The Magazine

What Falwell Wrought

Just the biggest voter realignment in modern history.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By JEFFREY BELL
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To gauge the impact of Jerry Falwell--or, more precisely, the political realignment he was a central figure in precipitating--it is helpful to review the voting behavior of conservative white Protestants in the presidential elections between 1976 and 1984, the years when Falwell's political influence emerged from nowhere and reached its peak.

Jimmy Carter's capture of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 was important on several levels. Above all else it was a step back from the McGovern nomination of 1972, which was seen by millions of socially conservative Democrats as not merely antiwar but countercultural. (The most memorable unofficial slogan of that year, after all, accused the Democrats of favoring "acid, amnesty, and abortion"--two out of three referring to social issues.) Carter was the first presidential nominee of either party in many cycles to talk unapologetically about his religious faith, which he described as "born again."

Carter became the first southern politician to win the presidency without ascending from the vice presidency since the 1840s. A centerpiece of this achievement was a strong Democratic showing at the ballot box among theologically conservative Protestants. Exit polling by religion was not as explicit as it later became, but most analysts estimate Carter won between 60 and 65 percent of Bible-believing white Protestant voters. A reasonable estimate is that the Carter-Mondale ticket carried these voters by a margin of 25 percentage points.

In 1980, the national network exit poll found the same Carter-Mondale ticket losing these voters to Reagan-Bush by roughly 25 percentage points. Then in 1984, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost them by 62 percentage points (81-19 percent).

Thus the swing in terms of partisan margin among theologically conservative white Protestants was a breathtaking 87 points--from a Democratic margin of 25 points in 1976 to a Republican lead of 62 points in 1984. By way of comparison, the margin swing in the electorate as a whole was 20 points--from Carter-Mondale's 2-point victory in 1976 to Mondale-Ferraro's 18-point defeat in 1984.

These numbers might suggest that the entire GOP presidential gain between 1976 and 1984 could be accounted for by the striking change among the roughly 20 percent of the electorate classifiable as Bible-believing white Protestants. In pure statistical terms this is true, and much was happening in the campaigns of 1980 and 1984 to explain the shift in terms of social issues and the status of religion in American life.

Of course, Bible-believing, socially conservative voters care about other issues as well. If Ronald Reagan had not offered plausible positions on the economy and foreign policy, his appeal on social/religious issues would have been less salient, if not irrelevant.

In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that until the 1960s, this group had never voted on social/religious issues. Conservative Protestants had felt unwelcome in the public square ever since atheist attorney Clarence Darrow's humiliation of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, a Fundamentalist, in a Tennessee trial on the teaching of Darwinian evolution in 1925.

In the four decades or so centered on World War II, social and religious issues were at most a limited factor in national politics. On economic issues, religious voters behaved like most other voters, if anything leaning a bit Democratic. Only with the challenge to traditional values that characterized the 1960s did this begin to change.

The rise in social issues was accompanied by a challenge to the role of religion in the public square, led by judicial elites. The Supreme Court's 6-1 decision in 1962 effectively outlawing spoken prayer in the public schools came as a particular shock.

There has been much debate in conservative circles as to what caused such a swift collapse of Democratic strength among religious voters in the later 1970s. Jimmy Carter's IRS announced it would revoke the tax exemption of Bible schools that were found to be segregated. Coming from a born-again president, this was felt by many to be almost a personal betrayal.

More broadly, the post-1976 debate on abortion became more and more polarized between the two major parties. In 1980, the nomination of Ronald Reagan coincided with the first undiluted pro-life plank in the Republican party's platform, while Democrats were moving decisively in the opposite direction. In 1984, there were several weeks following the two party conventions when Geraldine Ferraro was debating abortion with Catholic bishops at the same time as Walter Mondale was decrying the stepped-up political activities of Protestant clergymen and calling Reagan an ayatollah for welcoming them.