evangelicals who look to their pastors and not their politicians for religious guidance, and will be far more interested in Thompson's positions on the issues than his religious fervor or lack thereof.
Among those issues, of course, abortion is the major litmus test that Thompson will need to pass to win their support. And fortunately for the candidate, his lobbying on behalf of Planned Parenthood took place 17 years before his presidential run, not unlike Reagan, who 13 years before his own run had signed a therapeautic abortion law as governor of California.
In Reagan's case, evangelical voters accepted his explanation that he had been tricked by liberal legislators who had promised him that the law would allow for abortions only for serious medical conditions, when it in fact opened the way for a "health" exception that was subsequently interpreted broadly in its application.
Similarly, future Thompson voters are likely to accept a mea culpa from the candidate if it's straightforward and doesn't fudge. These are, after all, evangelical Christians for a reason, one of the central tenets of the faith being forgiveness for an act that is repented of and is in the past, preferably the distant past.
With his Evangelical base solidified, Thompson will then be able to secure his more natural constituencies — gun owners, "lunch pail" Democrats, country music fans, star-struck Law & Order viewers, and even elements of the entertainment industry who are unlikely to see him the same way they see other conservative candidates because of his star power. Choosing a minority like former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele as his running mate would further cement his base and counter a likely Clinton move to pick Barack Obama as her own VP.
For Republicans, Thompson may be the best and only hope at checkmating Clinton's strong run for the White House. If he can present himself to the American public not as its pastor, but as the grownup sheriff— coming back to town to run things for a spell after two callow kids, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have made a mess of the place— he just may be the next president of the United States.
Mark joseph is a media producer, strategist and president of the MJM Group. His books include "Pop Goes Religion" and "Faith, God and Rock 'n Roll." He has written on politics, pop culture and religion for Beliefnet, NRO and The Huffington Post.
Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.