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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