Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right

Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right

Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right

Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right


As Jimmy Carter ascended to the presidency the heir apparent to Democratic liberalism, he touted his background as a born-again evangelical. Once in office, his faith indeed helped form policy on a number of controversial moral issues. By acknowledging certain behaviors as sinful while insisting that they were private matters beyond government interference, J. Brooks Flippen argues, Carter unintentionally alienated both social liberals and conservative Christians, thus ensuring that the debate over these moral "family issues" acquired a new prominence in public and political life.

The Carter era, according to Flippen, stood at a fault line in American culture, religion, and politics. In the wake of the 1960s, some Americans worried that the traditional family faced a grave crisis. This newly politicized constituency viewed secular humanism in education, the recognition of reproductive rights established by Roe v. Wade, feminism, and the struggle for homosexual rights as evidence of cultural decay and as a challenge to religious orthodoxy. Social liberals viewed Carter's faith with skepticism and took issue with his seeming unwillingness to build on recent progressive victories. Ultimately, Flippen argues, conservative Christians emerged as the Religious Right and were adopted into the Republican fold.

Examining Carter's struggle to placate competing interests against the backdrop of difficult foreign and domestic issues--a struggling economy, the stalled Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, disputes in the Middle East, handover of the Panama Canal, and the Iranian hostage crisis--Flippen shows how a political dynamic was formed that continues to this day.


The crowds began to assemble early, some arriving on busses, a line of which remained parked on the streets nearby. Others took the Metro, Washington’s new subway system, chartered during the morning rush hour for the occasion. Despite the gray and chilly weather, the thousands arriving remained enthusiastic, congregating on the Mall, where a large stage constructed in red, white, and blue dominated the rally. Posters and signs declared, “America, You Need Jesus!” and “The Bible—It’s True.” Swarms of people strolled or held hands and prayed or sang, their arms waving to the sky in celebration. By evening, twelve hours after it had begun, the rally closed, estimates of participation varying but all acknowledging that hundreds of thousands of people from across the nation had attended. Whether the police estimate of two hundred thousand or the organizer’s claim of half a million, the crowd surpassed the throngs who had turned out recently to welcome the new pope, John Paul ii. the rally was, some suggested, one of the largest ever on the Mall, the most impressive since Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington a decade and a half before. As one observer put it, the rally was “the largest single assemblage of Christians in American history.” It was a “Christian Woodstock.”

The Washington for Jesus rally on April 29, 1980, certainly met the expectations of its organizers. the idea for the rally had begun more than two years before with Pastor John Gimenez, a Harlem-born Puerto Rican who had overcome drug addiction and a criminal conviction to lead Rock Church, an independent charismatic congregation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. America had lost its way, Gimenez asserted, and needed to return to its theological moorings, to accept Jesus and repent before it was too late. America’s sins were manifold—homosexuality, abortion, feminism, and . . .

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