Jimmy Carter, The Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. By J. Brooks Flippen. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 456 pp.
Jimmy Carter is interesting not least because he was the last liberal president who wielded religion as a political and rhetorical resource. Famously "born again," Carter relied on his religious faith to determine his own political direction, but he was also aware that it created certain political problems for him as the old fault lines, associated with the New Deal, began to crumble in the wake of the civil rights movement and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The Left no longer felt comfortable with overtly religious rhetoric, for such language became associated with the traditional hierarchies that many on the left were trying to unsettle. As the Right became more entrenched in those hierarchies, religious language became a powerful warrant, legitimating their policy preferences. During the Carter years, the Left seemed to abandon religious faith and to cede the power of religious rhetoric to the Right.
J. Brooks Flippen's rich analysis of these years details how the rise of secular humanism, the controversy surrounding Roe v. Wade, the feminist fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive rights, and the struggle for homosexual rights were seen by many religious Americans as evidence of cultural decay. They mobilized to protect what they understood as key American values, which they believed had been discarded by liberals, eventually becoming the Religious Right and moving securely into the Republican coalition. Flippen makes it clear that had liberals regarded Carter's religion with less skepticism, religious rhetoric could have become a powerful inventional resource legitimating liberal politics instead of forming the bedrock of conservatism.
Flippen's argument plays out against the backdrop of the 1970s' contentious politics. Carter, of course, had to manage an increasingly fractious Democratic Party and had to do so amid an energy crisis that exacerbated a struggling economy; a difficult relationship with the USSR, typified by the struggles over the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; continued tensions in the Middle East; and the battle over the Panama Canal Treaty. At home, the Equal Rights Amendment became an important indicator of the coming division in American politics now known as the "culture wars." The hostage crisis was the final evidence of both Carter's personal weakness...