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.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: 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 where 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 in evangelical political engagement. In his new book, The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976, published by University of Kansas Press and their American Presidential Elections series. Williams helps us understand how we reached this point of religious and cultural polarization.
Collin Hansen: 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 joins me on Gospelbound to discuss this turning point election and what we can learn from it about evangelical witness and political engagement. Thank you for joining me on Gospelbound, Dan.
Daniel Williams: Thanks. It’s good to be here.
Collin Hansen: Dan, you write, “The 1976 presidential election was a contest to decide the ideological identity of the two parties and the future of American politics.” Why did you focus on this election? And what’s the biggest way this election changed our politics?
Daniel Williams: I became interested in the 1976 election when I was doing some research for my first book, God’s Own Party. And then that was confirmed with the second book, Defenders of the Unborn, because 1976 was the first year that the two political parties took official stances on abortion. Before 1976, you will not find any reference to abortion in a platform statement of the Republican or Democratic parties. But that was only one of the changes. As I began diving into this, I realized that of course it was the election that put a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and deacon into the White House with Southern evangelical votes, a coalition of black and white Christians, as you mentioned.
Daniel Williams: It was also an election in which evangelicals were genuinely undecided, that is a significant number of Northern evangelicals were leaning toward Gerald Ford, a significant number of those in the South were leading toward Jimmy Carter. But the votes of both were in play was the last moment in American history, when we can look back to an evangelical past and see a genuinely nonpartisan orientation, or at least a significant group of evangelical leaders who were looking for the possibility of a new partisan identity or more likely a political position that would transcend parties. And I think at our current political moment, when some evangelicals are wondering how did we reach the current state in American politics? Is there anything better? It can be useful I think to go back to the election of 1976 for both insights and perhaps counterexamples.
Collin Hansen: George Wallace was a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in 1976. He quickly endorsed Carter after he fell behind in the primary. You say that Wallace was loyal to the white South rather than to the conservative movement. What does George Wallace’s career tell us about politics today?
Daniel Williams: Well, I think there are parallels between Wallace supporters and rural white Trump supporters. So that might be one place to start. But there are also some significant differences as well. But I think it’s important to note that when we see a historical pattern that appears to repeat itself, as the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And I think there’s some truth to that when we talk about how to translate insights from George Wallace’s political career in the 1960s and 1970s into understanding current politics. But just to catch everyone up before we dive in too deeply on this, George Wallace of course was the governor of Alabama. And he was most well-known for opposing desegregation efforts in the early to mid-1960s. He ran for president in 1964, but he didn’t get that far. But in 1968, he ran on an independent ticket and did carry the electoral votes of several Southern states, including of course his own state of Alabama.
Daniel Williams: And then in 1972, he ran for president again, but was shot and seriously wounded during that presidential race, which ended that particular attempt for the White House. But in 1976, he ran again for the last time for president, this time not running as an independent, but competing in the Democratic primaries. But this time, not running on an openly segregationist ticket, though it’s quite clear that all of his support came from people who would have been segregationists in the early 1960s. It’s just that the times had changed a bit. When you look at the Wallace supporters of 1968, they tended to be disaffected people, that is they tended to have what were called at the time fundamentalist beliefs—that term was used more often than the term conservative evangelical, but they were less likely than other voters to attend church. They were disproportionately male, of course almost exclusively white, and disproportionately rural.
Daniel Williams: So as I look at those George Wallace voters of 1968, I see a parallel with the Trump voters of the 2016 primaries. Now, of course, we’re beyond 2016. We’re now looking at a lot of mainstream Republican voters that may be choosing Trump for other reasons. But if you look at the core support of those early primaries in the early spring of 2016, you see voters that actually line up very closely demographically with the Wallace voters. So in that sense, I think there’s actually something that we can learn from looking at the past. But what I also think we can learn from looking at Wallace is that there’s a difference between the conservative movement and these rural voters. That is the conservative movement that was associated with Barry Goldwater and then with Ronald Reagan and with the people that Reagan brought to Washington, was in some ways at odds with George Wallace’s brand.
