From the Archives: March 1988

RELIGION AND electoral politics tend to be mutually debasing. Take the apparent exception, Jimmy Carter. His politics were informed by his theological insights: a regard for the poor and despised (he was the first U.S. president to take the Third World seriously); a sense of human limit (he did not take it for granted that Americans have a right to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s goods); and a recognition of the humanity of others, even of enemies (the Soviet Union was not the Evil Empire for him).

The result of this conjunction of theological and political views was a resounding rejection from the electorate, and especially from those who seemed closest to him on the theological spectrum, Southern Baptists. The lesson seems to be that it pays, in presidential politics, not to take your religion seriously. ...
The preference of evangelicals for the religious stance of Ronald Reagan proved that pseudo-religion works best in our political races. President Reagan’s religiosity barely rises above the level of superstition. Michael Deaver ... says that the president consults his horoscope every day, regularly carries five or so lucky charms in his pocket, and is “nuts for religious phenomena.”...

Why would evangelicals and others reject a sincere believer in the gospel, like Carter, for Reagan’s profession of a hodgepodge of make-believe beliefs? The reason is that Reagan brings them a more marketable God. 

Garry Wills was the author of Reagan’s America when this article appeared.

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