Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis has prompted a favorable re-evaluation of the former president’s legacy from Democrats who spent much of the past two decades distancing themselves from his perceived liberal idealism. Yet one standout Carter quality is still largely off-limits for those in his party: his very public religiosity.
For most of the 20th century, America’s leaders generally invoked the Almighty in only the loosest of terms. Presidents acted as chief priests of the civil religion — calling on Providence to favor the nation, affirming that citizens’ rights were endowed by a Creator, and asking God’s blessing at the end of speeches. They avoided bringing their private religious convictions into their political lives.
As a candidate in 1976, Carter broke that convention deliberately. He spoke openly of his personal faith, professing himself a born-again Christian.
He has always gravitated toward the liberal strands of his Baptist tradition, strands that emphasize care for the poor, racial tolerance and an aversion to violence.
As a presidential candidate, Carter tapped into common Christian themes that unite Americans across race, class and geography. He spoke often of love and charity, brotherhood and compassion, framing his campaign through moral imperatives as much as political ones.
Carter’s faith was clearly reflected in his presidency. He said “fairness, not force” should guide international affairs, and gave up the Panama Canal. Of his fervor to secure a permanent peace for Israel, he later wrote: “I considered this homeland for the Jews to be compatible with the teachings of the Bible, hence ordained by God. These moral and religious beliefs made my commitment to the security of Israel unshakable.”
Americans did not always respond favorably. On July 15, 1979, Carter delivered what came to be known as the “Malaise Speech.” America’s economic woes, he said, stemmed from “a moral and a spiritual crisis.”
Critics called it pessimism instead of leadership, and Ronald Reagan swept into the White House the next year with a more hopeful message.
Reagan’s success was driven by the defection of evangelicals from Carter’s camp.
Yet a striking thing happened. In 1984, Democrats did not make a serious bid to win back religious voters.
Even though religiosity is dropping in the U.S., according to the Pew Center, more than 70 percent of Americans still consider themselves Christian, and about 6 percent follow other faiths. Republicans have vigorously pursued religious voters since Carter’s day, and whenever the Democrats have run candidates uncomfortable with the language of faith, they have been defeated.
Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry were all privately religious, but they did not justify their positions through religious morality or references. By contrast, Bill Clinton often deployed Scripture to reinforce his arguments about poverty, while Barack Obama famously saved his candidacy with a speech tracing America’s present racial discord to the “original sin of slavery.”
Democrats would do well to recognize the power of sincere religious conviction. If approached with faith in mind, religious moderates might be more open to Democratic positions on issues like environmentalism, universal health care and prison reform. Carter’s remarkable legacy teaches this: Republicans ought not take the support of churchgoing Americans for granted.
Los Angeles Times