The year 1976 marked a turning point in American and evangelical history. It was the year of the evangelical, with a born-again Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter, capturing the Democratic nomination and narrowly defeating the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford. And it was the end of the New Deal elections, when factions had been divided along class and regional lines. From then until now, American elections would be engulfed in ideological culture war between right and left.
Daniel K. Williams is one of the most accomplished historians of the Religious Right and evangelical political engagement. In his new book, The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976 (University of Kansas Press), Williams helps us understand how we reached this point of religious and cultural polarization. Carter was the last Democrat to win almost the entire South. And the last candidate who brought together black Christians, white Southern evangelicals, and Northern Catholics and Jews. He preserved this coalition by somehow convincing Southern conservatives he was a pious budget hawk while at the same time signaling to Northern progressives that he would champion the causes of civil rights for minorities and equal rights for women.
Williams joined me on Gospelbound to discuss this turning-point election and what we can learn from it about evangelical witness and political engagement.