A Review of Flippen’s “Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right” by Ashton Ellett

Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right by J. Brooks Flippen. University of Georgia Press, 2001. Paper, ISBN: 0820337706. $26.95.

Readers expecting http://i43.tower.com/images/mm117452907/jimmy-carter-politics-family-rise-religious-right-j-brooks-flippen-paperback-cover-art.jpgyet another political biography of the thirty-ninth president will be sorely disappointed…or relieved. Instead, J. Brooks Flippen’s newest work is an incredibly thorough account of how the Religious Right, deeming Jimmy Carter’s approach to the “family issues” of abortion, feminism, and homosexuality inadequate and unsatisfactory, spurned the president and the Democrats in favor of the increasingly conservative Republican Party. The book’s tripartite title, therefore, is truly appropriate. No one single figure, group, or movement dominates Flippen’s narrative; rather, he weaves a story of two, co-equal main characters—Jimmy Carter and the Religious Right—whose interactions shape and, in turn, are shaped by the new “politics of family.” Focusing almost exclusively the policies and rhetoric of what we now call social or “wedge” issues, Flippen argues that the Carter presidency was a critical turning point in American politics. Jimmy Carter’s inability to please either end of the political spectrum when it came to these family issues angered prominent conservative Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Robison. Opportunistic Republican operatives in the form of Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich capitalized on this discontent and exploited it for partisan gain. The Democrats’ loss, Flippen contends, was the Republicans’ gain. The effects of this seismic political shift are still evident today.

Carter, though, cannot take all the credit (or blame) for the rise of the Religious Right, but, as Flippen demonstrates, he was an active participant in process that produced this modern political movement. A savvy politician and relative moderate within an increasingly liberal Democratic Party, Jimmy Carter attempted to reconcile his devout Southern Baptist faith with the political realities of the late 1970s. In so doing, Carter sought a middle way between competing extremes on these hot-button social issues. Unfortunately for Carter, he discovered that issues like these “were not easy to finesse” and that activists on both sides were “not open to compromise and moderation” (272-273). Flippen contends that Carter’s Christian faith may have prevented him from embracing prochoice legislation and greater equality for gay and lesbian Americans, but he also opposed most efforts by government to intervene, regulate, and define such “matters of individual morality” (21). Thus, Carter “magnified the politics of family and infuriated the Religious Right” while also managing to alienate liberal Democrats, shatter his tenuous political coalition, and facilitate the Reagan Revolution that has defined American politics since 1980 (19-20).

Based primarily on source material from the Jimmy Carter Library, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and numerous oral histories, Flippen’s book is meticulously well researched. Flippen scoured the pages of seemingly every religious-themed periodical from the time to gain insight into the nascent Religious Right, and he also surveyed the vast literature dedicated to Carter’s presidency.[1] Flippen contributes mightily to not only the literature dedicated to Carter but also the growing historiography of the Religious Right.[2]

Like other scholars, Flippen locates the origin of the so-called profamily movement in the aftermath of the rights revolutions of the 1960s that spawned the feminist, homosexual, and abortions rights campaigns that came to symbolize the growing cultural liberalism in American society, but a cohesive alliance between Christian conservatives and the GOP had not yet developed by the time of Carter’s first presidential campaign in 1976. Carter proved adept at playing both sides of the issues while on the campaign trail. He would emphasize his Southern Baptist faith while among conservative Christians, and then underscore his firm commitment to the separation of church and state when speaking to more liberal audiences. According to Flippen, Carter did not lie or otherwise mislead voters because he firmly believed both sets of principles (61-62). For example, Carter affirmed his belief that homosexuality was a sin during a controversial interview with Playboy, but he also refused to condemn gays and lesbians.[3] His statements infuriated gay and lesbian activists while his decision to offer an interview to Playboy at all distressed evangelicals (99-100). Although Carter managed to win the evangelical vote, the Playboy gaffe proved indicative of the troubles that would beset him during his term.

