Review: Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right
J. Brooks Flippen. Jimmy Carter, The Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 450 pp. 9780820337692 (cloth); 9780820337708 (paper).
If the Seventies are hot (historiographically speaking), then Jimmy Carter has yet to receive his full moment in the sun. In popular memory, the Carter presidency retains many of the surreal qualities that historians have dispelled about the rest of the decade. His outsider status, powerful as a campaign symbol, made him hapless as a presidential actor; refreshing piety became aloof self-righteousness. Viewed from the other end of Reagan Revolution, the man from Plains seems never to have had a chance. Thus, it is tempting to see Carter as an idiosyncratic transitional figure whose apparent revival of the New Deal Coalition turned out to be its denouement. Historian J. Brooks Flippen does not exactly counter this conventional interpretation so much as he lays bare its internal drama.
Flippen offers a dual history of the rise of the “modern Religious Right” and the fall of President Carter, with particular emphasis on a political issue both sought to claim: the presumably imperiled American family. Carter and the Religious Right, Flippen argues, “share a common past” (349). Carter “baptized” his nemesis, which then pointedly denied him a second blessing in 1980 (23). The strength of Flippen’s book—and what makes it an important contribution to the spate of recent works on the seventies—is that it casts Carter as an active agent in the late 1970s conservative turn, even if he was not always an eager participant in developments he often could not control.
Flippen unfolds his tale in rich detail: Carter’s faith moved front and center during his White House run, prompted by journalists eager to anoint a spokesperson for the born-agains. Carter probably did not win a majority of evangelical votes in 1976. However, he did attract support from Pat Robertson and Richard John Neuhaus (neither of whom were then outright rightists), as well as other future critics. Expectations were high among social conservatives. Liberals had expectations, too. And both groups more or less heard what they wanted to hear from candidate Carter. Thus, while Carter understandably thought giving attention to family issues would assist him politically, he proved mistaken. Carter spoke about the crisis of the family with the clean, warm-but-spare language befitting of a Sunday school lesson. Alas, the tone of family politics would not always prove so family-friendly.
Almost from the start of the Carter administration, controversy bubbled around the big three issues of seventies family politics—the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), abortion, and gay rights. Carter’s support for the ERA was straightforward (even if ERA backers did not always believe so), but he wobbled on the other two issues. Carter candidly conceded his moral discomfort with homosexuality, although he recognized the growing prominence of gay rights supporters within the Democratic party (Flippen does a nice job of covering Carter’s concerted but awkward interactions with gay activists). Carter supported restricting federal funding of abortions, even while he “wished the issue would recede” (223).
Carter sought consensus through civility—or, rather, the civil appreciation, a la Niebuhr, of life’s complexity. However, two notable efforts to find consensus—the 1977 National Women’s Conference and the long-awaited 1980 White House Conference on Families—ultimately broadcast polarization. Meanwhile, the long-announced Internal Revenue Service move to revoke the tax-exempt status of neo-segregationist Christian schools further aggravated relations with evangelical conservatives.
The general framework of this narrative will be familiar to many readers. Still, Flippen is able to present the story from multiple perspectives. His writing is informed by extensive research in the Jimmy Carter Library, deft negotiation of secondary accounts, and eight interviews, mostly with conservative activists. Flippen’s account complements Laura Kalman’s deep political history of the late 1970s (Right Star Rising [Norton, 2010]) and Daniel K. Williams’ comprehensive history of the broader Christian Right (God’s Own Party [Oxford, 2010]). In marshaling so many anecdotes, Flippen offers fascinating glimpses at important but sometimes underappreciated Religious Right figures, such as Charismatic pastor John Gimenez and pro-family organizer Connie Marshner. Flippen’s prose is competent, confident, and generally clear, save for several typos and small errors that a copy editor should have flagged (most problematically, the curious distinction in the index between Arizona Congressman and Religious Right booster John Conlan and a nonexistent “James” Conlan).
A more pared down narrative (with fewer quotations from secondary sources) might have given Flippen’s historiographical moves more breathing room. He wisely adopts a broad understanding of the Religious Right and, with it, a multi-causal explanation of its origins. Abortion—sometimes cast as the sleeping giant of seventies social issues—was a prominent campaign issue in 1976 (although not to the extent that many analysts predicted it would be). Despite Carter’s search for middle ground, his presidency effectively aligned the abortion debate with the two-party axis.
Carter did not ignore the rising Religious Right so much as he responded to it with impolitic inconsistency. He made several inexplicable mistakes—for example, not addressing the National Religious Broadcasters annual meeting until 1980. Here, Flippen echoes the influential, if somewhat self-serving, analysis of Southern Baptist minister Robert Maddox, who belatedly won appointment as Carter’s religious liaison. More helpfully, Flippen describes the lively and powerful presence of the liberal interest groups with which Carter had to contend. (Indeed, in order to fully understand this story, we need to learn even more about this world.) Hailing from a strikingly parochial political background, Carter struggled mightily to negotiate his liberal flank. He gave positions to some outspoken liberals, such as Margaret Costanza, yet never seems to have understood them, nor they him. Carter’s skills as a broker remained arrested until his remarkable post-presidency, which Flippen chronicles in a helpful epilogue.
On one level, Flippen’s narrative functions as a dialectic: Carter’s faith-filled campaign spawned an antithesis, the Religious Right, and their struggle made the Reagan Revolution more possible. Carter, Flippen argues, held to “a different strain of evangelicalism,” one more irenic and more forgiving than what Jerry Falwell, et al., had to offer (20). If, as Flippen also contends, Carter’s “faith had always been his guide,” we need more work to flesh out this tradition of centrist evangelicalism (344).
Still, as Flippen’s account suggests, the Carter presidency lacked the coherence requisite for a thesis. Carter stood alone—and in many ways he remains an odd duck, if a sympathetic one. To shift narrative modes: the Carter administration was laced with irony, but it probably did not rise to the level of tragedy. Whatever literary category works best, though, Flippen’s work goes a long way toward clarifying Carter’s role in the rise of the Religious Right.