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The Light at the End of the Tunnel of Love: Jimmy Carter’s Christian Socialism

President Jimmy Carter at the White House, March 1977 (Library of Congress)
Democratic leaders’ concerns about a party nominee who openly stated his belief in God dissipated when Carter revealed his love for unlimited government and Christian socialism.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the November 12, 1976, issue of National Review, one of hundreds of pieces from the magazine archives that confirm a relentless attention to and battle with the ideology — now politically resurgent under the guise of Democratic Party leaders, in particular Senator Bernie Sanders — that is a true menace to the American project and to unalienable rights. National Review’s unfailing efforts to expose and combat this threat depend on your selfless financial support, which can be accomplished through NR’s “Defeat Socialism 2020” webathon. It expires on Sunday, February 16. Before that happens, please donate here.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal called “What We Want from the Debates.” In it he posed a score of questions on domestic and foreign policy, which neither candidate had answered to Mr. Schlesinger’s satisfaction.

Mr. Schlesinger is one of America’s most distinguished and influential “intellectuals” — a term accepted in all the remaining democracies as an elegant, if somewhat self-serving, euphemism for men of the political Left. To be more explicit, the intellectuals are those members of Academe, the media, the professions, and the government career jobs, who believe in the dominant myth of our century — socialism. Since the explosion in “the knowledge industry,” they have come to number in the millions.

What Mr. Schlesinger and all his fellow intellectuals wanted to learn from the debates can be put in a sentence: Is Mr. Carter, or is he not, an anti-intellectual?

This is a pejorative term of the intellectuals for a middle-class conservative. Or, again to be more precise, an “anti-intellectual” is a person — regardless of his IQ or educational background — who believes in the values of the traditional Family-Church-Protestant-work-ethic-free-enterprise-oriented society. Politically, the middle-class conservative upholds not only the historic American concept of “this Nation under God,” but of “a free people under a limited government.”

This nexus of “bourgeois beliefs” is totally incompatible with the socialist vision of the great American — and world — society of the future.

The socialist vision of the utopia that will come into being when the last bourgeois conservative has bit the dust has never been more beautifully described than it was 156 years ago by P. B. Shelley, the young British poet of the Enlightenment, in Prometheus Unbound.

Fifty years later, in Das Kapital, Karl Marx worked this poetic and romantic flight of fancy over into a political blueprint for an egalitarian utopia, and Das Kapital became the socialist Bible for a new secular religion which would posit man as the measure of all things.

The Disbelievers

Marx “scientifically” proved that the systematized acquisition of private property, or capitalism (aided and abetted by the Church, “the opium of the people”), is the historical cause of all mankind’s sins and woes — slavery, crime, ignorance, poverty, alienation, class, sex and race conflict, and war. The abolition of private property would remove the main obstacle to the perfectibility of man and his society. And to those two inevitabilities in human affairs, death and taxes, Marx added third — socialism.

Much was made during the primaries, and is still being made at this writing, of Mr. Carter’s “enigmatic” and ambiguous approaches to the political issues. But his “now-you-see-me-as-a-liberal-and-now-you-don’t” campaign technique is not what initially caused concern to the intellectuals. As the McGovern debacle proved, a certain “constructive ambiguity” — at the rhetorical level — is necessary to hold together a Democratic coalition strong enough to take the White House.

What rang a four-alarm bell among the intellectuals in the early days of the primaries, and is still tintinnabulating faintly in their consciousnesses, was Mr. Carter’s ebullient, unabashed, and quite unambiguous testimonials to “an experience of God” (My God!), and his calm confidence in his own evangelical Christian mission to institute a reign of truth, decency, morality, and love (yes, love!) in Washington.

The intellectuals are themselves men of infinite faith in the ultimate “reign of love.” But any intellectual worthy of his PhD — or qualified to write a syndicated column — knows that it cannot come to pass until men abandon their superstitious belief in any Intelligence higher than that of the intellectuals.

And, last spring, here they were, faced with a man seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party, their Chosen Instrument, who was plainly not spaced out, but who claimed that he prays (on his knees?) 25 times a day, and who proudly described himself as a “born-again Christian Baptist Sunday School teacher deacon.” By all the canons of the socialist book. Democrat or not, someone who talked in that vein had to be a bourgeois conservative.

Mr. Schlesinger promptly wrote a long, passionate (and historically inaccurate) article for the Wall Street Journal, claiming that none of our great Presidents had ever so far forgotten the Constitution’s provisions on the separation of Church and State as to air his private religious convictions on the hustings. And he strongly suggested that Mr. Carter’s indecent exposure of his gratifying relation with Christ disqualified him for the White House experience.

The delicious irony of Mr. Carter’s subsequent holy progress to the nomination (and mayhap to the White House) seems to have escaped the intellectuals. They themselves had made old-fashioned bourgeois morality the central issue of the ’76 presidential campaign.

