Election of Jimmy Carter

Time Period
11/2/1976
Description
Jimmy Carter was the first "born again" evangelical to become president. He was reared Southern Baptist, served as a deacon, and frequently taught Sunday School. After two terms in the Georgia state legislature and one term as governor, he ran for the presidency in 1976 on the Democratic ticket.

His ability to attract evangelical voters led Newsweek to declare 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical." Yet when in office, many white evangelical voters became disenchanted with his unwillingness to rollback abortion rights and defected to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Carter was the last Democratic candidate for president to receive at least half of the white evangelical vote, a group that became a key constituency in the resurgence of conservatism in national electoral politics for the next 30 years.
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Narrative
Jimmy Carter was the second self-proclaimed evangelical to run for the presidency. (William Jennings Bryan had won the Democratic ticket in 1896, 1900, and 1908, but lost in the general election each time.) Carter was raised in a Southern Baptist church, serving as a deacon and frequently teaching Sunday School throughout his adult life, even on several occasions while president. After a stint captaining nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy, Carter inherited his parents' successful, although cash-poor, peanut farm, warehouse, and farm supply business. In the 1960s, Carter served two terms in the Georgia state legislature. After a failed bid for the governorship in 1966, Carter had a moment of spiritual crisis in which he rededicated his life to God. He later said of that moment, "I began to realize that my Christian life, which I had always professed to be preeminent, had really been a secondary interest in my life, and I formed a very close, personal intimate relationship with God through Christ."

Four years later in 1970, Carter won the governership, setting up his run for the presidency in 1976. He ran as a political outsider, someone uncorrupted by Washington politics and the moral uncertainty of the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. His opponent, Gerald Ford, although not involved in the Watergate burglary or cover-up, had been Nixon's vice-president and one of his first acts upon becoming president in 1974 was to pardon his disgraced former boss. During the campaign, Carter released an autobiography, Why Not the Best?, in which he identified himself as being a "born again" Christian. The phrase "born again" is a reference to the Biblical book of John chapter three in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be "born again" to enter the kingdom of God. Although the words are ancient, the phrase was not widely used as an identification label for evangelical Christians until 1976.

Suddenly, pollsters, like George Gallup Jr., started finding born again Christians everywhere. In the month before the election, Gallup's surveys showed that a third of Americans claimed to have been born again. That same October, Newsweek declared 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical" and put Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell on the cover, pointing one hand to heaven and placing the other on the head of a convert. Pundits widely credited Carter's close victory in November to the evangelical vote. The significance of evangelical voters was overstated, in part because pollsters were haphazard about the actual definition of "born again" when surveying voters but also because evangelicals were not a homogeneous voting bloc. Carter split the white evangelical vote, showing that divide. Still, it was the last time a Democratic presidential candidate would do as well among evangelical voters.

More than a few of the evangelicals who voted for Carter in 1976 became disenchanted with him during his term. On the campaign trail, he had told evangelicals that he was pro-life, but once in office he did nothing to check the advance of abortion rights. Instead, he focused his efforts on energy conversation, nuclear arms control, and a human rights focused foreign policy. Carter represents the highwater mark for the evangelical left in American politics. In 1980 and 1984, the evangelical right responded, giving Ronald Reagan an overwhelming majority of the white evangelical vote. One of Carter's harshest critics was Jerry Falwell, who was central in forming a conservative political organization called the Moral Majority in 1979. The idea for the Moral Majority grew out of a series of "I Love America" rallies held by Falwell in state capitals across the nation during the 1976 bicentennial.

After the presidency, Carter remained involved in humanitarian work, especially the Christian housing charity Habitat for Humanity. In 2000 he left the Southern Baptist Convention for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in response to the rise of conservative evangelicals like Al Mohler, W.A. Criswell, and Adrian Rogers within the denomination.
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Baptist Family: Other Timeline Event Entries
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Biographies
Falwell, Jerry
Photographs

Jimmy Carter inauguration- National Archives and Records Administration.gif

Jimmy Carter portrait- National Archives and Records Administration.gif

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Democratic National Convention- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09739

Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford presidential debate- National Archives and Records Administration

Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter at the Inaugural Ball- National Archives and Records Administration.gif
Source(s)
Balmer, Randall, 2014. Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. New York: Basic Books.
Web Source
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Carter
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University

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