Once again, the religious vote is being courted by presidential wannabes. Beware of politicians and their religious rhetoric. Jimmy Carter ran as a “born-again Christian” in 1976. It was the first time in a national election that evangelicals were recognized as an identifiable voting block that could impact an election. The media did not know how to evaluate Carter’s religious rhetoric. Kenneth Briggs, who was chief religion reporter for the New York Times, recalled that, early in the primary campaign he casually mentioned that he was an evangelical and a “born again” Christian. According to Briggs, “The mainstream press in this country didn’t really know what an evangelical was. And what they did know harkened back to the days of the Scopes trial and fundamentalism and a kind of backwoods yahoo-ism that they found very distasteful. No one was sure that a presidential candidate should be talking about such things as private ‘born again’ experiences and conversations.”
Southern Baptist theologian James Dunn remembers: “I was asked by the American Jewish Committee to come and speak to their state meeting and explain what being ‘born again’ meant. I was interviewed by the press and local television all over the place about ‘What’s an evangelist?’ ‘What’s an evangelical?’ ‘What’s a Baptist?’ ‘What does “born again” mean?’” You might recall that Billy Graham wrote a book with the title Born Again. It was published in 1976 because of the questions surrounding Carter’s use of the phrase to explain his religious experience.
Consider the remarks by NBC anchor John Chancellor: “We have checked on the religious meaning of Carter’s profound experience. It is described by other Baptists as a common experience, not something out of the ordinary.” Evangelicals were genuinely excited by Carter’s campaign. Carter spoke to fifteen thousand pastors and lay persons of the Southern Baptist Convention. Bailey Smith “proclaimed that this country needs ‘a born-again man in the White House… and his initials are the same as our Lord’s.”
Carter’s candidacy eventually turned sour. His interview in Playboy magazine was the first sign that something was wrong. He stated that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” What he said was certainly in line with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, but in Playboy? He did not believe in biblical inerrancy. His choice of theological reading material was in the neo-orthodox camp (e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr): “During his presidential campaign, Carter dropped repeated hints at liberal theological leanings with his habit of quoting snippets from neo-orthodox theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich. In his peanut warehouse office, Carter kept a small statue of Gandhi. Notably missing from his repertoire of religious references are conservative theologians or thinkers present or past, such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Spurgeon, or Jonathan Edwards. These loud signals went unnoticed by the millions of conservative evangelical Christians who thought Carter was ‘one of us’ in the 1976 campaign.”
He supported the Equal Rights Amendment. He supported abortion rights by declaring even though he was “personally opposed to abortion,” he had to enforce the law of the land: “I can only think of one issue where I had to modify my own Christian beliefs to carry out the duties of president, and that was on the subject of abortion, and this is a highly personal thing. You ask me as a human being. It is impossible for me to imagine Jesus approving abortion, and my duties as a president required me to carry out the laws of our nation as interpreted by the Supreme Court, which authorized abortion, as you know, in the first three months of pregnancy of the woman and her doctor decide [to do so]. I disagreed with his, although I never failed to carry out my duty as a president. . . .” Would the “I’m personally opposed” line have worked on slavery or racial discrimination?: “While I’m personally opposed to slavery, I must carry out the laws of our nation as interpreted by the Supreme Court.”
Carter did not seem to have a problem using his office to push for legislation in other areas in terms of how his Christian convictions shaped his opinion. He supported homosexual rights: “Gay activists sought the end of legal and social sanctions on homosexual relationships. And the White House Conference on the Family provided a forum for all of them.” As president, Carter may have had “to carry out the laws of our nation as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” but he could have spoken to the nation on why he believed pro-abortion legislation was a moral evil. He did not have a problem using the IRS to intimidate Christian schools.
His administration did not include one evangelical. He would veto any law that allowed for voluntary prayer in public schools. He established a federal Department of Education. Evangelicals had had enough of Carter by 1979, the year Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority.
. William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 149.
. Quoted in Martin, With God On Our Side, 149.
. Quoted in Martin, With God On Our Side, 150.
. Quoted in Martin, With God On Our Side, 157.
. Steven F. Hayward, The Real Jimmy Carter (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2004), 43-44.
. Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr., God in the White House: How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 133.
. Hutcheson, God in the White House, 156.
. George J. Church, “Politics from the Pulpit: Fundamentalists take aim at Carter and liberals nationwide,” Time (October 13, 1980), 28.