by Diane Winston
Forty years ago, Jimmy Carter’s born-again faith transformed the American political landscape. Whereas John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism had been a liability in the 1960 presidential campaign, Carter’s evangelicalism in 1976 was a curiosity, and secular reporters trekked south to learn about the candidate’s peculiar practices: He read Scripture. He prayed regularly. He taught Sunday school.
Even though many Americans — perhaps as much as one-quarter of the population — shared Carter’s evangelical beliefs at the time, media and political elites seemed surprised that evangelicalism had survived the Aquarian Age. Time magazine dubbed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” and journalists scrambled to tell the story: Religion not only motivated the Democratic candidate, but also galvanized millions of voters.
Political reporters would go on to rediscover religion every four to eight years. Conservative Christians help elect Ronald Reagan! The Religious right stands by George H. W. Bush! Evangelicals back Bill Clinton! Values voters embrace George W. Bush!
After the 2000 election, journalists finally accepted religion’s role in politics as a fait accompli. And religious people, candid and convicted in their beliefs, were happy to share their opinion that America is a moral mess. Their ongoing grievances, manifested in the decades-long culture wars, involved homosexuality, reproductive rights, gun laws, immigration, climate change, the absence of prayer in public life, and the erosion of the traditional nuclear family. For news cycles built around conflict, religion and politics is a godsend.
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