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“Worse than cancer and worse than snakes”: Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist Problem and the 1980 Election
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“Worse than cancer and worse than snakes”:
Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist Problem and the 1980 Election

A month before the 1980 election, the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Princeton, Texas, sent Jimmy Carter a questionnaire so his church members could know the president’s positions on various matters. Drawn up by the Moral Majority, the questionnaire ignored the bleak economy, the energy crisis, and the tense international situation to focus instead on social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, the ERA, pornography, prostitution, school prayer, and sex education. Casting aside the seeming complexities of such issues, the questionnaire reduced them all to a fundamentalist simplicity. “Do you agree that this country was founded on a belief in God and the moral principles of the Bible?” the form asked, allowing a candidate only to check answers under “yes” or “no.”1 Bob Maddox, the White House’s liaison to the religious community, waited until just days before the election to respond, likely uneager to make the president’s case to yet another group of conservative Christians disenchanted by Carter. Maddox wrote that despite the bad [End Page 479] press generated by publications like the Moral Majority Report, “I assure you that President Carter, a man of deep faith in Jesus Christ, is profoundly concerned about the moral and spiritual welfare of the nation.” However, Carter could not respond to the enclosed questionnaire, Maddox explained, because “legitimate answers cannot be given in terms of a quick yes or no.”2 But for fundamentalists, like those at Faith Baptist and throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, “yes” or “no” responses were indeed legitimate answers to the complex questions facing the nation; no gray areas existed on such matters as abortion or homosexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention had undergone a theological shift to biblical literalism in the late 1970s, and this doctrinal transformation led to hardline political positions and directly undermined support for Carter’s reelection. As a Houston pastor had told a reporter at a political rally of fifteen thousand Southern Baptist and evangelical ministers earlier that summer, “We believe in absolutes…. The Bible is a book of absolutes.”3

For political historians, the story of Reagan’s victory in the 1980 presidential election has also seemed like one of absolutes. A straightforward narrative, largely put in place during the election itself, has generally governed how scholars have understood this watershed moment. As soon as Reagan won in 1980, religious conservatives insisted they had been the key to the election. Buoyed by the impressive turnout of conservative Christian voters, these leaders of the newly christened “Religious Right” hoped to guarantee Reagan’s commitment to their agenda by controlling the narrative of his victory. Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell claimed his new organization had registered 4 million first-time voters for Reagan, “millions of voters who otherwise would not have been at the polls,” as he described them, and had pumped $5 million into the campaign.4 One publication claimed that the evangelical vote had provided two-thirds of Reagan’s ten-point win over Carter.5 The lesson seemed unambiguous: Ronald Reagan had won because of the evangelical voter.6

Soon, however, scholars began questioning religious conservatives’ role in Reagan’s victory. Some argued the Religious Right had, as one study contended, “virtually no influence at all” on the election.7 Others reached opposite conclusions.8 Historians and other scholars have, from the vantage point of time, worried less about determining the Religious Right’s precise electoral influence in 1980 and instead observed the deeper cultural and political bases for the rise of Christian conservatism and Reagan’s election.9 These scholars tend to see Reagan as the white knight of the Religious Right—a folksy politico who captured religious conservative voters with biblically [End Page 480] inflected language and hollow promises regarding their chief issues. Yet another group of scholars, while smaller, has contended that religious conservatives spurned Carter as much, if not more, than they picked Reagan, rebuffing the president because of his positions on topics like abortion, gay rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment.10 Although historians differ on whether the Religious Right coalesced around supporting...