From there, Flippen offers a blow-by-blow coverage of the Carter administration’s handling (and mishandling) of contentious social issues. Carter discovered early on that the problem with playing all sides in politics is that everyone expects results. Carter disappointed liberals when he appointed a Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare who opposed federal funding for abortion procedures and his failure to appoint any prominent evangelicals irked conservatives (120). Carter also snubbed invitations from various conservative groups, and he even drew criticism for his choice of a secular-themed White House Christmas card. Carter’s continued support of the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment and formation of the Department of Education especially galled conservative evangelicals (119, 152-53, 174, 200, 203).

As reelection loomed, Carter realized that in trying to please everyone, he had pleased practically no one. Liberal activists, frustrated by Carter’s moderate domestic and standoffish attitude, looked for an alternative candidate. Enter Ted Kennedy: liberal champion and scion of America’s most famous political family (203, 236, 245). Kennedy, though, proved to be a lackadaisical campaigner unable to build support beyond his liberal base, but his primary challenge succeeded in branding Carter “more conservative than he was” and weakening him before the general election (265). Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan secured the GOP nomination. With the party’s conservative wing replete with evangelical conservatives mobilized by the likes of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, the Religious Right had arrived (227). Reagan and his conservative allies pushed the party further to the right on social issues than ever before. Gone was the ambivalence towards issues like abortion as the conservative platform committee included a strong prolife plank that embraced the Hyde Amendment and even contemplated an antiabortion litmus test for federal judicial appointees (278). Indeed, Ronald Reagan had endorsed the Religious Right and vice versa. Carter lost to Reagan in November.

Christian conservatives, though, cannot take full credit for defeating Jimmy Carter and sparking the Reagan Revolution. The United States’ economy remained in shambles throughout Carter’s term. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the humiliating Iran Hostage Crisis also undermined the Carter’s historic Camp David Accords and the subsequent success of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (316). Nevertheless the exodus of conservative evangelicals from Carter to Reagan—especially in the South—was hard to ignore. But was their mass defection a game changer? Probably not. Did Ronald Reagan’s election usher in a new era of complete Christian domination of American politics? Certainly not. Flippen proclaims, “Having arrived in its political Canaan, the Religious Right found no paradise but a struggle that in many ways demonstrated the movement’s own limits” (321). Certainly, the Religious Right found much to like about the Reagan social agenda, but the movement’s leaders often felt disrespected and ignored. The grassroots Christian Right, though, maintained a close affinity with Ronald Reagan and the GOP, and that alliance remains firm (330, 338).

The “family issues” that emerged during the Carter years have continued to define the social policies of the major parties. Flippen admits that abortion, feminism, education, and homosexual rights would likely have emerged as major issues at the local, state, and federal levels regardless of whether or not Jimmy Carter had occupied the Oval Office. He maintains, however, that “by following his faith in addressing the emerging issues of the day, by seeking common ground on the matter of family and all that it entailed, the moral issues of feminism and sexuality that divided religions and resisted compromise, Carter ensured the movement’s momentum” (349).

But how critical a role did Carter actually play in the rise of the Religious Right? It is hard to believe that the Religious Right would have looked and acted much different had Jimmy Carter lost the Democratic nomination to Mo Udall in 1976 or Ted Kennedy in 1980. Carter’s fickle brand of moderation certainly irked Carter’s supporters, but conservative evangelicals invoked caricatures of the most Democratic Party’s most liberal, ardent supports of sociocultural liberalism to excite its base—Jimmy Carter was neither. More likely than not, Jimmy Carter just happened to occupy the White House when these new social issues emerged and coalesced with widespread dissatisfaction with Democrats’ handling of the economy and foreign policy. After all, Republicans picked up twelve seats in 1980 to control the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1954. This included winning seats in states like Alabama and Georgia where Republicans had won election to the U.S. Senate since the end of Reconstruction. Clearly the conservative wave extended well beyond the evangelical backlash against Carter.

