Religious Conservatism and Reagan’s Presidency in Alabama

Data Visualizations and Figures

 

Findings

The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 signified a revitalization of American conservatism. Many historians have credited Reagan’s victory to a growing coalition of voters concerned about the economic stagflation of the 1970s,1 foreign policy failures since the Vietnam War,2 expansion of the welfare state,3 and liberalization of society, manifested in the Civil Rights movement4 and the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision.5 Reagan appealed to Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics because of his desire to shift America towards social conservatism and make America moral again. In historical reality, though, Reagan has been considered most successful in rejuvenating the economy through his deregulation policies and tax cuts.6 His record in implementing socially conservative policies is more mixed, despite the vocalness of his conservative Christian supporters. 

Scholars such as James R. Kurth and Julian E. Zelizer have argued that an examination of Reagan’s presidency reflects the prioritization of pro-business interests over the socially conservative and national security ones.7 In other words, though the Religious Right and other moral conservatives viewed Reagan as a powerful political operative for their cause after decades of societal decadence, at a national level, business and economic interests subordinated socially conservative ones when the two often conflicted. However, while Reagan handily won Alabama in 1980 (Fig. 1), data concerning the behavior of Alabamians during his presidency tell a different, more nuanced story. An analysis of Alabama’s 1980 election results, the change in median household income before and after Reagan, and the change in adherent counts of more conservative Christian religious traditions before and after his two terms reveals that his legacy may have been more strongly felt religiously than economically. 

From my research, a stronger relationship exists between a county’s percentage of votes for Reagan over Carter in the 1980 election and its median household income in 1979 than its 1980 conservative religious tradition adherent counts. My data demonstrate that counties with higher median incomes according to data published by the US Census saw a higher percentage of voters for Reagan than counties with lower median incomes (Fig. 2). The relationship between a county’s percentage of votes for Reagan and its number of Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic adherents in 1980, as calculated in the county-level Longitudinal Religious Congregations and Membership File published by the ARDA, is almost negligible (Fig. 3). The data suggest that whereas nationally, social and religious conservatives were uniquely energized by Reagan’s candidacy, economic interests may have preoccupied Alabamians more than moral issues. 

Of course, my data does not take into account the racial demographics of voters, so it is important to acknowledge that there is not a clear correlation between social conservatism, often concerned by the rise of minority rights, and religious conservatism, concerned by the abortion issue and perceived decline of religion in the public sphere. Since my data do not directly address race-related factors, it is plausible that more secular social conservatism comprised a major driving force for Reagan’s success in Alabama than moral conservatism or economic conservatism. Nevertheless, comparing the number of adherents of conservative religious traditions to median household incomes suggests that economic interests seemed to influence support for Reagan more than conservative moral interests when one assumes that adherent number is a reliable indicator of support for moral conservatism.

Even if economic conservatism motivated Alabama voters in 1980 more than their religious convictions, the duration of Reagan’s two terms saw a negligible rise in counties’ median household incomes when plotted in relation to the percentage of Reagan votes (Fig. 4). This finding contrasts with national perceptions of Reagan’s economic policy success. Kurth emphatically argues that the history of American conservatism in the twentieth century is a story of business interests almost always winning out over other issues.8 Zelizer observes that “Religious conservatives were among the most frustrated constituencies” because of the supremacy of economic policy.9 Whatever material gains the middle classes experienced at a national level because of Reagan is not reflected in the percent change in Alabama counties’ median income from 1979 to 1989.

Instead, there is a stronger relationship between a rise in combined adherent counts of Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics in a county and its percentage of votes for Reagan in 1980 (Fig. 5). One must be careful in drawing causal conclusions about this relationship, and people voted for Reagan because of multiple combinations of economic, social, and political interests.10 Still, I interpret the data as representative of growth in religious conservatism in Alabama. The reasons for the increase in religious adherent membership follow two distinct logics, but Reagan’s connection to moral and social conservatism remained central.

On the one hand, religious conservatives latched onto Reagan as a champion of “traditional family values.” According to Kurth, Reagan spoke to these supporters in language that they “not only understood, but that they loved.”11 Consequently, they viewed him as “their authentic political representative and effective political vehicle.”12 Emboldened by Reagan’s political success and a perceived revitalization of moral conservatism, evangelical religious leaders mobilized conservative Christians to react publicly against feminism, gay rights, and other social norms that they viewed as destroying the strength of the family.13 Because Reagan was popular and gave lip service to religious and moral conservatism, he gave such conservatives a bigger platform to spread their ideology. This may explain the rise in adherent counts of conservative Christian traditions.

On the other hand, since Reagan was more successful in implementing economically conservative policies than socially conservative ones, the rise in adherents may be explained as a reaction against Reagan’s failures in this arena. Zelizer notes that social conservatives rebelled against Reagan for not taking them seriously enough and for not appointing a greater number of social conservatives to his administration.14 In fact, Zelizer draws on the proliferation of increasingly sexual and scandalous popular media during the 1970s and beyond as evidence that moral conservative gains have been “negligible.”15 Kurth concurs: The biggest win for these conservatives was the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court.16 Reagan’s other appointments, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, turned out to be less conservative than many had hoped, and Roe was not overturned. Given the fervor of religious conservatives for Reagan in 1980 nationally, he did not deliver adequately. Where his moral conservative agenda failed, they reacted against him, and this can also help explain the increase in adherents of conservative religious traditions in Alabama.  

Alabama serves as an interesting case study of the relationship between religious conservatism and support for Reagan that complicates understandings of national trends. While his policy legacy may be most felt economically, his presidency generated strong reactions from moral and religious conservatives. Trends in the number of adherents of traditionally conservative Christian traditions support the rise of conservatism as a reawakened, influential force in American politics.

Notes

  1. James R. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions The Origins and End of American Conservatism, Nomos 56 (2016): 13–54, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26387879, 29–30.
  2. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 31.
  3. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 30.
  4. Julian E. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” Reviews in American History 38 no. 2 (2010): 367–92, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40865368, 370.
  5. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 35.
  6. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 379.
  7. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 14–15.
  8. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 16.
  9. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 376.
  10. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 372.
  11. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 35.
  12. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 35.
  13. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 369.
  14. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 373.
  15. Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” 380.
  16. Kurth, “A History of Inherent Contradictions,” 36.