Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter, Malaise & Christianity

on July 22, 2018

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.”

He said,

“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.

  1. Comment by Chris Hernando on July 23, 2018 at 1:36 am

    The condescension in this article is palpable and ill-founded. While I respect Mr. Tooley, why is he an authority on the complexity of statecraft? More to the point, this piling-on of President Carter seems out of place in our current moment. I would be more interested to read thoughtful considerations of our current president and his relationship with Christianity, morality and the public sphere.

  2. Comment by Paul W. on July 23, 2018 at 1:53 am

    This brought back a lot of memories of that time. I went back and watched the speech again on YouTube. it was a good reminder of why he was so unpopular at the time: sanctimonious with no real solutions or plans.

    I am also offended in hindsight by his statements that it was our patriotic duty to conserve energy; I knew quite a few people, particularly older adults, who took this to heart, and to extremes, at the time, keeping their homes uncomfortably hot in the summer and cold in the winter, keeping almost all lights off, etc. — all in the false belief that this really was helping the country to “conserve energy”.

    I personally liked Carter as a person while he was President, but definitely not as a leader. He would have been a great guy to have serving on your church council, but not so good for leading the country.

    Aside from his work with Habitat, I’m not so sure that he’s had an effective witness for Christ after leaving office. He almost immediately became an openly partisan critic, and he has become more outspoken over the years embracing both theologically and socially liberal positions at odds with Scripture.

  3. Comment by Bruce Ledewitz on July 23, 2018 at 5:31 am

    This reflection leaves out mention of the Panama Canal Treaty, very unpopular at the time. Given the endless war elsewhere in the world since that time, do we not owe a debt for the peace ensured by this Presidential wisdom? Carter’s enemies all opposed the treaty. He was right.

  4. Comment by Researcher on July 23, 2018 at 7:28 am

    More harm than good. Including his participation in the (arrogantly named) “Elders” (together with Tutu, Branson, Gabriel) which receives funding from the U.N. among others … i.e. our tax dollars at work.

  5. Comment by Mike on July 23, 2018 at 8:24 am

    Carter is an example of a good person who was a poor leader. As a young person at the time, I thought that maybe, as a Christian, he might be an excellent leader to bring healing to the nation, especially after Nixon’s downfall. In hindsight, both Carter and I were very much guilty of naivete. But his was much more public.

  6. Comment by Thomas on July 23, 2018 at 9:23 am

    I think it was a kiss on the face, Mark. (LOL) Brezhnev usually only did that other stunt to other communist leaders.

  7. Comment by MarcoPolo on July 23, 2018 at 9:50 am

    My late father-in-law regretted his (only) vote for a Democrat (Jimmy Carter) in 1976, yet his criticism wasn’t too different from yours (Mark Tooley). Which I guess makes sense to an otherwise staunch conservative.
    But to those of us who know Jimmy Carter as the true Southern Gentleman that he still is today, we will shake our heads whenever shrill criticism is levied upon him unjustly.

    Carter’s legacy speaks volumes by comparison to those Neo-Cons who have come to office since. If only we had Carter’s diplomacy today, we would be on our way to a BETTER America, instead of a nation who has lost it’s soul through the rancid behavior and vile nature of the current resident of the White House. Shameful and Sad!

  8. Comment by LJG on July 23, 2018 at 10:53 am

    I’m sorry but your comment about the current resident of the White House is being repeated and repeated by every liberal talking point.
    While I don’t think tweeting every thought that crosses your mind is wise or helpful it has been his effective weapon against the liberal media bias..
    Let’s review where most of the rancid behavior is actually coming from these days.
    Being physically and verbally harrassed at
    restaurants if you wear anything that identifies you or are a well known conservative. Check by liberals. Anifita check liberals, Maxine Waters check liberal Democrat who if she was a conservative woman and said what she did would be out of a job by now. College campus protests sometimes turning violent against a conservative speaker on their campus. check liberals. A media who with very few exceptions shows their complete bias to liberal causes by what they say and by what they deem news worthy. A presidential canidate and it wasn’t the one in the White House now who calls millions of Americans a basket of deplorables. But hey that’s not a big deal, but call gang members who rape, torture and murder animals, How dare he!
    We all need to take a long hard look at where the call for civil disobedience and complete disrespect for our elected president is coming from. Turn off our TVs and internet and start praying for our country to turn back to God as our One True Leader and pray for His Kingdom.

  9. Comment by MarcoPolo on July 24, 2018 at 4:08 pm

    I’ll never understand how or why Evangelicals decided to ignore the indecencies of Trump. But I guess stranger things have happened over the course of History. Go figure!
    Trump’s missteps are of his own making, the “liberal” press only reports them. To call the Free-Press “The Enemy of the People” is reminiscent of the terms and actions of Adolf Hitler! NOT acceptable in our great society! Period!
    And then there’s TRUTH. Why does Trump lie so frequently?

    I’d love to witness a debate between Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump. I’d bet the farm that civility would be difficult to maintain between the fact checking-Journalists, and the “Cult-45” Trump fans who attend.

    And I pray we never aspire to become a Theocracy.
    Fine, let God referee, but don’t ask Him to take over.

  10. Comment by The Answer is in the Book on July 23, 2018 at 3:45 pm

    President Carter was faithful to his wife, generally honest, did not seek to profit from his presidency and has led an exemplary post presidential life. None of those statements are true about President Clinton. Yet Clinton was hands down a better president than Clinton.

    That distinction is important to keep in mind when evaluating Trump. Choosing a president is a much different task than choosing a spouse or a pastor. Trump’s and Clinton’s shortcomings would quickly disqualify them from marriage or pastoral leadership, but the presidency is a different matter. The folks complaining about Trumps’s character really just don’t like his policies, and they lose credibility if they didn’t also rail against Clinton.

  11. Comment by The Answer is in the Book on July 23, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Should have said “Clinton was hands down a better president than CARTER”

  12. Comment by Lester Hemphill on July 24, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    A friend of mine once said, “Jimmy Carter was not a good president, but as a former president he is great.”

  13. Comment by Lester Hemphill on July 24, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Jimmy Carter became the president, partially because it was the next election after Watergate. At the time, many people distrusted the government. It became known that he taught Sunday school in a Baptist church. Voters figured that a Baptist Sunday school teacher is honest.

  14. Comment by tnxplant on July 25, 2018 at 11:12 am

    “Voters figured that a Baptist Sunday school teacher is honest.”
    They were wrong. “No one is good but God alone.”

    Leave it in God’s hands to judge Jimmy Carter just as He will judge us all.

  15. Comment by Debra Apple on July 26, 2018 at 7:39 am

    Jimmy Carter was not a good president.

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