The Origins of the God Gap

Only 30 years ago, the party of Jimmy Carter had religious voters locked up. How it lost this crucial bloc is a story of fear, ignorance and political deafness

Wally McNamee / Corbis

President Jimmy Carter looks solemn during a speech to the congregation of a church..

In the beginning, as they say, religion in America was a decidedly nonpartisan affair. Presidents of all political stripes sprinkled their speeches with references to the Almighty. Religious Americans led political movements to battle communism and poverty, to promote temperance and civil rights. If anything, the contours of the religious landscape favored Democrats: their voters were evangelical Southerners and ethnic Catholics, while Republicans appealed to Northeasterners who were more private about their faith.

The relationship between religion and politics changed abruptly in the turbulent decade that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The twin disappointments of Vietnam...

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