Comment: It’s not faith but policy that drives evangelical voters

It’s why ‘born again’ Christian voters so easily jumped from backing Carter to Reagan to Trump.

By Joshua Green / Bloomberg Opinion

When he first ran for president in 1974, Jimmy Carter drew strong support from a group that had mostly abstained from politics: evangelical Christians.

With the news that Carter has entered hospice care prompting a wave of reflections, one measure of his presidency’s enduring impact is that evangelicals went on to become one of the most powerful constituencies in American politics; only they did so on the side of Republicans, not Democrats. In the space of a few decades, they became the base of the modern GOP and, even more remarkably, the staunchest supporters in 2016 and 2020 of the scandal-soaked Donald Trump. Their split from Carter remains noteworthy today not just because it reshaped U.S. politics, but because it presaged other fissures that came later.

Carter’s initial appeal isn’t hard to understand. He was a Southern Baptist, taught Sunday school, and described himself as “born again,” a term that mystified millions of Americans in 1975 and sparked plenty of media wonderment but of course needed no explaining to American evangelicals.

It wasn’t Carter’s religion, but his religiosity, that captured the nation’s attention. He spoke openly about his faith, sometimes over the objection of anxious advisers, at a time when most politicians did not. That won him evangelical votes, even though Carter’s Christian faith, while shaping his views on social justice, human rights and personal morality, didn’t impel him to adopt conservative positions on issues such as abortion. At the time, being a Democrat didn’t register as a political negative; it was a category that included the nation’s best-known evangelical leader, the Rev. Billy Graham. Most evangelicals were simply excited to find a candidate who shared their faith. That excitement generated enough press interest for Newsweek to declare 1976 the “year of the evangelical.”

Carter’s election centered religion in American politics in a way it had not been since at least John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. This prompted a conservative backlash orchestrated most publicly by the televangelist Jerry Falwell, who founded Moral Majority in June 1979 to oust Carter from the White House. Falwell spotlighted some Carter positions that conservative evangelicals considered heretical, such as his supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, calling for a Palestinian homeland, and holding a “White House Conference on the Families” that included discussions of gay rights, contraception and abortion. His efforts to undermine Carter had the intended effect: In 1980, two-thirds of Falwell’s supporters voted for Ronald Reagan, despite his being a twice-married Hollywood actor who had signed a liberal abortion law as governor of California.

Reagan’s victory established the Religious Right as a rising political force in the Republican Party. Not every evangelical leader approved. “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right,” Billy Graham told Parade magazine in 1981. But Reagan’s instrumental value to conservative evangelical leaders — his willingness to take conservative positions and appoint conservative judges who opposed Roe v. Wade — eclipsed such concerns.

That rationale only strengthened over the decades. “I don’t look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be,” Falwell’s son, Jerry Jr., said in 2018, justifying his support for Donald Trump shortly before his own career collapsed with revelations of a tawdry sex scandal. Evidently, most evangelicals agreed. In an analysis of 2016 exit poll data, the Pew Research Center found that Trump won self-described white “evangelical/born-again” voters 81 percent to 16 percent, by far his strongest performance among any religious denomination.

The evangelical shift from backing a pious Democratic Sunday school teacher to backing a twice-divorced Republican TV celebrity and tabloid fixture famous for allegedly cavorting with porn stars is an extreme example of the polarization that’s suffused U.S. politics since Carter’s White House days. As evangelical voters learned about some of Carter’s more liberal positions, many responded by voting for Republicans. As evangelical churches strengthened their affiliation with Republican politicians, members who disagreed often left their churches — or “disaffiliated,” in the language of political science — which then concentrated the conservative skew of the congregants who remained. A 2018 paper on the phenomenon in the American Journal of Political Science concluded that “the Christian Right is driving congregants out of the pews.”

The process of political sorting is hardly limited to religion. One effect of Barack Obama’s election was that it polarized U.S. politics around the issue of race. Before Obama, racially conservative voters were roughly as likely to vote for a Democrat as a Republican. After his election, that changed. A team of academics documented this shift in their 2018 book “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” “No other factor predicted changes in White partisanship during Obama’s presidency as powerfully and as consistently as racial attitudes,” they wrote. Polling underscored this: By 2016, Pew found that white voters supported Republicans by 15 points (54 percent to 39 percent).

It’s been nearly half a century since Carter took the political world by storm. A lot has changed over that time, as anyone would expect. It’s impossible to imagine a Democratic candidate today drawing significant evangelical support. But if he were running today, Carter wouldn’t expect it. He was one of the countless churchgoers swept up in the polarization of evangelical voters: When the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention voted in 2000 to bar women from serving as pastors, he made what he called “a painful decision” to leave the church of his grandfather and father because its “increasingly rigid” doctrines “violate the basic premises of my Christian faith.”

Joshua Green is a National Correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Friday, June 2

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

A map of the I-5/SR 529 Interchange project on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Set your muscle memory for work zone speed cameras

Starting next summer, not slowing down in highway work zones can result in a $500 fine.

File - A teenager holds her phone as she sits for a portrait near her home in Illinois, on Friday, March 24, 2023. The U.S. Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo Erin Hooley, File)
Editorial: Warning label on social media not enough for kids

The U.S. surgeon general has outlined tasks for parents, officials and social media companies.

Anabelle Parsons, then 6, looks up to the sky with binoculars to watch the Vaux's swifts fly in during Swift's Night Out, Sept. 8, 2018 in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Birders struggle with legacy, name of Audubon

Like other chapters, Pilchuck Audubon is weighing how to address the slaveholder’s legacy.

Schwab: To discern fascism, ask the generation that fought it

A World War II-era pamphlet for U.S. troops described what they were fighting against; and why.

Saunders: ‘Heckler’s veto’ a poor conclusion to diploma quest

Shouting down a commencement speaker you don’t agree with is counter to intellectual development.

Comment: It’s up to Democrats to get rid of debt limit for good

The next time Democrats have control, they need to make sure the economy isn’t again held hostage.

Comment: Ukraine takes calculated gamble with attacks in Russia

Drone and other attacks offer strategic benefits but could backfire if Russian civilian deaths mount.

Comment: The filibuster’s days are numbered; unfortunately

Until it became the default block for all legislation, the Senate filibuster actually worked well.

Most Read