Professor Andy Moore recently landed a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to host the conference, “Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered.” Recently, One Thing after Another asked Professor Moore about the conference, the Luce Foundation, and Jimmy Carter.
Q: What is the Henry Luce Foundation?
A: Henry Luce was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and in 1936 he established the Henry Luce Foundation to honor his parents who had been missionaries to China. According to its website, the Foundation “seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities.” This grant came from the Foundation’s Theology program.
Q: What is the purpose of the grant that you won?
A: I was awarded the grant to host an academic conference. The conference commemorates the 40th anniversary of a Newsweek magazine cover story about the appearance of evangelical Christians in public life. Newsweek borrowed a recent phrase from pollster George Gallup and labeled 1976 the “Year of the Evangelicals.” That issue appeared on October 25, 1976. I had hoped to schedule the conference for the 40th anniversary, but the timing is not going to work out. The best we can do is the spring 2017 semester, and January, February, and March are too unpredictable weather-wise. So the conference will take place April 6, 7, and 8.
Q: Besides the Luce Foundation, have you received other support?
A: Yes. Both the History and Politics Departments are contributing money, and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and the office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs are covering what the Luce Foundation grant does not. Conferences are not cheap, and I am grateful for everyone’s support.
Q: Do you know yet who will be participating in the conference?
A: Not entirely. Soon I will formally announce the conference and invite historians, political scientists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, and journalism scholars to participate (what academics call a ‘call for papers’). I have received a few commitments from some prominent historians. Notably, Randall Balmer will deliver the conference opening keynote address. He is the Dartmouth Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College and the author of many books—most recently, a biography of Jimmy Carter called Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. That lecture will also be the College’s Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Distinguished Lecture. There are a few other historians—from as far away as Britain—who are committed also. The Newsweek religion editor who wrote the original story—Kenneth Woodward—also has expressed an interest in participating, and I am hopeful we can pull that off as well.
Q: Why was the Newsweek article on “the Year of the Evangelicals” so important?
A: A bit of history helps here. After the infamous Scopes Trial in 1925, fundamentalist Protestant Christians gradually removed themselves from public life. They concentrated on building their own institutions—churches, schools, missionary societies, etc.—so that they essentially ended up talking to each other and not trying to influence politics or public policy or change the culture. In the years after World War II, some of those people decided they needed to stop isolating themselves and start trying to engage the world around them. They decided they had something to offer to public debate, including politics and culture. They thought of themselves as “evangelicals,” and their desire to engage with outsiders intellectually and culturally distinguished them from fundamentalists. By 1976 they were becoming enough of a recognizable voting bloc that both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter believed it would benefit them to be identified as “born again” Christians. The Newsweek cover story marked a realization of those evangelicals’ growing public influence. The story had sort of a “gee whiz, who knew there were these people out there. Isn’t this fascinating?” feel to it.
Q: And why was Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency so significant in the context of the evangelical movement?
A: Carter knew those people were out there, because he was one of them. He talked about being born again himself, and his life story—raised Southern Baptist, he was active in his church as a deacon and Sunday School teacher—resonated with those evangelicals. He spoke their language, and for their part it was exciting to have one of their own be running for president. However, he made some missteps—like granting an interview to Playboy magazine—and squandered some of that good will in the weeks leading up to the election. Still, he garnered enough evangelical support to win, and the election of 1976 does mark their re-entry into public life as a recognizable voting bloc. To be sure, by 1980, most of those evangelicals gave up on him in favor of Ronald Reagan.
Q: How did you get interested in Jimmy Carter?
A: Several years ago I had finished writing a book on Catholics in the post-World War II American South, and I was looking around for my next research topic. I was asked by an editor at Louisiana State University Press if I was interested in writing a biography of someone. I chose Carter. I was raised Southern Baptist myself, and I have certain expectations about the relationship between church and state. For those reasons, Carter interests me, so I agreed to write a biography of him. I figured I could use him to explore some issues related to my home region and my own faith. I have already published a little bit about Carter and the election of1976, but other projects have intervened over the years, and I have made what can only be considered glacial progress on the book. Still, I’m plugging away and hope the book appears eventually.
Q: What’s the story behind the picture of you with Carter?
A: I went to his church in Plains, Georgia—Maranatha Baptist Church—one Sunday. Carter teaches a Sunday School class for adults there. The church advertises his teaching schedule, and tourists come to see Carter. A few years ago, my family and I were on vacation at the beach in Georgia, and I drove over for church that Sunday. He teaches a room full of a couple hundred people or so, and if you stay through the worship service, then Carter will pose for a photo with you. There are very strict rules for the photo line (no touching Carter, no trying to chat him up, keep moving), so it’s not like I actually met him. I said, “Hello, Mr. President.” He nodded and mumbled in my general direction. The designated picture-taker pushed the button on my phone and then yelled “next!” And then the Secret Service made sure I didn’t hang around.