Jimmy Carter’s evangelical downfall: Reagan, religion and the 1980 presidential election

Jimmy Carter ushered in an era of progressive evangelicalism. But the religious right made sure it was short-lived

Topics: Books, Redeemer, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Religion, evangelicalism, Religious Right, Editor's Picks,

Jimmy Carter's evangelical downfall: Reagan, religion and the 1980 presidential electionJimmy Carter (Credit: AP)

In October 1976, just prior to Jimmy Carter’s election as president, Newsweek had christened 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Carter’s candidacy had introduced many Americans to the term evangelical, and his articulation of the themes of progressive evangelicalism—care for the poor, concern for human rights, and an aversion to military conflict—brought many evangelicals into the arena of politics, some of them for the first time. Nearly half of evangelical voters in 1976 favored Carter, which represented a significant increase from the showing of Democratic candidates in years past; white evangelicals, following the lead of Billy Graham and others, had generally tilted Republican in the postwar era. In 1980, four years after Carter’s victory, however, the evangelical vote was very much in play. Three candidates were competing for the presidency, and all three claimed to be evangelical Christians: Carter, the Democratic incumbent; Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee; and John B. Anderson, Republican member of Congress from Illinois, running as an independent.

The political winds had shifted dramatically during Carter’s term in office. High inflation and soaring energy prices at home coupled with Soviet aggression and the taking of American hostages abroad had eroded his support among the general population. But Carter himself was astonished to learn that some of his fellow evangelicals were mobilizing against him. Initially distressed by the Internal Revenue Service’s rescission of tax exemptions for racially discriminatory schools, these evangelical leaders directed their anger toward Carter, even though the policy was formulated at the behest of Richard Nixon and enforced during Gerald Ford’s administration, long before Carter became president. Once Paul Weyrich and other conservative leaders had enlisted these evangelical leaders in the fight against Carter, they found that a growing evangelical uneasiness over abortion could bring grassroots evangelicals to the front lines of what was increasingly characterized as a moral crusade. By early 1980, Carter, the Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher and husband for more than three decades, was being pilloried as an enemy of the family and “traditional” values.



Such was the general discontent with Carter and his presidency that few people, and not many evangelicals, rose to his defense. The Carter-Mondale campaign took it upon itself to counter the attacks from the Religious Right. “I think I know President Carter better than anyone outside his immediate family,” Walter Mondale told the congregation of North Christian Church in Chicago. “I am with him sometimes four, five, and six hours a day. And I can tell you there is no man who is more deeply moral.”

Despite attacks from the Religious Right, however, Carter was not entirely bereft of evangelical support. R. Douglas Wead, who would later serve as an adviser to both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, applauded the Carter campaign’s “sensitivity” to the evangelical voter. “Though she may be fickle and ungrateful at times,” Wead wrote, “she is coming into her own as a political force and may be your best friend in a crisis.” Some observers attuned to the evangelical community expressed confidence that evangelical voters would never succumb to the rhetoric of the Religious Right, that the agenda was so blatantly at odds with progressive evangelicalism. “It’s all scare,” Tom Getman, an aide to Mark O. Hatfield, said about the Religious Right. “It’s all playing on people’s dark side. They say nothing about social justice. Nothing about the nuclear arms race. Nothing about our militarism or materialism.”

Carter, however, was losing support among some progressive evangelicals as well as the Religious Right. Wes Michaelson at Sojourners never forgave Carter for what he considered Carter’s tardy condemnation of the Vietnam War. Progressive evangelicals tacked on other complaints during the course of Carter’s presidency. He was timid about addressing the economic roots of racial inequality and inconsistent in his demands for human rights. Carter, they believed, was too cozy with business and corporate interests. He did not press hard enough for education funding or lobby sufficiently for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Even Ronald Sider, who convened the gathering that approved the Chicago Declaration in 1973 but was tacking toward the right by the end of the decade, criticized Carter for failing to govern according to the biblical mandates of justice.

