Asbury University professor David Swartz, who’s written an important book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, recently reflected on the 40th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s famous “Malaise Speech.” That speech arguably doomed his presidency.
I’m older than Swartz and personally recall that speech just as I do all the major events of Carter’s presidency, against which I smilingly note my whole life has been a religious and political reaction. As an adolescent then coming of political age, Carter seemed to me then to embody the fecklessness of Protestant liberalism.
As Swartz noted, Carter had just returned from his Vienna summit with Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev, with whom he signed the doomed SALT II arms control treaty, sealed with a much publicized kiss on the lips. Proud of his ostensible foreign policy triumph, Carter came home to collapsing poll numbers resembling Nixon’s during Watergate.
One main cause for Carter’s unpopularity was soaring gas prices that helped fuel a recession, ignited partly by the collapse of the longtime pro-American Shah of oil-producing Iran, now controlled by Ayatollah Khomeini and USA-hating mullahs. Carter’s equivocations had arguably contributed to the Shah’s demise and subsequent calamitous chaos.
Carter responded to his domestic political crisis with a very public emotional crisis, withdrawing to 10 days of seclusion at Camp David, where he consulted with a multitude of counselors. Then came the Malaise Speech. George Will harshly characterized its message to the American people as: “I’m unpopular, therefore you’re sick.”
Swartz describes and quotes part of the speech:
Having cloistered himself for an unprecedented length of time, the President emerged from Camp David with great drama on July 15, 1979. In a nationally televised speech that was watched by 65 million Americans, Carter intoned an evangelical-sounding lament about “a crisis of the American spirit.”
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption.”
Indeed, the President’s sermon expounded at length about excess. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” he preached. But “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
It was a penetrating cultural critique that reflected Carter’s spiritual values. Like the writers of the New Testament, he called out sin. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, he confessed to personal and national pride.
One problem among others with Carter’s speech was that presidents are not prophets or preachers. They are politicians, whose callings are very different. A successful democratic civil ruler challenges and cheer-leads but he does not chide his nation. Carter’s speech, though followed by a very brief bump in popularity, solidified a negative caricature of Carter as sanctimonious.
Carter’s presidency and poll numbers further imploded after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the interminable Iran hostage crisis, though the latter had initially boosted Carter as the nation rallied against the Ayatollah’s hooligans. Swartz likens Carter’s speech to Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Carter professed to admire.
But there was little about his policies that embodied Niebuhr-style Christian Realism, as Carter often seemed to believe that dangerous international adversaries could be appeased by abnegating his own nation. Instead of respect, he fostered a reputation for strategic weakness.
Carter had begun his presidency by chastising America’s “inordinate fear” of Communism. He later admitted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan altered his perspective. Many were amazed by a naivete that had needed such altering.
To my young mind 40 years ago, world order seemed to be collapsing and America seemed en route to Cold War defeat. Yet Providence had better plans, as the Soviet imbroglio in Afghanistan would be the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. And America, which is greater than any single presidency, survived the Carter years.
Carter was elected as the first openly born-again president. Many evangelicals backed him as a kindred spirit. But many of those same evangelicals, in reaction against Carter’s liberalism, created the Religious Right, which toiled against his reelection.
Although a Southern Baptist by background, Carter’s beliefs and policies predated that denomination’s 1980s conservative resurgence. And he often seemed closer to liberal Mainline Protestantism, whose officials were politically supportive. His defeat in 1980 to them was a moral crisis. These events were to me deeply instructive. Protestant liberalism, in faith and politics, seemed deeply ineffectual and detached from reality.
In later years, with reflection and age, I can better appreciate that Carter, though often misguided, has through his humanitarianism and continuity exemplified a unique integrity of sorts. Like Herbert Hoover, he’s a diligent and sincere do-gooder who didn’t understand the complex spiritual vagaries of statecraft.
God of course has used Jimmy Carter, though not as he likely anticipated. The Malaise Speech helped ensure the end of his political career but helped launch his four decades of global disease eradication and other charitable works.