Two former U.S. Presidents have been featured in Playboy magazine.
Trump famously graced the magazine’s glossy cover in 1990. From there, the future president went on to pursue both personal and sexual relationships with the Playboy staff throughout the following decades. Altogether, you could compile a fair-sized scrapbook of Trump’s photos alongside the Bunnies. And if the mood strikes you, you can even dig up his (clothed but enthusiastic) appearance in Playboy’s soft-core porno, Centerfold (2000).
Then, there’s Jimmy Carter’s 1976 interview in Hefner’s good-time mag. But we’ll unpack Carter’s sexual hangups momentarily.
It’d be less than useless to mention that Trump’s scandal-clad sex life made a small difference to those responsible for putting him in office, mainly Evangelical Christians. But peek only quickly into the thick, deep webbing of the Evangelical movement, and you’ll catch sight of why this group exercises their virtue of forgiveness with such determined backwardness.
The Molding of the Christian Right
The Christian Right hardly existed in a unified sense until Reagan’s first campaign. Before this, the GOP ran its motor on the Goldwater/Nixon Southern Strategy, which flexed its power through exploiting racial anomie, most significantly in the Southern United States, a traditionally Democratic-leaning electoral bloc. But by 1975 — with Watergate, the failed war in Vietnam, and the largest recession since the 1930s — the Republican party, under Gerald Ford, was frail and fracturing.
Furthermore, the DNC’s nomination of Jimmy Carter weakened Republican reliability on the Southern Strategy. Carter was the adored, authentically regional Governor of Georgia. He fueled his primary campaign on claims of truth, love, integrity, and strict budgeteering; he even had the personality and record to back up his claims — a welcome contrast to the unholy stench left by Dick Nixon. So, it’s often forgotten (but no surprise) that going into the general election, Carter led Ford by around 30 points.
On top of this, Carter was a self-professed “Born Again Christian” — and it was by design that his positioning featured frequent remarks concerning personal faith. Soon, Republican strategists recognized the unmined resource of direct religious pandering. Because although it’s difficult to imagine now, before 1976, Evangelicals largely shied away from the political playground, believing that thou shalt not weave a fabric made of ballots and scripture. It was a shared belief that doing so would spoil their status as set apart — both in spirit and tax status — and otherwise pollute their intentions.
However, even before the ’76 election, Mount Etna-sized rumblings foreshadowed how the Evangelical movement might shape the next century of American politics. Not only did Nixon carry Billy Graham around in a campaign handbag, but Evangelicalism had constructed its own national communication infrastructure over the past twenty years — something just waiting to be equally yolked to a political plow and put to work.
Famed Republican pollster Robert Teeter sang his data-driven prophecy as he poured over the remarkable extent of Carter’s support. But one faction stuck out from the rest. Teeter stated that Evangelicals “could be the most powerful force ever harvested.” By 1976, the harvest was ripe.
Jimmy Carter’s Playboy Scandal
The general election campaigning spared beatings for neither Carter nor Ford. But Carter, straining to wrap his arms around as many constituencies as possible, made a brutal media blunder.
In the Summer of 1976, Carter gave an infamous interview with Playboy, where he, in his characteristic honesty, admitted to having lusted, in his heart, over women that were not Rosalynn Carter. And in doing so, he committed the sin of adultery.
In this interview, Carter’s choice of words referenced a verse from the beatitudes: Mathew 5:28 (KJV), where Christ said, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” This teaching is often taken as hyperbole among fundamentalists until it’s advantageous to do otherwise.
Carter’s honesty bore a great cost. Because although Carter appealed strongly to Evangelical congregations, many Christian leaders — many of whom remained sympathetic to segregation and opposed all liberal impulses — spotted their chance to tear him down from on high. The Playboy interview gave Evangelical leaders good reason to craft and unleash their slanted message: Carter was nothing but another lying Democrat looking dump pellets of sexual liberalism into the water towers of small-town America. Immediately, the likes of Jerry Falwell and Wally Criswell castigated Carter and rushed to support Ford.
From then on, Ford took queues and hammed up his Christian faith and was the first ever sitting President to perform at the Southern Baptist Convention.
Carter began the campaign with a 30-point lead. But on election day, 1976, it was deemed too close for placing bets. The Democrats snuck out by only 47 electoral votes, even with support from a large portion of white Southern Evangelicals; every state in the South, Virginia withstanding, went blue. But more importantly, the brief experiment of Democratic Evangelicalism was decidedly put to rest.
Looking Ahead to 2024: Courting the Evangelical System
Shortly before the election, Newsweek ran a front-page headline, casting 1976 as the “Year of the Evangelical.”
Although it can feel absurd to imagine that Evangelicalism was galvanized under Carter, the election displayed the movement’s identity-driven and media-based priorities, revealing that doctrinal beliefs and personal integrity didn’t make the scorecard.
In her 2020 book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez expertly traces the Evangelical yearning for an ultra-masculine, bull-like figurehead. She exposes a philosophy completely willing to sacrifice so many of its moral ligatures for a secured sense of identity and political control. So, down the line, it made sense that, as far as the beatitudes go, Carter’s failure to last as an Evangelical muse was not due to a lustful heart but a meek one, along with his willingness to expand the definition of who may sit at the table of power.
The Playboy appearances of Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter couldn’t provide a more explicit juxtaposition. Evangelicals quickly flung aside the man who strove to live out biblical values earnestly and, instead, embraced men who lived lives uprooting them.
Robert Teeter’s words live on to be remembered every election cycle since 1976. It’s February, and Donald Trump still has a tight grip on the most powerful force in American politics. But, for reasons other than spiritual, it’s clear that leaders and laymen alike are trying to wriggle out, desperately praying for their new gladiator.