Opinion: Jimmy Carter, Iowa politics, and the demise of progressive evangelicalism

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In October 1975 a dispatch from Ames rocked the political world. “Jimmy Carter of Georgia appears to have taken a surprising but solid lead in the contest for Iowa’s 47 delegates to the Democratic National Convention next year,” an article on the front page of the New York Times read. “Iowans like courtesy and the personal touch,” the story continued, and they found Carter’s low-key style winsome.

Less than a year earlier, when the Gallup Poll had surveyed voters about the field of potential Democratic candidates, Jimmy Carter’s name was not among the 32 names in the survey. The one-term governor of Georgia — known derisively as “Jimmy who?” — confounded the pundits with his energetic grassroots campaign in the villages of New Hampshire and the small towns of Iowa.

Before any other candidate had announced for the presidency, Carter had already traveled more than 50,000 miles and visited 37 states. He believed that he could win the nomination, and the presidency, simply by outworking everyone else. “Seems like everywhere I’ve been lately, they tell me Jimmy Carter was just through there a week or so ago,” Morris Udall, one of Carter’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, complained. “The sonofabitch is as ubiquitous as the sunshine.”

But Carter’s appeal ran far deeper than his energy and his legendary work ethic. The United States was battered in the mid-1970s by the Arab oil embargo and runaway inflation, but Americans were even more distressed by the moral crisis besetting the nation. Lyndon Johnson had lied to us about Vietnam, and Richard Nixon had lied to us about, well, pretty much everything. Trust in government, especially the presidency, sank to new lows. Nixon’s resignation in 1974 had elevated Gerald Ford to the White House, and although he seemed to be a kind and genial man, many Americans harbored doubts that he was up to the demands of the presidency.

An evangelical runs for office, says he'd never knowingly lie

Enter Jimmy Carter. The one-term governor of Georgia regularly taught Sunday school back at Plains Baptist Church in his hometown. He spoke openly about his faith and his identity as a “born again” Christian. He promised a government “as good and decent as the American people,” and perhaps most remarkably after the Johnson and Nixon years, Carter promised never knowingly to lie to the American people.

Americans responded — and Iowans first of all. On Jan. 19, 1976, Carter won a plurality of votes in the Iowa precinct caucuses. The New York Times credited his “assiduous personal campaigning and rural style,” which gave Carter a two-to-one margin over the second-place finisher, Birch Bayh of Indiana. “My husband and I wanted a fresh face and a new approach,” a woman in Davenport said. “We wanted someone who could clean up the mess in Washington because he wasn’t part of it.”

MORE: How the Iowa caucuses came to be

Assisted once again by the “Peanut Brigade,” supporters from Georgia who had ventured north to campaign for their former governor, Carter won the New Hampshire primary with 29.4% of the vote the following month. His next primary victory was arguably his most important, both for himself as a representative of the “New South” and for the Democratic Party. On March 9, Carter defeated a fellow Southern governor, George C. Wallace of Alabama, in the Florida primary, thereby ending the presidential ambitions of the nation’s most notorious segregationist.

Carter’s ascent to the White House was abetted by evangelical voters, many of whom relished the novelty of casting a ballot for one of their own, an evangelical, for president. Carter, however, represented a particular strain of evangelicalism known as progressive evangelicalism, which drew from both the teachings of Jesus as well as from evangelical reformers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Evangelicals like Charles Grandison Finney, Jonathan Blanchard (founder of Wheaton College) and William Jennings Bryan sought to reform society in accordance with their evangelical principles. This rich tradition of progressive evangelicalism advocated the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women, including voting rights. They supported public education (known at the time as “common schools”) as a vehicle to help those who were underprivileged ascend to the middle class. They were active in various peace movements and worked to reduce the proliferation of guns. They supported prison reform and the rights of workers to organize — all in obedience to the words of Jesus to be peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”

Although progressive evangelicalism fell out of favor in the middle decades of the 20th century, especially as evangelicals, together with many Americans, became obsessed with the threat of communism, progressive evangelicalism mounted a modest comeback in the early 1970s. Two of the most visible proponents of progressive evangelicalism were United States senators: Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, and Harold E. Hughes, Democrat of Iowa.

In November 1973, 55 evangelicals gathered at the Chicago YMCA and formulated the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, which lamented America’s militarism and persistent racism, condemned the gap between rich and poor and called on evangelicals to reclaim their long heritage of advocacy for women’s equality.

Jimmy Carter articulated many of those same principles. In his inaugural address as governor of Georgia in 1971, he famously declared that “the time for racial discrimination is over.” During his brief term as governor, Carter improved public education and reformed prisons, all the while making government more efficient. As a candidate for president, he advocated health care reform, ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and a less imperial foreign policy.

