Jimmy Carter: The Re-Emergence of Faith-Based Politics and the Abortion Rights Issue

Article excerpt

Since 1985 there have been clear transdisciplinary efforts to revise understanding of the Carter presidency. The first wave of revisionist scholarship was based upon the Oral History Project carried out by the White Burkett Miller Center at the University of Virginia. These efforts were given further impetus in 1987 with the opening of the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, Georgia. Such work calls for an approach that transcends the Neustadt paradigm that defines presidential power as "the power to persuade." Instead, it calls for Jimmy Carter to be seen as a "non-political politician," in Erwin C. Hargrove's phrase, a "trusteeship president" in that of Charles O. Jones, or even, in the words of John Dumbrell, a "presidential Robert Pirsig" (Neustadt 1990, 29; Hargrove 1988, 164; Jones 1988, 2; Dumbrell 1995, 3). (1) Essentially, it presents Jimmy Carter as a figure marking a departure in modern presidential politics. The following work extends this approach through highlighting the centrality to Carter's presidency of his deeply pious religious faith.

So far initial appraisals of this key phenomenon have been limited. Nielsen (1977) and Ribuffo (1989) have either largely focused on Carter as an evangelical candidate rather than upon the Carter presidency as a whole, or they have taken only partial steps toward marshalling primary sources in tracing Carter's relationship with religious conservatism. To date the most detailed analysis is Ribuffo's "God and Jimmy Carter," where he argues "Carter's religion affected the image of his presidency more than his substantive policies" (1989, 150). Here and elsewhere, Ribuffo emphasizes contemporary commentary describing Carter as "weird," "strange," and "quirk[y]" and links this to his faith. (2) Instead, this article argues that far from being superficial or primarily an issue connected to image, Carter's religion had a key impact upon policy, most significantly in terms of what it prevented him from doing. Rather than being weird or incomprehensible, Carter was in fact acting as president in a manner consistent with the precepts of his Southern Baptist faith. His Christianity played a significant role in his electoral success in 1976; however, delving into Carter's presidential papers, his public statements and his private memoranda show that his religion was also a factor leading to his rejection by the American electorate in 1980, alongside more obviously fundamental factors such as the stagflation economy, the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, the awakening of religious fundamentalism in Iran, and fragmentation within the Democratic Party.

By placing Carter within the context of the rightward shift in the American body politic during the late 1970s, this article shows that his presidency was a catalyst for the re-emergence of Christian conservatism as a dynamic political force in the late twentieth century. Carter was a Southern Baptist Christian and to varying extents, his faith influenced his policies as well as his relationships with key Democratic Party constituents including the leftist evangelical black civil rights movement and the women's liberation movement; it also impacted upon his foreign policy, particularly his approach to the Middle East, the Panama Canal, and human rights more generally. However, the specific focus of this article is the emblematic issue of abortion rights, an issue to which Carter responded according to the specifics of his faith and not according to the expectations of Christian conservatives. Abortion powerfully brings into focus Carter's seemingly contradictory commitments, on the one hand to old-time religious values and their importance in the political arena, and on the other to the maintenance of constitutional separation between the affairs of church and state.

The 1970s, Spiritual Malaise, and the Carter Candidacy

In 1970s America, Carter's religious fervor and its association with old-time traditional American values had great political resonance. …