It should hardly have come as a surprise to the intellectuals, who had outdone themselves turning the Vietnam War into a morality play, waving the bloody tapes, and fingering the sinners in Washington officialdom, when the Democratic candidate who grabbed the overheated morality issue and ran with it turned out to be an authentic son of the Bible Belt, with impeccable moral credentials, who promised, if elected, to “institutionalize virtue” in his very own person.

The Ruthless Moralist

The consternation that this initially caused among the liberals was not altogether composed by examination of the Carter political record. In 1968, he had made his first try for the governorship of Georgia as a moderate liberal — and was defeated. He won his four-year term in 1970 as a conservative, but once elected, switched back to a liberal stance. “He ran a racist campaign,” a former Carter staffer said, “and then turned around and kicked the people who elected him in the teeth.” He then tried, at the 1972 Democratic Convention, to persuade McGovern to run him for Vice President as a Southern liberal-centrist. But after the McGovern debacle, when he decided to seek the 1976 presidential nomination, he once again opted to present himself in the primaries as a conservative-centrist, and a populist, representing the interests of the great, neglected, middle classes of the country.

Before the New Hampshire elections, James Wooten of the New York Times wrote, “He is a candidate of a thousand impressions — a liberal, a moderate liberal, a conservative moderate, an ambidextrous centrist, a man for all seasons, the peanut farmer who made the best-dressed list.” Even as late as the week after his nomination, a member of the Democratic platform committee said, “We don’t know what we have bought.” What they had bought was what Carter had been sedulously selling: himself — Jimmy Carter, the utopian moralist, who would give America a government “as decent . . . as compassionate . . . as filled with love as our people are.” The incarnation of America.

Commenting on the Convention that had nominated Carter, Bill Moyers said, “I have never seen such a combination of religion, politics, and manipulative techniques. . . . What the delegates wanted is a priest, not a politician.” The significance — and danger — of Jimmy Carter is that he could be both in the Presidency, and that both arc what millions of people are yearning for in America’s hour of moral and political confusion.

There is no doubt that the City of God is as real to Carter as the City of Man is to the intellectuals. And there is also little doubt that he thinks he knows God’s will, and that it is that Jimmy Carter should be president. “This nation under God” means to him, “This nation under Jimmy Carter.” “He has this great feeling within him,” one of his aides says, “that he embodies the American people.”

The record also shows that he is tough, tireless, and aggressive in the single-pointed pursuit of God’s will (as Jimmy Carter sees it). His mother, Miz Lillian, says of him, “I hate to use the word ruthless, but Jimmy’s going to win or bust. He’ll go through hell to get what he wants.”

But he is also, as a matter of moral principle, flexible about political principles. Carter sees no contradiction between his record of political inconsistency, evasiveness, and constantly shifting courses from Right to Left, and his campaign boast that “I never make a misleading statement, I never tell a lie, I never betray a trust.” If it is God’s will that he should reach the White House by straddling issues, then so be it.

When he is criticized for “waffling” and “flip-flopping,” Carter will smilingly quote Reinhold Niebuhr, the Presbyterian theologian — “You can’t establish Justice in a sinful world unless you win elections.” In a less pious character, this would be called calculated cunning, or more pleasantly, “political realism.” But whatever it is, his most recent change of course is the light at the end of the Carter Tunnel of Love to the intellectuals.

For the conservative Carter of the early primaries is now rapidly gaining credibility, and will probably earn his credentials as an “intellectual” and as an all-out liberal, apart, of course, from his Biblical “hang-up,” which, the intellectuals now opine, will wear off in the White House.

The First Coming

But what if it doesn’t? What if Carter proves to be not only a man of the political Left — a believer in the economic nostrums of socialism under unlimited government — but also a religious reformer who — in his own words — sees political and social programs “as an extension of the Gospel — problem solving combined with Christian charity?”

What happens then is the coming of Christian Socialism to America.

The fusing of Christian doctrine with political power in the name of morality and social justice is not a new phenomenon in our century. The Christian Socialists and religious activists in Italy and Germany were the earliest supporters of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s National Socialism. In the 1920s, German and Italian Protestants and Catholics wanted to believe that one man, given enough political power, could restore both morality and prosperity to their unhappy countries. What they got, in the end, was something horrendously different.

I do not for a moment suggest that Mr. Carter is even a potential dictator, much less a dictator of the monstrous stripe of Hitler or Mussolini. What I do say is that a religious leader should be a religious leader, and a political leader should be a political leader, and that whoever has attempted to combine these roles has — throughout history — failed badly at one or the other, and usually both.

Which leads to the thing that troubles me most about Mr. Carter: His “substantial escalation” in his “experience of Christ” is, alas, no substitute for that substantial experience of government and wide knowledge of domestic and world affairs that America now so sorely needs.

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