January 25, 2014

Jimmy Carter & Liberal Protestantism

Recently United Church of Christ theologian and former seminary president Susan Thistlethwaite, responding to John McCain’s comments about Jimmy Carter, hyperbolically tweeted: “Wrong, Senator. Carter one of best US presidents & best Ex President ever.”

It’s rare to see Carter and “one of best US presidents” in same sentence. More common is to politely commend his tireless exertions as ex president.

Cater’s presidency traumatized my boyhood! Nearly every day’s headline as I blearily glanced at The Washington Post on my morning paper route announced a bleak new crisis. Double digit inflation. Double digit interest rates. Gas shortages and gas lines. Islamist takeover in Iran followed by hostage crisis, followed by embarrassing deportation of ailing Shah, followed by humiliatingly failed rescue attempt, followed by seeking mad Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi’s help through brother Billy Carter. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Marxist takeover in Nicaragua. Scaring Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, among others, by inviting the Soviets into Mideast peace negotiations. Undermining West Germany’s Helmut Schmidt by shifting on the neutron bomb, giving Schmidt a 20 minute warning before announcing. Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech and his counsel that Americans must reconcile with lower living standards and diminished national standing in the world.

It was all like a bad, unending dream, incomparable to anything today because it occurred against the backdrop of the Cold War, leaving open the horrifying possibility that the Soviet Union could actually prevail. Carter’s kiss on the lips of Leonid Brezhnev at the signing of SALT II, which the Senate never ratified, was a particularly dark and revealing moment.

Carter advertised his born again Baptist faith, which won him evangelical support in 1976 from even Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But Carter helped to create the Religious Right by shifting left on social issues, embodied by the infamous 1980 White House Conference on Families, which foreshadowed future decades of marriage and family deconstruction. A sense of betrayal helped generate the Moral Majority and evangelical support for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In my youth Methodist clergy often expressed admiration for Carter, whose views often were more similar to liberal Mainline Protestant elites than most evangelicals. (A neighbor once said his Christmas Eve was ruined when our pastor’s sermon hailed Jimmy Carter’s ostensible humility.) And like many Mainline clergy, Carter seemed reconciled to perpetual decline and even resentful of suggestions for seeking success and growth rather than managing decline. Although he professed admiration for Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, Carter’s accommodation of foreign adversaries, pseudo-pacifism, undermining of allies, and endless faith in personal diplomacy all more resembled the Religious Left’s utopian aspirations. It’s appropriate that Carter’s controversial UN Ambassador, Andrew Young, whom he removed for prematurely meeting PLO chief Yasir Arafat, later served as president of the National Council of Churches.

Although the Jimmy Carter Center has achieved admirable work in overseas disease eradication, Carter’s own global diplomacy as ex president has followed the regrettable pattern of his presidency. He undermined successor presidents through his often naive and destructive trust of foreign despots from Kim Il Sung to Fidel Castro to Robert Mugabe to the Assads to Somali warlords to Father Aristide. In one particularly revealing episode, Carter obligingly accompanied the U.S. ambassador in walking out of a Zimbabwean official’s anti-American tirade only later to explain publicly that he agreed with the tirade’s substance. Carter often seems to agree with the secular and Religious Left that America is the main problem in the world, an odd stance for an American President. His comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa, for which he only temporarily apologized when his grandson ran for office where there was a significant Jewish constituency, were highly lamentable.

Carter has many times very publicly “resigned” from the Southern Baptist Convention in protest over its conservative stances although he remains a member of his local Southern Baptist congregation. He is not a bad man so much as he is feckless, guided by a theology and worldview surreally rooted in wishful thinking rather than reality. No wonder that equally feckless Protestant liberals like Thistlethwaite, who’ve presided over their own long demographic and spiritual decline, admire and identify with his works.


11 Responses to Jimmy Carter & Liberal Protestantism

  1. Marco Bell says:

    Mark,
    Your days with the CIA are starting to show!

    Former, President Carter will never satisfy those Americans that still embrace the attitude, that America must always kick ass and take names… or rather, shoot first, and ask questions later!

    He was, and still is a perfect example of Christ’s love, and long after he passes this realm, he will be lauded by many people worldwide.
    Long live Jimmy Carter!

    • George Waite says:

      Jimmy Carter was a joke President; no leftist from 1976-1979 ever thought of him as anything other than as an embarrassment; even Eugene McCarthy preferred Reagan to Carter in 1980, if only because Carter was so clearly out of his depth.
      Carter looks good to “progressives” in the rearview mirror; up close, he was someone to be tolerated rather than celebrated. For Fundiegelicals, he got a plurality of their votes even in 1980; it’s hard to see “progressive” Carter’s calls for his unmarried staff members to stop “living in sin” as Carter called them to do, quite publicly, while he was in office. And refusing to serve hard liquor while in the White House? Please. Just pathetic.