Principles guided Carter in the White House

Historians are still debating Carter’s presidency, although the prevailing popular view is that Carter was overmatched in the White House, unable to stem inflation or fix a sour economy. Despite Carter’s many efforts, he was unable to persuade Congress or the American people of the necessity for energy independence. And his failure to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran sealed his defeat in 1980.

Carter, however, sought to govern according to his religious principles. His first official act as president was to pardon nonviolent Vietnam-era draft resisters, a gesture aimed at healing the lingering divisions over an unpopular war. Carter signaled his concern for Third World nations by renegotiating the Panama Canal treaties, thereby nudging the United States away from colonialism.

In foreign policy he sought to move the nation away from the reflexive dualism of the Cold War toward an emphasis on human rights, which won the release of some political prisoners. His Camp David accords advanced the cause of peace in the Middle East far beyond that of his predecessors (or successors).

Although Carter was personally uncomfortable with homosexuality, he unequivocally affirmed the civil rights of gay and lesbian people. He also found abortion morally repugnant and sought to limit its incidence by means of education, access to birth control and policies more conducive to adoption. He appointed more women and people of color than any previous president.

One of the many paradoxes surrounding Jimmy Carter, however, is that evangelicals, the very people who helped propel Carter to the presidency in 1976, turned so rabidly against him four years later. Since 1971 evangelical leaders had been fuming over a court ruling that disallowed tax-exempt status for any institutions that engaged in racial segregation or discrimination. This affected the “segregation academies” that had sprouted, especially in the South, following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, which mandated the desegregation of public schools.

Many of these segregation academies, like Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian Academy, were associated with churches, and when the Internal Revenue Service began targeting such schools as well as the arch-fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina for their racial policies, politically conservative evangelical preachers began to organize into a political movement.

Incredibly, they blamed Carter for the IRS actions against segregated schools, even though the policy of denying tax exemptions to segregated institutions was mandated by Nixon and Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption, after years of warnings, on Jan. 19, 1976, a year and a day before Carter was inaugurated as president—the same day, actually, that Carter won the Iowa precinct caucuses.

Falwell, Paul Weyrich, the architect of the religious right, and other evangelical leaders, however, were undeterred by the niceties of facts; they were determined to deny Carter a second term by blaming him for rescinding the tax exemptions of segregated schools. “In some states,” Falwell famously complained, “it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”

A new rallying point: Abortion

But Falwell and Weyrich were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination was a tough sell, so they looked for another issue that would energize evangelical conservatives into a political movement. That issue was abortion, and Iowa once again served as a proving ground.

Contrary to popular belief, evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” throughout most of the 1970s. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, passed a resolution in 1971 calling for the legalization of abortion, a resolution they reaffirmed in 1974 and again in 1976. When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, many prominent evangelicals praised the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. (Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach against abortion until 1978.)

The 1978 Senate races in Iowa and Minnesota, however, demonstrated to leaders of the nascent religious right that abortion might work for them as a political issue. In Minnesota, pro-life Republicans captured both Senate seats (one for the unexpired term of Walter Mondale) as well as the governor’s mansion. In Iowa, Dick Clark, the Democratic incumbent senator, was thought to be a shoo-in; no poll heading into the election showed him ahead by fewer than ten percentage points. On the final weekend of the campaign, however, pro-life activists, primarily Roman Catholics, leafleted church parking lots (as they did in Minnesota), and on Election Day, Clark lost to his Republican anti-abortion challenger, Roger Jepsen.

In the course of my research into Falwell’s papers at Liberty University and Weyrich’s papers at the University of Wyoming, it became very clear that the 1978 election was a turning point. Weyrich and the Religious Right had finally stumbled on the issue that would galvanize evangelical voters: abortion. The rest, as they say, is history. Despite Carter’s longstanding opposition to abortion and his efforts to limit its incidence, his refusal to seek a constitutional amendment was deemed by leaders of the religious right as an unpardonable sin.

They abandoned their fellow evangelical and threw their support instead to Ronald Reagan, an episodic churchgoer who as governor of California in 1967 had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the nation. By 1980, however, Reagan had come around to a pro-life position, and that was good enough for leaders of the religious right.

The version of evangelicalism propagated by Falwell and others was far different from the progressive evangelicalism embodied by Carter. Evangelicals in 1980 traded Carter’s progressive evangelicalism, characterized by military restraint, human rights, a less imperial foreign policy and care for those less fortunate in favor of a candidate who, whatever his other qualities, had opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. As president, he then accelerated defense spending, ridiculed welfare recipients and suggested that homelessness was a choice.

Carter’s loss in 1980 signaled the demise of progressive evangelicalism on the national political scene. To paraphrase the words of the gospel, in 1976 Jimmy Carter came unto his own, his fellow evangelicals. Four years later, however, his own received him not.

Randall Balmer
Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer, a graduate of Des Moines Hoover High School, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter."

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Jimmy Carter, Iowa, and progressive evangelicalism's demise