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.