The Election of the Evangelical

Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976

Daniel K. Williams

From where we stand now, the election of 1976 can look like an alternate reality: southern white evangelicals united with African Americans, northern Catholics, and Jews in support of a Democratic presidential candidate; the Republican candidate, a social moderate whose wife proudly proclaimed her support for Roe v. Wade, was able to win over Great Plains farmers as well as cultural liberals in Oregon, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey—even as he lost Ohio, Texas, and nearly the entire South. The Election of the Evangelical offers an unprecedented, behind-the-headlines analysis of this now almost unimaginable political moment, which proved to be a pivotal turning point in polarizing American political parties along ideological and cultural lines and eventually in destroying the winning coalition that Jimmy Carter created.

The big story immediately following the election was that a self-described evangelical Christian and improbably dark-horse candidate from the Deep South had won the presidency, leading Newsweek to call 1976 the “year of the evangelical.” What pundits overlooked at the time, and what Daniel K. Williams delves into in this book, was the profound effect of the election on the nations political parties. In the first comprehensive historical study of this consequential election, Williams mines untapped archival materials to uncover the strategies of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan campaigns and Republican and Democratic leaders in 1976. His work explains why, despite Ford’s and Carter’s efforts to the contrary, the 1976 presidential election reshaped the political parties along ideologically polarized lines. As he examines the role that religion and “values voting” played in 1976, Williams reveals why Carter was the last Democrat to hold together a New Deal–style coalition of white southern evangelicals, northern Catholics, and African Americans. His findings dispel the most common myths about why Ford lost the election and clarify what his defeat meant for the future of the Republican Party.

“To understand current US politics, look to the election of 1976. Thats the argument that Daniel K. Williams makes—quite convincingly—in this well-researched, engaging account of a crucial presidential race that often gets overlooked.”

—Matthew Pressman, assistant professor of journalism, Seton Hall University

“Here is the definitive ‘making of the president, 1976.’ Based on extensive archival research and written in clear, concise prose, this book explains why Jimmy Carter won the election and why the electoral map was never the same after.”

—Edward Berkowitz, author of Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies

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An eye-opening account of electoral politics at an epochal crossroads, this book provides valuable historical perspective and critical insight in a time of seemingly ever-increasing partisan polarization in American political life.

About the Author

Daniel K. Williams is professor of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.

Additional Titles in the American Presidential Elections Series