Jimmy Carter's Evangelical Downfall: Reagan, Religion And The 1980 Presidential Election

In October 1976, just prior to Jimmy Carter’s election as president, Newsweek had christened 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Carter’s candidacy had introduced many Americans to the term evangelical, and his articulation of the themes of progressive evangelicalism—care for the poor, concern for human rights, and an aversion to military conflict—brought many evangelicals into the arena of politics, some of them for the first time. Nearly half of evangelical voters in 1976 favored Carter, which represented a significant increase from the showing of Democratic candidates in years past; white evangelicals, following the lead of Billy Graham and others, had generally tilted Republican in the postwar era. In 1980, four years after Carter’s victory, however, the evangelical vote was very much in play. Three candidates were competing for the presidency, and all three claimed to be evangelical Christians: Carter, the Democratic incumbent; Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee; and John B. Anderson, Republican member of Congress from Illinois, running as an independent…

In a blistering editorial in the January 1978 issue of Sojourners, Jim Wallis castigated the president for failure to attend adequately to the needs of the poor. “The biblical demands for justice and compassion bring the harshest kind of judgment to the system of wealth and power upon which Jimmy Carter has built his presidency,” Wallis wrote. “It is these standards of social righteousness that our evangelical president has set aside during his first year in office.” John F. Alexander of The Other Side, another signatory to the Chicago Declaration in 1973, was almost flippant about the 1980 election. Although he acknowledged the moral rectitude of Carter’s policy on human rights—“we can be reasonably sure that fewer people are being tortured now than if Ford had been elected”—Alexander expressed doubts that an evangelical in the White House made any difference whatsoever. While he applauded Carter’s cancellation of the B-1 bomber, Alexander criticized the president’s approval of the MX missile. “Personally I see little point in not voting,” he concluded, although he suggested that his readers cast their ballots for Donald Duck.