Daniel Williams: George Wallace was always an economic populist. And so he always supported the New Deal. He complained a great deal about welfare; you can find numerous statements that he made about welfare that are racially tinged. And he complained about government deficits, just as Reagan did. But he always believed that the federal government should take care of honest, hardworking people that he tended to envision as essentially blue-collar whites. He would not have been in favor for instance of privatizing Social Security or some other things that Republicans tried to do, say in the late-20th century with Newt Gingrich or with the George W. Bush administration, it’s really difficult to envision George Wallace being a very good fit for the George W. Bush administration at all. So the question is, what do we do with this information? Well, if I’m correct in reading the Trump voters of 2016, I think that president Trump was elected in 2016 with substantial support from a wing of potential Republican voters that the Republican Party had not been aligned with for some decades. They had depended on the votes of rural whites since the early to mid-1990s. But the Republican Party was never a particularly good fit for the interest of rural white voters in the way that say George Wallace’s campaign was.
Daniel Williams: And so one of president Trump’s secrets to success I would argue is that he effectively spoke the language of these voters who had never really felt entirely comfortable with other Republicans that they had voted the Republican ticket for a while. But they became enthusiastic about Trump in a way that far exceeded their enthusiasm for any other Republican.
Collin Hansen: I think one thing people don’t remember about Wallace either is that he had pretty significant support in the North that tends to map fairly well onto president Trump’s support in the North as well. Would another way of describing this group be the famous Reagan Democrats of 1980 and 1984?
Daniel Williams: There was certainly a lot of overlap, I think. Yes if you look at say George Wallace’s success in places like Wisconsin or parts of Massachusetts, he was able to get a significant number of Catholic Union voters in Massachusetts, people who resented the busing policies at the time that they believed were destroying neighborhood schools, that’s how they would put it. Other people might have other ways of phrasing it. But yes, I think he was tapping into a blue-collar and rural nationwide dissatisfaction with the civil-rights movement and the effects of the civil-rights movement. And I think that a number of those people did vote for Reagan. They might’ve been registered Democrats as you said, even in the 1980s. Some of them voted Democratic for the last time with Bill Clinton, there is some evidence that in 1992 Clinton captured a lot of that vote. Though he actually started losing that vote in 1996 and beyond it. And after that I think the Reagan Democrats became Republicans, though, if my read is correct, maybe not entirely happy Republicans.
Collin Hansen: Right. Yeah. Gore was another Southern Baptist. So Clinton a Southern Baptist, he picked up some of that vote in 1992, but then some of it starts to bleed out in 1996, but then by the time Gore comes about, it seems to be gone. I guess then if we fast forward all the way to 2020, then what we’re seeing is President Trump having solidified a lot of that previous Wallace support, some of the Carter support, but what he seems to have lost entirely is the old, typical suburban Republican, or the Northeastern liberal Republican, which were major components of the Republican coalition into 1976 and beyond. So maybe we can get into that a little bit as well. But let’s go back to Carter. He won the support of 49 percent of white evangelicals against Ford. So why did Carter fail in his presidency and see white evangelicals turn so hard against him and against the democratic party? Do you think he was simply the victim of an unstable coalition and inevitable rise of Reagan conservatism? How do you explain it?
Daniel Williams: I think that evangelicalism itself was beginning to redefine itself in the late-1970s. And so the evangelical voter of 1980 was arguably a different sort of evangelical voter than the evangelical voter of 1976. In 1976, the lines dividing evangelical denominations into polarized camps had not yet really become evident that in the Southern Baptist Convention of course everyone knew, that there were conservatives and there were moderates. But there was no effort to really redefine the denomination much less split the denomination in 1976. What happened in the late-1970s was an increased sensitivity to the perception that the United States was becoming too secular. And people would have said “too liberal.” That is there was a much greater degree of concern about abortion. There was a much greater degree of concern about the feminist movement and some of the particular platforms of the feminist movement, like the Equal Rights Amendment.
Daniel Williams: In 1976, most evangelicals who commented on politics, and there were many who did including the editors of Christianity Today magazine, and Eternity magazine and others, but nearly all of these editors essentially said that what America needed was a devout Christian in the White House, that is a character would be the key to recovery the nation. By 1980, what some of those same evangelicals were saying was that what was needed was a platform that would recover the nation, would save the nation. They wouldn’t have said of course, that a platform is going to literally save the nation in the sense of causing people to be born again. But they would say that it would save the nation from God’s judgment, from the natural consequences of sin. And they believed that with the right platform, they could legislate against abortion. They could stop the Equal Rights Amendment. They could stop the emerging gay-rights movement. They could protect their children’s education. They could stand against what was called at the time, secular humanism in the public schools.
