It is widely believe that evangelicals turned against Carter and toward the Republicans because of abortion, legalized in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Balmer calls this "the abortion myth."
Instead he pointed to a lower court ruling which upheld the contention by the Internal Revenue Service that "any organization that engages in racial segregation or racial discrimination is not by definition a charitable organization. Therefore it has no claims on tax-exempt status, and similarly any donations to such an organizations can no longer qualify for tax exemption," Balmer said.
This was used by the IRS in 1975 to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in Greenvile, S.C., which did not admit African Americans to the student body until 1971 and until 1975, out of fears of racial mixing, did not admit unmarried African Americans.
"That is what got people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the other leaders of the religious right activated as political players in order to reverse those actions against these schools," he said. "That was the catalyst for the Religious Right. Abortion did not become part of the religious right agenda until 1979."
Balmer also spoke to American voters' and the media's over-reliance on questioning politicians about their religion.
"Part of the problem, I think, in the American political process is that in America religion serves as a proxy for morality," Balmer said. "Especially after the Nixon administration, we Americans want to know that our candidates for the highest office in the land are good, decent, moral, trustworthy people. The problem is we don't know how to ask the question, so we say: ‘are you religious? What is your religion?'
He added, "The flawed premise behind that question is that somebody who is not avowedly religious, or has no religious affiliation, cannot be a good, moral, decent person. That's demonstrably false."his book of the same title--of a Charismatic Episcopal Church.