In a blistering editorial in the January 1978 issue of Sojourners, Jim Wallis castigated the president for failure to attend adequately to the needs of the poor. “The biblical demands for justice and compassion bring the harshest kind of judgment to the system of wealth and power upon which Jimmy Carter has built his presidency,” Wallis wrote. “It is these standards of social righteousness that our evangelical president has set aside during his first year in office.” John F. Alexander of The Other Side, another signatory to the Chicago Declaration in 1973, was almost flippant about the 1980 election. Although he acknowledged the moral rectitude of Carter’s policy on human rights—“we can be reasonably sure that fewer people are being tortured now than if Ford had been elected”—Alexander expressed doubts that an evangelical in the White House made any difference whatsoever. While he applauded Carter’s cancellation of the B-1 bomber, Alexander criticized the president’s approval of the MX missile. “Personally I see little point in not voting,” he concluded, although he suggested that his readers cast their ballots for Donald Duck.

If evangelical publications like Sojourners and The Other Side were defecting to the left (or to indifference), Christianity Today, which had generally looked favorably on Carter’s candidacy in 1976, began hewing the Religious Right party line. By the time of the Washington for Jesus rally on April 29, 1980—the mass demonstration on the Mall organized by leaders of the Religious Right—the magazine was singing the praises of Falwell, Robertson, and the thousands of evangelicals who showed up in the nation’s capital to rally against moral drift in America. At the event, James Robison and others lamented what they characterized as attacks on Christian values. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about all the radicals and the liberals and the leftists and the Communists coming out of the closet,” Robison shouted. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closets, out of the churches, and change America.” Christianity Today concurred. “These Christians believe the country would be a better place to live and have a much stronger and more respected voice in the world if in fact the legislators, jurists, and members of the executive branch from President Carter on down to every bureaucrat were somehow captured by a commitment to honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, and courage,” the magazine said. The editorial failed to specify how Carter himself, although mentioned by name, had fallen short of those standards— honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, courage—but it concluded by saying that if the rally “starts the process of confession, repentance, and restitution, we shall have much for which to be thankful.”

By early summer, according to Robert Maddox, the White House liaison to the religious community, “all kinds of anti–Jimmy Carter/pro-Reagan pieces of literature were being cranked out and mailed all over the country, supposedly bipartisan but always painting Reagan as the paragon of Christian virtue and Jimmy Carter as kind of the antichrist.” The Reagan campaign took a brief hit when George H. W. Bush, a pro-choice Republican, was chosen for vice president. After an extended flirtation with Gerald R. Ford, Reagan selected Bush, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Reagan’s rival for the Republican presidential nomination, as his running mate. Bush immediately repented of his pro-choice views and pledged fidelity to the Republican platform, which, in a departure from 1976—and one that signaled shifting political sentiments—condemned both abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Presidential campaigns are exercises in political theater, rife with symbolism, and no politician of recent memory understood that better than Ronald Reagan. After winning the Republican presidential nomination at his party’s convention in Detroit, Reagan took the customary few days off for vacation and then launched into the general-election campaign. He might have opened his campaign in any number of places, including his home state of California or his native state of Illinois, both considered strategic battlegrounds in the November election. He might have visited a steel mill or an automobile plant in the so-called rust belt, a region reeling at the time from economic recession. Or he might have sought a loftier venue to emphasize a theme for his candidacy—the Statue of Liberty, perhaps, or the Gettysburg battlefield, where the nation played out its defining moral crisis.

The Reagan campaign, however, chose the Neshoba County Fair for its opening event, in the remote town of Philadelphia, in central Mississippi. Only sixteen summers earlier, one of the most horrific chapters of the civil rights movement had unfolded in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Three civil rights workers were arrested and beaten and then, with the collusion of the sheriff’s office, abducted by members of the Ku Klux Klan and murdered. Their mangled bodies were discovered weeks later, buried in an earthen dam outside of Philadelphia.