Daniel Williams: And with all of those issues, they believed that Carter was on the wrong side. In reality, Carter was a classic Southern Baptist moderate—that is he had a very sincere and fervent faith. He believed strongly in moral leadership, in honesty in public life, and in the use of governmental positions to do public good. That he viewed his presidency as in some ways a trust from God, a gift God that was a responsibility. So in many ways he was an evangelical, but he wasn’t the sort of evangelical that the Southern Baptist conservatives were. He did not see the need to legislate against abortion particularly he was personally opposed, and in some ways regretted Roe v. Wade, but he had a classic moderate position on that. It was not a major issue for him.
Daniel Williams: On the issue of feminism, he was actually quite supportive of feminist movement. He was an endorser of the Equal Rights Amendment. Like so many Southern Baptist moderates who eventually left the convention, he was essentially a gender egalitarian in his views unlike the Southern Baptist conservatives. So what changed between 1976 and 1980 was that a significant number of people who would form the base of the Christian Right decided that it was no longer enough simply to have a Christian in the White House or even an evangelical Christian in the White House. They wanted someone who was pledged to a particular platform, even if that person happened to come from outside of evangelical circles as Ronald Reagan for the most part did.
Collin Hansen: Not the first time then, or not the last time I guess I should say that there has been a flip-flop back and forth between the priority on character versus platform. So platform in the ’80s, flips back to character in the ’90s, flips back to platform in 2016 and 2020.
Daniel Williams: And I would say that in regard to character being the foremost concern, the last time that we really saw that as a genuine statement was probably in 1976, I would argue that in 1998 and ‘99 with the Christian rights hand-wringing over Bill Clinton, there were signs even at the time that this was … Well, it was true that the Christian Right was genuinely concerned about Bill Clinton’s actions. There was no hint at all that if he had been a squeaky clean morally upright person, that they would have supported his platform because they didn’t support Al Gore in 2000. They had admiration for Joe Lieberman’s character, but they probably would not have even voted for a ticket that Joe Lieberman headed. So I think in the late-’90s, yes there was a lot of discussion of character, but behind all of this was also an even greater concern about platform.
Collin Hansen: I think it’s a safe bet to say that they would not have supported Joe Lieberman in 2000, because they would not have supported Joe Lieberman in 2008 when John McCain wanted to make him his running mate, which is why John McCain went with Sarah Palin instead. Dan, the writer of the famous Newsweek cover story “Born Again!” in 1976, insisted to me in 2016 that evangelicals were not involved in politics before that year. In fact, the argument that I had with him got pretty heated. How would you respond?
Daniel Williams: Yes. Well, there’s probably no way to convince Ken Woodward otherwise. I wouldn’t necessarily try to get into that argument with him, but for anyone else, what I would say is that it is true that something changed in the late-1970s. What changed was not that evangelicals had not been involved in politics before then, but rather that sometime in the late-1970s, evangelicals began to identify themselves as a political interest group and to behave as a political interest group. Before the late-1970s, evangelicals had made many statements on politics. And if you look at the right wing of the evangelical movement with the anticommunist broadcasters and people like Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire, they were extremely political. But the same thing would be true to a lesser degree with the center wing of the evangelical coalition. Billy Graham had always been concerned about the leadership of the nation.
Daniel Williams: But I think it’s also fair to say that while Billy Graham was indeed a moderate Republican in sentiment, not in registration, he remained like so many Southerners a Democrat in name for a very long time. But it’s clear to me that while his sentiments were moderately conservative, what mattered to him above all was a particular vision of moral leadership in office. That’s what attracted him to Dwight Eisenhower far more than any issue position, platform position that Eisenhower might’ve stood for, though I do think the Republican platform in the 1950s lined up pretty closely with what Graham personally believed. But the fact that Graham took such great lengths to support Nixon in 1972 and going into all the ways that he supported Nixon would probably take longer than this podcast, but suffice it to say that there was a great deal of political activity going on. And there were a lot of political statements that evangelicals had made really all the way back to the beginning of the fundamentalist movement and before.
