The Evangelical President

The Evangelical President

Jimmy Carter tapped evangelical support to gain the presidency, but lost the bloc to the Republicans because of his policies.

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“Jimmy Carter: The Re-emergence of Faith-Based Politics and the Abortion Rights Issue” by Andrew R. Flint and Joy Porter, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (March 2005), Dept. of Political Science, Texas A&M Univ., 4348 TAMU, College Station, Texas 77843–4348.

When he put his own pious faith on conspicuous display while running for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter awakened the political sleeping giant of evangelical Christianity. But the believers who helped put him in office that year are the very ones who would help turn him out in 1980.

Though their numbers were growing fast during the 1970s at the expense of mainstream Protestant denominations, evangelical Protestants, located mainly in the South and West, had been politically quiescent since the 1920s. Claiming that he would be a better president because of his deep religious convictions, Carter, a Southern Baptist and self-proclaimed born-again evangelical, introduced “an overt Biblical spirituality into the American political discourse,” write Flint and Porter, lecturers in American history and American studies, respectively, at the University of Wales in Great Britain. Striking that note of righteousness while the country was still reeling from Watergate, the Democratic candidate attracted massive support from evangelical Christians who previously had voted Republican or not at all.

Expecting Carter to fulfill his campaign promise to, in his words, “try to shape government so it does exemplify the teaching of God,” evangelical conservatives failed to notice or take seriously his stated commitment to the Baptist belief in absolute separation of church and state. Critics pointedly reminded him of that commitment after he took part early in his presidency in a White House conference with leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he resolved not to make the mistake again. “Thereafter, Carter did not allow himself to be overtly politically linked to the evangelical Christian community.”

Before Carter, evangelical Protestants’ anti-Catholic bias and political apathy had kept them out of the pro-life movement. When Carter made his personal antiabortion views clear during the campaign, his candidacy drew evangelicals into the movement. But they failed to pay attention to Carter’s oft-repeated promise to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. His refusal in the White House to back a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion alienated evangelicals, even as his refusal to support federal funding for abortion alienated pro-choice feminists.

Evangelicals’ disillusion with Carter and his liberal political agenda set in as early as 1978. “His advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights and his failure to support mandatory prayer in public schools or to move to ban abortion were all anathema to their religious principles,” the authors write. By 1979, disenchanted evangelicals had begun to coalesce around a political agenda, forming organized pressure groups such as televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Carter long resisted meeting with evangelical leaders, but finally, in January 1980, he did have a short White House breakfast session with Falwell and others—which only reinforced their estrangement. Then, along came Ronald Reagan, a man not noted for his piety but ready to lend a sympathetic ear.

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