Jimmy Carter and Conservatism

Blake Renfro

J. Brooks Flippen’s Jimmy Carter, The Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right (University of Georgia Press, 2011) provides another interpretation of how conservative Christians became a vocal part of the body politic. Flippen contends that Jimmy Carter’s presidency inadvertently laid the foundation for the rise of the Religious Right under Ronald Reagan. The book focuses on Carter’s 1976 coalition between southern white evangelicals and traditional Democrats. Such an alliance might seem impossible in today’s political environment, and at the time it was a weak partnership. Historians familiar with the era will not be surprised by the contentious issues, including abortion, debates over secular education, feminism, and gay rights. Some studies of modern American conservatism have stressed the role of grassroots organizations in developing a sophisticated and politically charged rebuttal of liberalism, but Flippen focuses on a more powerful force-the American presidency. He demonstrates how the president’s language on social issues influenced broader political and cultural attitudes. Ultimately, Carter’s political balancing “set the stage for its [the Religious Right] movers and shakers.” It was, Flippen suggest, “a top-down movement” led by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and an accompanying cast of familiar characters.

Race is an important issue when examining this dramatic change in American politics, and it seems like a new version is published every week. An emerging group of scholars has broadened the story by addressing gender and economics. State and local histories, including those by Joseph Crespino, Darren Dochuck, and Allen Tullos, use place and region as a metaphor for the nation’s political terrain. Flippen’s appraisal of race is not particularly new. Similar to Billy Graham’s efforts to sooth racial animosity, Carter catered to southern white Democrats with Biblical language and a call to cleanse one’s heart of hatred. But, Flippen subtly traces how evolving language about race eventually led to the Reagan Revolution’s “post racial” tropes. We can only expect more dissertations will continue to dissect the topic.

Flippin is particularly helpful in understanding the battle over gay rights. Historians of conservatism have paid little attention to the conversation between gay rights activists and conservative evangelicals. Prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots, gay activism was almost unheard of in American politics, but Flippen illustrates how it emerged as a national issue during Carter’s bid for the presidency. For the time Carter was surprisingly progressive on the issue. Though he did not support the so-called “homosexual lifestyle,” Carter clearly abhorred the kind of rhetoric voiced by Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant. When he denounced the Briggs Initiative, which proposed to ban homosexual teachers from California’s public schools, evangelical leaders called him a traitor. The administration was not pioneering on gay rights, but Flippen has done more than any other scholar to illuminate the origins of this ongoing culture war.

Jimmy Carter, The Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right reminds us how powerful the American Presidency has shaped our political and cultural conversation. As we enter another round of political campaigns, historians will undoubtedly find more ways to demonstrate how the past informs our contemporary political temper.