Daniel Williams: So I don’t think it’s the case to say that at any point in evangelical’s history, they had been completely other-worldly and had not been voting or even that they had not aligned themselves with one particular party most of the time. Nevertheless, it is the case that there was a new stage of partisanship that emerged in the late-1970s and that continued to grow over time. And so the story of the last 40 years or so has been a story of evangelicals’ struggle with this partisan identity and the struggle to determine to what extent is this partisan identity an intrinsic part of evangelicalism and to what extent is it something that needs to be discarded. And I think evangelicals of course disagreed among themselves on that, but no one can deny any more I think that this partisan identity very much does exist.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I don’t think Dan and I could go back to any era and find evangelicals not engaged in politics. In fact when … I began to understand when I was arguing with Ken that he’s Catholic and did not really understand the South, and I could see why he was confused, because I said, “Who do you think were all of the Southerners voting before 1976?” And he’s like, “Well, they weren’t evangelicals.” And I thought, “I don’t understand where you’re coming from on this.” We agreed to disagree on that one. If you go back to the 1940s, you mentioned the centrist evangelicals, clearly Carl Henry is calling for robust engagement in politics. His son would go on to be a Congressman from, if I’m not mistaken, Dan, taking the same seat that had been vacated by Gerald Ford in Western Michigan. Harold John Ockenga talks for the National Association of Evangelicals were explicitly political.
Daniel Williams: There’s a very strong alliance between the anticommunist cause and the NAE and by extension, there were a lot of statements on other issues as well. I suspect one of the reasons that Ken Woodward insists on this and I’ve met him, I don’t know him well, but I know enough about him to know that he strongly insists on whatever opinion that he’s happen to arrive at. But I would also say that one of the reasons why he probably arrived at this particular opinion was because that’s the line that the Christian right activists themselves gave him.
Collin Hansen: Falwell, that was what Falwell sold him on. And we’ll get into that. That is exactly what Falwell sold him on, was that Falwell was single-handedly responsible for mobilizing all of these silent evangelicals. So yeah, I think that would not be the first journalist who had been taken in by political activists. That’s pretty much the way that works. But if you go back and you look, 1972 will open people’s eyes when they look to see what Billy Graham and Bill Bright were engaged with to get Richard Nixon re-elected, and to see the strong merge between the rise of the Jesus Movement, the Jesus People that revival in the wake of the tumultuous 1960s and its strong link with Nixon’s Republican Party. I think it just becomes confusing because we only know the post-Watergate Nixon. We don’t remember who Billy Graham thought Nixon was at the time in 1972.
Collin Hansen: So I think that’s understandably confusing for people. Okay. I’m talking here with Daniel Williams, author of The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976. You mentioned one of your earlier books Dan, one of my favorites, Defenders of the Unborn, it’s perhaps the definitive account of the rise of the pro-life movement. So you’re the definitive person to ask this question too, which continues to rage all over the place and has strong partisan overtones and implications. So bear with me. It’s common to hear that Roe v. Wade did not mobilize evangelical politics. When you look back in the 1970s, abortion in this period is admittedly very confusing along both political and religious lines. You point out in your book that in the mid-1970s, most of the nation’s leading Republicans on both right and the left supported the decision. At the same time, white Catholics and African-Americans both largely democratic were the most likely groups to oppose abortion. 48 percent of Democrats in 1976, supported the Human Life Amendment. These there things I just don’t think many people remember.
Collin Hansen: You also write that, “Very few evangelicals wanted to make abortion policy a litmus test for Carter and rarely asked him about it.” As we’ve talked about in this interview already, they had different priorities. In fact, SBC-owned-and-operated Broadman Press published his campaign biography. Now Ford, at the same time, he became the first sitting American president to address the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1976, just in case this isn’t confusing enough for people. Help us to make sense of this confusing situation: were evangelicals motivated to fight abortion and did that help to catalyze this partisan movement and identity, or were they just getting politically engaged so they could protect their Christian schools from racial integration, which is typically what progressive critics say now about the rise of the Religious Right?
Daniel Williams: Maybe the answer is neither. Maybe it’s a much more complicated answer. Here’s how I would describe the rise of Republican partisan identity among evangelicals or maybe by extension the rise of the Christian Right. I think you’re right. There’s a lot of misunderstanding over what mobilized theologically conservative evangelicals to take partisan political stances in the late 1970s. And so the way I would describe it is this, there was a growing concern over the course of the 1970s about the moral direction of the country. And even in 1976, this moral concern seemed to be the backdrop for every editorial that evangelicals would write about politics. There was a desire to clean up Washington and by extension clean up the nation. That had been true in 1972 as well. It was even true in the late-1960s. This is a bit parenthetical, but I could say that to a certain extent people were saying this in the 1950s too, but it had such a different form that I really think something new happened in the late 1960s that is a reaction to the culturally liberal trends at the time.
