Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jimmy Carter's Problem

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

Those verses come at the end of the Beatitudes, the first section of “The Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus makes it clear that if we want to follow him, and if we are truly faithful, we will encounter opposition. Our motives will be questioned. People will doubt our patriotism and our common sense. That was true for John Wesley, for Mahatma Gandhi (who followed the Sermon on the Mount, though he was not a Christian), for Nelson Mandela, and for Martin Luther King, Jr. And it has been true for Jimmy Carter.

Carter’s problem is that he was (and is) always a Christian. Not without mistakes and flaws, of course, but always a Christian.

In America we tend to value semi-Christians. We want people who will utter the pious words from time to time, and invoke God’s blessing, but have no real commitment to Christian values. Someone said that we are most comfortable with politicians who hold firmly to vague beliefs. (Lincoln was probably the greatest exception to the rule. He was our most profound theological thinker among our presidents. But Lincoln inhabits a wholly different category among political leaders. He was unique in so many ways.)

Jimmy Carter had the misfortune of taking his faith seriously and sharing it with the American people. That was evident thirty years ago last week when he gave the famous (infamous) “Malaise” speech. Of course, he never used that word, and he never said or even implied that “malaise” was our problem, but that is how the speech is remembered.

What he did say, was that we had to sacrifice. We could not consume or produce our way out of the energy problem. We needed to change in order to meet the challenge of limited resources in an unstable world.

Chris Matthews interviewed Hendrik Hertzberg, a journalist who had been a Carter speechwriter. Matthews observed that in many ways, “Carter was dead on, on the need for energy sufficiency and dealing with the energy conservation. Putting on a sweater, lowering the thermostat. All of those things made sense.” And Carter had also been right, he noted, on the related problems of nuclear proliferation.

“Well he was” right, Hertzberg responded, “he was in this particular speech, especially, which was really unlike anything that he had ever said, it was unlike anything any president had ever said. In this particular speech he was sort of a prophet. He spoke as a prophet. And, and I mean by that, not as someone who is predicting the future but as someone who is diagnosing, diagnosing the national soul.”

What Carter saw, he said, was a spiritual crisis in the soul of America. Unfortunately, “the result was not that we faced up to it but that we retreated into years and years of fantasy and of phony optimism and, and notion that we could just consume and consume and consume.”

I find that I appreciate Carter more as the years go by. (I do not agree with him on the conflict in the Gaza, but I don’t doubt his motives.) Carter was a Christian first, and a politician second. We have a hard time with that.

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