Reagan, the master of symbolism, might have used the macabre setting to put to rest any lingering suspicions that his campaign would appeal to racism in any form. Instead, invoking the battle cry of George Wallace and dozens of other segregationist politicians, the candidate declared, “I believe in states’ rights.”

From a purely tactical perspective, the Reagan campaign was signaling that it had no intention of ceding the South to Carter, a Georgian; two months before the Nashoba event, William J. Casey had suggested to Reagan that he kick off the campaign with a rally in Atlanta, “to keep Jimmy nervous and concerned about his home base.” But the Philadelphia, Mississippi, venue and the candidate’s remarks went well beyond the mere staking out of political territory; the Reagan campaign could have conveyed that message from New Orleans or Knoxville or Mobile, Alabama—or Atlanta—all of them southern locations with a less fraught attachment to civil rights and a less visceral connection to racism and racist violence.

Andrew Young, formerly Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations who had marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights struggle, questioned Reagan’s motives for visiting a place that, Young said, “always sends chills up my spine.” Writing in the Washington Post, Young recalled his own visits to Neshoba County, the first time in the wake of the Klan murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner during that fateful Freedom Summer of 1964. Young had visited a second time on the heels of the shooting of James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi, during the March against Fear in 1966, encouraging voter registration. On that occasion, Young recalled, King stood on the steps of the Neshoba County courthouse, described the still unsolved killings two years earlier, and remarked that, “The murderers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner are no doubt within the range of my voice.” From the white mob guarding the courthouse door, Young recalled, a voice rang out, “Ya damn right. We’re right here behind you.” Young pointed out what everyone in Reagan’s Nashoba County Fair audience already knew, that the candidate’s invocation of “states’ rights” was intended to conjure the days of southern resistance to desegregation. “Traditionally, these code words have been the electoral language of Wallace, Goldwater and the Nixon southern strategy,” Young wrote, noting that one leader of the Ku Klux Klan had already endorsed Reagan and had commented that the Republican Party platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.”

The Reagan campaign tried to turn the tables by portraying Carter as the true friend of the Klan. When Jimmy Carter held a rally in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Reagan accused the president of “opening his campaign down in the city that gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan.” The remark backfired. Although the Klan had a presence in Tuscumbia, just as it did in many other places, Carter had used the occasion to issue a stinging attack on racism in general and the Ku Klux Klan in particular; the Klan had demonstrated against the president prior to the event. Reagan’s comment, moreover, was inaccurate; the Klan had originated in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865, and the second iteration of the Klan began at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915. Seven southern governors, all of them Democrats, demanded an apology, citing “Mr. Reagan’s callous and opportunistic slap at the South.” Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters was besieged with calls, prompting one staffer to note, “we’re in a hell of a lot of trouble.” The candidate finally apologized, protesting that he had not intended to disparage the city of Tuscumbia or the state of Alabama.

In addition to its efforts in the South, the Reagan campaign avidly courted the evangelical vote, even if the candidate himself didn’t fully understand the appeal. In February 1980, he had insisted to a television interviewer that he too was born again, although he seemed a tad uneasy about the label. When briefed about the particulars of that designation, Reagan concluded, “I suppose I would qualify.” Even as the candidate struggled to master the vocabulary of evangelicalism, however, his campaign operatives attained perfect fluency, adeptly using evangelical code language just as they had employed racially coded language in Mississippi.

By August, Moral Majority was boasting that it had registered three million new evangelical voters; the organization claimed a membership of 400,000, including 72,000 ministers. Abortion now topped Falwell’s listing of the five “sins of America,” followed by homosexuality, pornography, humanism, and the fractured family. “There can be no doubt that the sin of America is severe,” Falwell wrote in his manifesto, Listen, America! “We are literally approaching the brink of national disaster.”

Excerpted from “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” by Randall Balmer. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

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