Daniel Williams: And what were those culturally liberal trends? Well, progressives would say it was about race. What I would say is it was primarily … If you want one description of what these trends were, it’s primarily about sex. That is it’s about changes in gender roles. It’s about changes in sexual behavior. It’s about the proliferation of pornography, and by extension it’s about abortion. But in the early 1970s, and even in the mid- to late-1970s for most white evangelicals, abortion was simply in the category that I described it, that is its part of this larger sexual category. And you might have an entire editorial written about moral concerns and at the front of this is pornography. And then there’s concerns about homosexuality, and abortion may never be mentioned, or it might be mentioned in the fourth paragraph of this editorial, that was not uncommon in 1976.
Daniel Williams: So it would be a great exaggeration to say that evangelicals were comfortable with Roe v. Wade or to say that they were mostly pro-choice in the 1970s. Neither one of those is true. But it would also be a great exaggeration to say that they were mobilized by Roe v. Wade. Instead, Roe v. Wade was a motivator to no greater extent than Gloria Steinem was a motivator or Betty Friedan was a motivator. In other words, they saw that a lot was going on with the country. They could turn on their television sets and they were bothered by what they saw both in terms of the entertainment time slots and in the news hour. They were disturbed by the fact that there were such rapid changes in public opinion. So that in the late-1960s the majority of Americans still believed that premarital sex was wrong. By 1975, that was no longer the case. They could see rapid changes in public attitudes toward homosexuality, and even city ordinances and public laws on this subject.
Daniel Williams: And so it seemed that all of the moral codes that they cared about, at least in terms of moral codes concerning sexuality and gender and related issues, all of those were now up for renegotiation and they wanted to save the country from this moral slide. So that’s what motivated them to get involved in politics. And if you look at every political campaign that the evangelicals launched in the late-1960s, I would say that it all ties back to that issue. So what was their campaign to save private schools? Well, it was essentially a campaign to take their children out from what they believe the destructive influence of public schools might be. Now, was that also tied to race? Yes. I think it would be fair to say that the way that conservative evangelicals viewed the nation did not reflect the priorities of civil-rights liberals. And I think that some of this … Well, it’s undoubtedly true that some of the Christian Right activists, particularly Falwell had once been advocates of racial segregation.
Daniel Williams: But to say that race was the primary motivator I think misreads the historical record. And I think we’re going to come away with a wrong impression of the Christian Right. And not just historically wrong impression, but we’re going to misread conservative evangelicals’ concerns today as well with that line. But I also think that conservative evangelicals have misread their own past by reading back into the early 1970s what they wished for might’ve been true. That is in the 1980s, evangelicals really did begin to see abortion as a central human-rights issue, not simply one manifestation of the country’s rejection of God’s values in the area of sex, but as a human-rights issue that they consider tantamount to the Holocaust or tantamount to slavery—both of those analogies were commonly used—and that they had this moral duty to stand against. And so I think they reinvented a narrative for themselves. And Jerry Falwell himself reinvented a narrative for himself. And I think it’s important to correct that narrative, as well as to argue against the progressive distortions.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I think more commonly you hear the progressive distortions today that want to argue that all Christian conservative political action is cynical and it’s just a cover for racism. The problem is I do think a number of conservative religious leaders walk themselves into that trap because they imagined that somehow 1963 has nothing to do with 1973, that none of the populist uprising against the American elite and the denominational elite within the Southern Presbyterian and SBC denominations had anything to do with what had happened in the 1960s, with the elites being more on the side of civil rights and the general population being more on the side of segregation, there in the South. So I think both are wrong in part because they’re motivated to cover for something and to push a particular kind of political paradigm that I think distorts the history.
Collin Hansen: So that then leads me to a theory. I want to test out this theory on you, Dan, and I know that if I’m wrong, you will tell me. That’s why I’m asking you. I think a lot of confusion, Dan, comes from results from not realizing that Northern and Southern evangelicals didn’t join forces until 1980, when they became part of a cohesive political movement along with fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. So when you try to compare the 1940s neo-evangelicalism with the evangelicalism of 1980 to today, you’ll see a major shift in priorities in tone, but that’s mainly because you’re conflating two movements that progressed theologically and politically on two separate paths since their denominations broke up in the 1840s, I can defend myself more if necessary. Okay Dan, tell me, am I wrong? Am I right?
Daniel Williams: I think there’s some merit to that. I’ve actually wanted to write more on that myself. I think that there was an evangelical takeover I guess in the late-1970s and 1980s that a lot of people don’t realize. Or what I should say instead I guess, is there was a Southern takeover of evangelicalism. Now it’s complicated because so many of the Northern evangelicals had Southern roots. Some of them did not, but many of them did.