  2. David says:

    I have to say that in the last 5 years he has improved. He’s no longer the worst president of my 51 year lifetime.

  3. Pudentiana says:

    I have to laugh every time some naive liberal refers to Mr. Tooley’s “past” with the CIA, implying that his position at the helm of the IRD is somehow related to dark powers. LOL. What Mr.Tooley says about the Carter presidency is so spot on that my guess is that the above statements posited by Mr. Bell reveal that he was not an adult during that era. I was and it was so depressing to watch a man with so little passion for the American vision to be in the White House and plodding around the world stage like a shadow. Gas lines and public humiliations were common. I was in my late 20’s and it was actually the politics of Jimmy Carter which exposed to me the fallacies of the liberal worldview and utopian myth which I had been indoctrinated into at university. I guess I can thank him for that! Oh for a true American President who loves his country and loves all the American people!

  4. Marco Bell says:

    Dear Prudentia,
    I, too, was in my twenties when Jimmy Carter was elected. I know, since I voted for him!

    My mention of Mr. Tooley’s association with his former employer was simply that! A reference! As Mark so astutely listed all the despots and crooks of that era, as only a Federal man could do.

    I remember the coups of those days showing the beginnings of what really ramped up during the Regan years.
    Even my parents changed their party affiliation to Republican, so they could vote for Ronnie. Not because they didn’t like Carter, but because (I think) Ronnie was a better ‘actor’!

    Still, we are all lucky to have such a gentleman as Carter to laud our praise upon for his tireless work to include people, rather than separate them.

    He does have some admirable credentials as a former Commander in Chief, American citizen, and Christian.

    Carter may have sounded to some, like an apologist, but when you think about it, we just officially apologized to the country and people of Vietnam only recently. And we all know how disastrous that debacle proved to be! Not very Christian to delay admission of guilt and harm.

    I did have a problem with Jimmy thrashing that poor bunny rabbit with the canoe paddle.

  5. Tom says:

    Among Carter’s foreign policy achievements: 1) withdrawing from the Panama Canal – a decision which Reagan opposed but which with time has demonstrated its wisdom; 2) the Camp David accords, which at minimum bought Israel & Egypt a secure if joyless peace on their mutual borders; 3) recognition of Vietnam and China , burying unnecessary hostilities. As for Iran: Reagan in effect armed the mullahs for to raise cash for the Contras. He also supported El Salvador’s right-wing nun-murdering butchers – an expedient policy, perhaps, but hardly a principled one.

  6. Brian says:

    Ronald Reagan for President. Jimmy Carter for next-door neighbor.

  7. David Rowe says:

    Poorly misplaced and badly thought-through ranting, I’m afraid.

    The idea that Jimmy Carter was a bad president because there was bad news elsewhere in the world during his time in office* plays on the same assumptions of paternalist interventionism that see America perpetually throwing the blood of its armed forces at problems in other sovereign nations.

    If France or China regarded US domestic policy as their remit – to be enforced by military might, of course – America would be incensed, and quite rightly so. But when a president attempts to avoid military interventionism and pursue diplomacy he is castigated for a ‘theology and worldview surreally rooted in wishful thinking.’ Dear me.

    I do not know whether or not Jimmy Carter was a good president, but the argument given above is theologically and ethically weak in the extreme.

    *Why not blame Margaret Thatcher, or President d’Estaing, or the Shah?

  8. David says:

    The author of this article has obviously bought into the popular misrepresentation of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. As one example, Carter WAS responsible for high interest rates. He appointed Paul Volcker head of the Federal Reserve and Volcker deliberately raised interest rates to drive over heated inflation out of the economy. It worked, and all the efforts of OPEC to destabilize our economy failed. Others got the credit, but it was Carter’s “idealistic” willingness to do the right thing in spite of the political cost that saved us.

  9. Emanon says:

    Hello, I wanted to join this discussion but now I don’t know what to say…

  10. Sam Ogilvie says:

    Truly biased and inaccurate synopsis of a presidency and man.
    As President, he had no control over the energy crisis, but with great foresight, emphasized and did everything possible to help with the transition to alternative fuels and a move away from carbon-based ones. Only the Lord knows where we would be with solar, wind, etc. if Pres. Reagan had shared Mr. Carter’s intellect and foresight. He was a realist in recognizing the fact that every despot or undesirable leader around the world could not be removed immediately but that human rights could be promoted and propagated with good decision making, patience and resolve. The high interest rates of his era, a product of good policy by the Fed. made future growth in the USA and around the world sustainable and success almost immeasurable.
    Finally, Pres. Carter was a man of action more than words. His success as a military man, farmer, husband, father, friend and world leader is remarkable. His faith is a faith in action. Thank the Lord for a strong example of Christian living.

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