Politics and Religion

August 27, 1976

Report Outline
Religious Issue in Carter Candidacy
Southern Baptist Role in U.S. History
Religious Factor in Presidential Campaign
Special Focus

Religious Issue in Carter Candidacy

For the third time in the nation's history, the religious beliefs of a candidate for the presidency have become, if not an issue, at least a subject of interest with possibly significant bearing on the outcome of the election. This time, however, there is a difference. On the previous occasions, the religion in question was Roman Catholicism, the faith of Democratic candidates Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1976, concern centers on the Southern Baptist Convention, the church of Democratic nominee James Earl (Jimmy) Carter Jr.

The flap over Carter's religion would have seemed strange to Americans in an earlier time. For at least until Kennedy's paper-thin victory in November 1960, it was taken for granted that the presidential candidate of a major party would be a Protestant, and never before has his denomination within the Protestant fold seemed to matter. Most Americans expect their President to be at least a nominal Christian. The photograph of the President and his family, wearing Sunday best, being greeted by a minister at the door of their church is so familiar to the American public as to have become a pictorial cliche. The qeustion arises then: Why all the fuss about Jimmy Carter's religion?

If there is a major difference it is that Jimmy Carter takes his religion with utmost seriousness. By his own admission, it is the central fact of his life. He has said he experienced a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit and it changed his life. He prays frequently, alone, every day. Could it be that Americans generally are more comfortable with a President who performs his religious duties in a perfunctory or conventional manner than with one who has experienced the ecstasy of being “reborn in Christ”? Garry Wills, the columnist and a former Roman Catholic seminarian, has pondered this question. “It may seem unjust to punish real religion when we reward empty religiosity,” he commented. “But the thing makes sense ….When a man means what he says in this awesome area, he drifts outside the ties and shared weaknesses that keep us in touch with each other.”

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