Collin Hansen: Like Billy Graham. Billy Graham is a Northern evangelical, but he’s from the South, and he had major appeal in the South. But by all accounts, he’s basically a Northern evangelical leader. That’s where he was educated, largely.
Daniel Williams: He got his start certainly with the Northern evangelicals, with Wheaton College and the NAE, the Youth for Christ. And he was the one figure that could unite all of these groups. Southern Baptist claimed him as one of their own. And he always had, in many ways, Southern Baptist leanings even if he might frequently worship in his father-in-law’s Presbyterian church, but he was always in some ways at heart a Southern Baptist. So I think it’s complicated. But I do think that there is a lot of truth to the idea that Northern fundamentalists, as they would have been called in the early 20th century, who left liberal denominations in protest had one particular brand of evangelicalism. And that overwhelmingly was the brand of the NAE and the brand of Wheaton College.
Collin Hansen: The brand of the North, which would also include strangely Southern California. It was the brand of Fuller Seminary as well.
Daniel Williams: Yes. And there was another group, as you’ve noted, predominantly Southern Baptist, but also a number of southerners that might’ve been outside the SBC, but the bulk of these people obviously would have come from the SBC who didn’t identify with the evangelical label until much later. But when they did, they had a disproportionate influence on the partisan leanings of this group. Now the Northern evangelicals had once been stronger Republicans than the Southern Baptists, that is all of the major evangelical leaders of the 1940s and 1950s were Republican. They were Republican for several reasons, first of all, Republicanism was the party … I mean, the Republican Party was the party of the North historically, and in particular, it had always been the party of Protestant morality.
Daniel Williams: And so if you were in the North, if you were in Chicago in the 1940s, you would know that if you were Catholic, you voted Democratic. But if you were Protestant and particularly if you really cared about your Protestantism and you wished that Prohibition had continued and you wanted to see a strong anti-communism in Washington—well, that would have been the Republican Party. So in a sense, both of those groups, once they were both Republican in the late 1970s, they thought they saw eye-to-eye, or at least outside they saw eye-to-eye. The last time they really split their vote was in 1976, which Southerners voted for Carter and the Northerners voted for Ford.
Daniel Williams: But what we’ve seen today in recent years and you may be getting to this, is that at this point in time, a significant number of the people who’ve inherited that northern evangelical legacy are beginning to say, “Southern evangelicalism has gone too far. It is not representative of our values when it becomes allied with a particular political party that we used to support.” But if it’s going in this direction, if it’s going in the direction of Donald Trump and everything that they would associate with that, then maybe it’s necessary to pull back from that. And I think over the last five years or so, that’s exactly what has happened with the number of those Northern evangelical colleges.
Collin Hansen: Well Dan, you’re making me think I’m not insane. Which is the whole point of me doing this interview was just so you could try to set me straight or keep me sane. This is how I would explain it further, Dan: Southern evangelicalism was always built on a certain kind of white supremacy, it was its history. So Southern evangelicalism was always that way. Northern evangelicalism was built on the Republican understanding that, “Wait a minute, no, we’re the party that destroyed slavery. And so we’re the party of Lincoln. We’re the party of Grant. We’re the party of the abolitionists. We’re the party of the inheritors of the Puritan experiment and their abolitionists’ descendants and whatnot.” So you have within the same Republican Party, one group that can plausibly say we’ve been Republicans the entire time since 1860, our people have been Republicans the entire time. And they were probably Whigs before that, Northern Whigs before that, then go all the way back and then to Federalists, there’s a continuous stream there.
Collin Hansen: And then all of a sudden the Republican Party is joined up with Southern evangelicals who by the way, are far more numerous, way more Southern evangelicals. And all of a sudden they’re thinking … The Southern evangelicals are thinking, “What do we care what happens in Grand Rapids or Wheaton? We’ve never cared about that.” And the North is saying, they’re publishing things saying, “Why don’t you guys listen to what we’ve been saying here?” And there’s no connection between the two. They’re just people here in Birmingham, Alabama, don’t pay attention to what happens in Wheaton. And yet they’re all Republicans, and they’re all evangelicals and we keep wondering why it’s not a cohesive movement and why it’s fraying. But I think the major reason it’s fraying now is because the Republican Party under President Trump has become much more comfortable with making explicit and implicit racial appeals to white identity. And Northern Republicans have never been on board with that, but Southern evangelicals have always had that as part of their identity.
