How Evangelicals Turned from a Born-Again Christian to a Divorced Hollywood Actor

How Evangelicals Turned from a Born-Again Christian to a Divorced Hollywood Actor May 25, 2016

Many evangelicals became deeply disillusioned with Carter’s presidency. The sharp decline in ticket-splitting from 1976 to 1980—that is, voting for Carter at the top of the ticket and then for Republicans elsewhere on their ballots—suggested that support for Carter in 1976 was in fact an anomaly rooted in evangelical identity.

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Carter and Reagan debating on October 28, 1980. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Jimmy Carter Library

What happened between 1976 and 1980 that flipped evangelicals away from Carter? First, many evangelicals reshuffled their priorities. In the mid-1970s the SBC had adopted resolutions supporting many of Carter’s priorities and policies, including multilateral arms control, national security, peace, world hunger, relief for refugees, and lobby disclosure legislation. But by the late-1970s, many in the Southern Baptist Convention had begun to focus more squarely on cultural issues. This corresponded both with the conservative takeover of the SBC and the Republican courtship of culture warriors.

Second, the Democratic Party seemed to be veering toward the cultural left. Evangelicals saw Carter reassure, usually by invoking church-state separation in regard to abortion and school prayer, an increasingly fragile New Deal Democratic coalition suspicious of Carter’s evangelical language. This pattern of deference to “secular humanists,” as conservative evangelicals increasingly termed the Democrats, persisted through the presidency as Carter consistently declined to meet with anti-abortion groups.

Like C. Everett Koop, Francis Schaeffer, and millions of other evangelicals, President Carter personally opposed abortion. He called the practice “wrong,” explaining that Roe v. Wade was “one instance where my own beliefs were in conflict with the laws of this country.” But he refused to work toward constitutionally banning abortion. “Abort Carter” pins proliferated. Wheaton College student Michael Gerson turned on the president. As abortion became singularly important, Gerson, who might have continued voting Democratic otherwise, switched his allegiance to Reagan and the Republicans in 1980. “I suppose I was typical of evangelicals who’d supported Carter and were dismayed by the hardening of the parties on social issues,” he remembers.

In short, Carter didn’t get evangelicals what they wanted. Disillusioned with identity, evangelicals went for a divorced Hollywood actor who gave less than one percent of his earnings to charitable causes. Reagan managed to trounce a born-again Southerner. Of course, Reagan, who generated very little movement on the abortion issue, didn’t get them what they wanted either.

Closely tying faith to electoral politics will always be disappointing. American evangelicals live in a culture that celebrates militarism and consumerism. They vote in a political system grounded in pragmatism, big money, and celebrity. It is inevitable that politics will disappoint in the face of sacred texts that instruct in the ways of peace, service, simplicity, and idealism.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    I continue to assert that Carter had picked a terrible time to be president, and was probably doomed to failure under the circumstances. I suspect that if it had been Reagan that was elected in 1976, he would be remembered today as a failed one-term president.

    Evengelical voters were Evangelicals, but they were also voters. As I recall at the time, plenty of Evangelicals still had plenty of respect and sympathy for him as a fellow believer. Most had open eyes, however, and could see that – however well-intentioned he might have been – Carter simply wasn’t getting the job done. Abortion wan’t the only thing on people’s minds: with double digit inflation and interest rates, long lines at the gas stations, shivering through cold winters with iffy natural gas supplies, sky-high crime, decaying cities and schools, and the Soviets rolling through Afghanistan, status quo just wasn’t going to get re-elected, no matter what.

  • David Swartz

    Stefan, This is very perceptive, and I agree. Evangelicals had their own things going on (which I detail in the post), but they too were compelled (or repelled) by these overwhelming circumstances.

  • Reuben Sairs

    Your analysis rings mostly true for me. Having lived through that era though I’m still a little confused about my own experience in it. It might have been where I was standing–somewhere between Evangelical Episcopalian, Jesus Freak and InterVarsity, but I just remember the time as mostly nonpolitical. Of course the players were around from Hatfield to Sider, and I even knew people connected to the Post-American, but these influences always seemed marginal even when I didn’t want them to be. It doesn’t seem to me that evangelicals were pumped up about Carter, or especially anything left of Carter, and then swung over to Reagan with equal but opposite energy. At the time I was simply shocked at the rise of the Right, exemplified by what I perceived to be a schizophrenia in Schaefer–from knicker-wearing, long haired friend to hippie intellectuals to some kind of fire-breather of right wing politics. As I remember it even now, it’s as if moderate indifference turned into right wing aggressive activism. Keep us informed!

  • George

    I don’t think Evangelicals (or whatever the appropriate identification would have been back then) were ever in love with Carter. He got elected as a backlash against Nixon. He then suffered a lot of misfortunes as President – some of them out of his control, and some of them were his failures. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • stefanstackhouse

    I think what happened with Schaeffer, and with Evangelicals in general, is that there were some very cynical right wing political operatives that spotted an opportunity and went after it for all it was worth. Exactly the same thing happened with the Tea Party movement: that started out being grass roots and non-ideological but had been captured and subverted by the right wing political operatives in a matter of weeks. The operatives connected with Schaeffer (and especially with Franky – they immediately spotted the weak link in the chain), figured out exactly the right words to say that would push exactly the right buttons, hooked them, and reeled them in. These people are sharp, ruthless, and utterly cynical. They function almost totally in the background, out of view, but they are there. Wolves among the sheep.