Furthermore, Flippen’s assertion that Jimmy Carter “eschewed politics [and] relied on his own moral compass” to address controversial issues is dubious. Carter’s political strategy was apparent in his successful campaign for Georgia governor in 1970. One need only substitute the issue of race for abortion and homosexuality and the similarities become evident. That year, Carter waged a heated primary campaign against popular ex-governor Carl Sanders that was rife with both implicit and explicit appeals to racial intolerance. From his strong support of “law and order,” opposition to “forced busing,” and promise to cooperate with Alabama Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Carter actively courted the rural, and all-too-often, racist white vote. Carter also appeared to take both sides of divisive issues. For instance, Carter announced his opposition to so-called “segregation academies,” but he saw no problem with new private schools established by wealthy parents.[4] Some observers, though, saw little distinction between the two. Indeed, his tone on racial issues depended in large part on whether he was speaking in Atlanta or in South Georgia. When it came to campaign strategy, Carter and his political advisers likely reasoned that if it wasn’t broke there was little need to fix it. That is, of course, until it didn’t work.

These criticisms aside, Flippen’s book is extremely thorough, thoughtful, and well-written piece of work. Without a doubt, Carter’s term in office was a major turning point in American political history. Whether or not that is because of Jimmy Carter or in spite of him will remain a matter of debate. Students and scholars of modern American politics and society will certainly benefit from Flippen’s exhaustive work and his insight into the interplay of faith and politics during the Carter years. Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right is certainly a welcome addition to the story of an oft-misunderstood person and presidency.

Ashton Ellett                                                                                    University of Georgia

Ashton Ellett is a graduate student in History at the University of Georgia where he studies modern southern politics and society. His dissertation will examine the intersection of politics, race, and economic boosterism in the development of the Georgia Republican Party since World War II. When he is not reading, writing, or thinking about politics, Ashton enjoys spending quality time with his wife Jessica and his two orange cats, Sophie and General Sterling Price.


[1] For scholarly works exploring Jimmy Carter’s political career and presidency see, Peter G. Bourne, Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-presidency (New York: Scribner, 1997); Gary M. Fink, Prelude to the Presidency: The Political Character and Legislative Leadership Style of Governor Jimmy Carter (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); Fink and Hugh D. Graham, eds. The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post-New Deal Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Betty Glad, Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980); Garland A. Haas, Jimmy Carter and the Politics of Frustration (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992); Erwin C. Hargrove, Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Burton I. Kaufman and Scott Kaufman, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr., 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); Timothy Stanley, Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010); Julian E. Zelizer, Jimmy Carter (New York: Times Books, 2010).    

[2] For examinations of the Religious Right in modern American politics see, Randall Balmer, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); Ruth Mary Brown, For a Christian Nation: A History of the Religious Right (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002); Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Walter H. Capps, The New Religious Right: Piety, Patriotism, and Politics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990); E.J. Dionne, Jr. and John J. Diiulio, eds. What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010); Simon S. Hall and Dennis E. Owen, The New Religious Right in America (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1982); Allan J. Lictman, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the Conservative Movement (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008); William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996); Matthew C. Moen, The Christian Right and Congress (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989) and The Transformation of the Christian Right (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992); Justin Watson, The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Dreams of Recognition (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999); Robert E. Webber, The Moral Majority: Right or Wrong? (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1981); Clyde Wilcox, God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in 20th-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) and Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000); Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[3] Robert Scheer, “The Playboy Interview: Jimmy Carter,” Playboy 23, no. 11 (1976): 63-86.

[4] See, “Carter Hits ‘Segregation Academies,’” Macon Telegraph, July 28, 1970, p. 3

This entry was posted in 20th Century, Book Reviews, Southern Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Review of Flippen’s “Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right” by Ashton Ellett

  1. JHW says:

    I for one am glad to see Ashton Gene Ellett donning the bowtie, even if only in a digital sense and a cyber setting. And this review is a classic case of the right scholar meeting the right subject. Well done, sir, well done indeed.

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