Collin Hansen: And so they’re easier to go along with that, but the Northern evangelicals are saying, “Wait, no. This is not what we signed up for.” And hence I think, Dan, all manner of confusion results from that. But I think if we just had a heavy dose of history, we would understand why we’re so confused about that. Now you still have time to set me straight, but I got another question here. You unearthed the fascinating observation about Carter’s appeal in 1976, and it’s this: “The white evangelicals assumed that because he uses the right words, he must be a conservative. While the blacks assumed that if he really is a Christian, he must be really concerned about and willing to help the poor and the downtrodden.” And Dan I was blown away by this in your book: “Back in Plains, Georgia during the 1976 election, Carter’s home church, Southern Baptist voted not to accept a black pastor as a member and retain their all white membership.” This is what I mean, if you’re in the South, you know that bans on black members continued through the 1970s into the 1980s in many cases at least. But my question then is this: Dan, could you ever foresee a political coalition that develops between white evangelicals and black Protestant?
Daniel Williams: I think the question goes back to your proceeding question, which is which evangelicals? I think that there are a number of evangelicals who are ready to leave the evangelical label behind, or sort of wished that someone else would leave the evangelical label behind, that might be willing to do that and actually are trying to reach out. So I think about the AND Campaign in Atlanta, which I’m sure you’re familiar with-
Collin Hansen: Yeah we did a profile of Justin Giboney the leader and founder of it.
Daniel Williams: So I think there are certainly black and white evangelicals who are working together and who are envisioning perhaps political compromise that would … When I say compromise, what I mean is they would renounce both party labels and try to stand for something that might offer a pathway for that they believe would combine racial justice with some other moral stances. But I have seen no evidence that that is going to sweep the nation or sweep the South anytime soon. I do think that evangelicalism is probably fragmenting. And I think that can be an exciting moment as a historian of American religion in a way of course, as a Christian we’re always saddened by fragmentation in the body of Christ. But at the same time, it can be an opportunity for people to rethink what the gospel really means and how to apply the gospel.
Daniel Williams: And so we’ve seen that happen in various points in American religious history, most famously of course in the early 20th century, there was a division between the modernist and the fundamentalists that permanently reshaped Protestantism. I don’t know if we’re there yet with the fragmentation of evangelicalism, but I do think a significant number of people on both the Left and I wouldn’t call it the Right, but I would say one segment of the Reformed wing are thinking about leaving evangelicalism or leaving aspects of the evangelical label behind for different reasons. And I think it’s too early to say what will come of all of this. But it’s quite possible that because a lot of this fragmentation has to do with politics, that the result may be a new political coalition or multiple political coalitions and in a two-party nation, which the United States currently is, and probably will always remain for the foreseeable future.
Daniel Williams: If those coalitions choose to work within a major party, what you may well see on the part of one group that fragments would be a group of white and black moderate Democrats we could say who sometimes vote Democratic, or at least tell Christians we can vote Democratic, but still retain our pro-life identity. I think some of that is already happening. I could see more of it happening if the Republican Party continues to embrace its particular platform stances on immigration or other issues that would disturb some members of the evangelical coalition. But I think that there are a lot of conversations that would have to occur, I think right now on the issue of race, there are a significant number of white evangelicals that are ready to embrace a fairly progressive platform on race. The question I think will be on how many other related issues where they also be willing to change their minds.
Daniel Williams: So a significant number of Northern evangelicals for example, historically have been open to positions on the military that are very different from the traditional Southern evangelical stance. They haven’t necessarily always been consistent pacifists, but they’ve certainly been much more critical of American militarism and much more critical of Christians’ involvement in war than I think Southern evangelicals traditionally have been.
Collin Hansen: Mark Hatfield, in the Senate going back to the 1960s and 1970s. Classic example, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, also one of the most high-profile evangelical politicians.
Daniel Williams: Exactly. So I think as we begin to explore these regional differences and re-examine assumptions that seem to be bedrock assumptions for certain groups of Christians, that is for a significant number of Southern evangelicals, the idea that Christianity is perfectly compatible with supporting the flag, with supporting the American military, with supporting certain economic positions or certain other stances, all of those things I think might be called into question, when we actually reexamine the position that various groups of Bible-believing evangelicals have taken that perhaps reflects different regional assumptions.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Far be it from me to disagree with the venerable historian Tommy Kidd, and his book on Who Is an Evangelical? But I think the crux of the confusion that I want to clear up for people is that if you’re looking at evangelicalism as a historical and religious phenomenon, there is a very clear and venerable history that goes from the Protestant Reformation to the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries into the fundamentalist–modernist period and into the post-war neo-evangelical movement. I completely agree, and it’s a movement that I personally identify with and I’m proud to identify with. But what most people now think of as the evangelical movement, is to my reading of the history and the politics, it is a political movement that ran from 1980 to 2016. And ultimately it ended with the election of Donald Trump because it broke apart … I mean, just look at Wheaton College, look at Wheaton area. Now, Wheaton College doesn’t dominate that whole congressional district, but you go from Chicago being that kind of Protestant and evangelical place where you just know how you vote. If you’re a Protestant versus your Catholic to know, no Republican representation at all in that area.
Collin Hansen: And you went from Henry Hyde, one of the most hig-profile anti-abortion politicians, the of course namesake of the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding of abortions, which looks like it will be overturned by a Democratic administration and Congress to being replaced by one of the most sexually progressive and transgressive gay activist politicians now in America, in the Democratic Party, in Henry Hyde’s seat, which represents Wheaton. I think we’re already seeing, we just haven’t yet confronted it. I think we’ve already seen the fundamental break between that political alliance that brought together most Northern evangelicals with Southern evangelicals.
Collin Hansen: And I think we’re seeing a return to them perhaps moving on different trajectories. So we’ll see you’re a historian, not a political prognosticator. But I think that’s what we’re already seeing, but you do have a new book coming out, your next one, The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. So I know that you care about these issues. You wrote it before the 2020 general election came into full swing. I’m wondering, last question here, Dan, how much did you update the message of that book, which comes out next March, in light of what you’ve seen so far in 2020?
Daniel Williams: I think that’s a good question. As I was making the final revisions to that book earlier this summer, that is once I had the copyedited sheets and was trying to figure out what last-minute changes I could put in. I was struck by how different the political moment was, from when I had first started writing the book based on two things. One is COVID and the other of course is Black Lives Matter. And I think it was tempting to do a lot of rewriting at that moment and try to update it. But I restrained myself for the most part because I realized that if I tried to update it with the current political moment in the summer, that already by next March, we might be in a different political moment.
Daniel Williams: And I think in taking a step back, what I realized is that if the book has to have any value, it has to accurately describe trends that go beyond a single election cycle. And I think the book does. I think that while from month to month, we’re getting different messages. And when Bernie Sanders seems to be in the ascendancy and the Democratic Party, a number of observers were saying, “Well, this is the future of the Democratic Party here.” Or when Joe Biden of course won a surprising comeback victory and unified the Democratic coalition, then we might say, “Well, we’re in a different political moment.”
Daniel Williams: But I think there are some long-term trends that remain the same. And even with COVID and even with Black Lives Matter, I see more of a confirmation of existing trends that I described. A confirmation of particular attitudes toward wealth and poverty or particular attitudes toward race or particular trend lines in these two political parties that go back decades that might shape how they approach issues of marriage and sexuality and abortion and other issues. So I would hope that I wouldn’t have to do too much updating if I thought at this moment that I needed to do a lot of rewriting and I still have to wait until the first week of March before the book is actually in print. I think I would be in trouble. But I think that what I say in the book will probably still be relevant next year, most likely.
Collin Hansen: Well, as I read and endorsed Dan’s book, The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship, I don’t think every Christian or evangelical is going to need to agree with you Dan, I didn’t myself agree with you on most, I think I’d probably put myself a tick more conservative than where you came down in a number of issues in that book. And yet at the same time, I think we would be remarkably edified in the church if we followed your lead of taking a stab at working out our faith and applying it to politics in all kinds of ways that you do in this book. But then also if we had … And I think maybe that’s why you’re able to bring this perspective is because you know the history. And so much of the history has been hijacked for partisan aims on multiple sides that people, well they just don’t know it or what they do know of it is so truncated.
Collin Hansen: So that’s why I wanted to take time with you here on Gospelbound today to talk about The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976, because I think when you look through that lens of 1976, you get your best opportunity to see where evangelicalism had come 1940s until that time. And then how it had pretty dramatically shifted really from 1980 until today. And I find through that historical understanding comes a lot of perspective on our current situation and even prognosis or projection for where we should go from here. So again, my guest on Gospelbound has been Daniel K. Williams. You can check out multiple books written by an eminent historian who will give you that perspective. Dan, thanks for joining me on Gospelbound.
Daniel Williams: Thanks, Collin.