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White House God 3

posted by xscot mcknight

One of the most interesting elections I remember was the 1976 campaign that led to the election of ?born again? candidate, Jimmy Carter. Randy Balmer, in his God in the White House, says this: ?Abetted by the political chicanery of Richard Nixon and his minions, by the dark depravity of Watergate and the ignominy of Vietnam, Carter burst onto the scene at precisely the moment when Americans were searching for a kind of savior, someone to lead them out of the wilderness of shame and corruption to the promised land of redemption and rehabilitation? (79).
In general, it was an evangelical crowd that tipped in Carter?s favor and it was also an evangelical crowd that leaned in the other direction in 1980 to usher the Reagan era in.
After a short career in the US Navy, Carter returned home to run his father?s peanut farm and teach Sunday School class. As a result of Brown v. Board of Education, Carter became politically active and resisted segregation. He ran for senator; then for governor. He lost the governor election, had a spiritual experience through his sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, and formed a ?more intimate relationship with Christ? (85). It was during this time that he had his famous Lock Haven experience of closeness with Christ and evangelism. He then won governorship and followed through with is promises.
The New South perspective ? progressive-minded who fought segregation ? led Carter into candidacy for President and beat Gerald R. Ford. It was about this time that Carter was interviewed by Playboy, in which interview he confessed to his lust and adultery in his heart. WA Criswell ? whom Balmer manages to bring into the picture in several incidents in this chp ? was ?highly offended? by the Carter interview.
His Presidency begins with affirming the prophet Micah and it was his commitment to the principles of human rights. Balmer then digresses into a discussion of the rise of the Religious Right, which (as he made clear in his previous book) did not arise as a result of the abortion issue (Roe v. Wade) but the invasion of the rights of religious institutions as seen in the Bob Jones decision (Green vs. Connally). Here he points to the paradox of the evangelical opposition to slavery in the 19th century flipped into a tacit defense of racial discrimination.
It was the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention, with the planned takeover led by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, that led to a shift on the part of the SBC on both the separation of Church and State and advocacy for Reagan.
Popular discontent with Carter, along with the bad hand Carter was played (which he played badly, according to Balmer), led to the demise of Carter and the election of Reagan. Much was going on: the LaHayes, Jerry Falwell, the SBC, Pat Robertson, etc etc, all coalesced into the election of Reagan. I call the ideology at this time, mixing evangelicalism with Republicanism, Reaganology.



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John C

posted January 29, 2008 at 4:53 am


Balmer’s emphasis on the reactionary/southern origins of the Religious Right may be only part of the story. There’s another part, told by Preston Shires in a book with a truly wonderful title: Hippies of the Religious Right: From the Counterculture of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell (Baylor, 2007). This highlights the origins of some key leaders of the religious right in the counterculture of the West Coast, and its argument is complemented by Frank Schaeffer’s recent memoir: Crazy for God: How I Grew up as one of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to take All (or Almost All) of it Back (2007). In this story, abortion really is a/the central issue, one that drives some unlikely people into the arms of the Republican party. On Schaeffer’s telling, Swiss L’Abri in the early 70s was a very countercultural place, but the elder Schaeffer’s book and film tours in the US in the mid-70s (esp Whatever Happened to the Human Race) drew him into an uncongenial coalition with ‘cobelligerents’ like Falwell, Robertson and the theocrat Rushdoony. I don’t think Balmer gets this part of the history, but it’s important in explaining why the Religious Right was/is such a powerful force.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 29, 2008 at 7:09 am


John C,
I agree that Francis Schaeffer was more part of this, with both Evangelical Manifesto and What Then Shall We Do?, than many realize. Just what part he played in it all, since I recall his being welcomed by the Religious Right as one of their own, I am unsure.
Does Shires deal with Schaeffer? Does anyone? Does anyone out there know?



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Bob Brague

posted January 29, 2008 at 8:54 am


Jimmy Carter wasn’t a complete redneck, as you make him seem. He attended the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; graduated wtih a degree in Engineering Management; and served on board a nuclear submarine. “Peanut farmer and Sunday School teacher” hardly defines him.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 29, 2008 at 9:25 am


Bob, it is an unfair accusation to suggest I was suggesting Carter was a redneck. I was assuming my readers know he was in the Naval Academy — we were getting to his political career.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 29, 2008 at 9:26 am


Bob,
Personally, I love Jimmy Carter even if I think his recent public comments (and book on Palestine) are neither his best stuff nor appropriate for a former President.



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Scott Watson

posted January 29, 2008 at 9:37 am


It seems to me that in mulling over this thread it appears that Christianity has been a temptation and stumblingblock in the American political landscape,that is,its appropriation in the service of various political ideologies.The notion that one is “born again” or on “God’s side” can lead to a type of messianism and hubris which sometimes belies the actual motives, abilities and character of the people who espouse them. Being “born again” does not automatically make a politician wise,competant,decent,impervious to corruption,. On the contrary,the sense of moral superiority and entitlement flowing from a certain self-understanding of Evangelical “Christian” identity has blinded many in these political movements to their own weaknesses and failings,leading to all kinds of embarassments and contradictions.



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Jason Okrzynski

posted January 29, 2008 at 9:57 am


I wonder if there is yet another non-political part of the story not being told here. I was struck by the “paradox of the evangelical opposition to slavery in the 19th century flipped into a tacit defense of racial discrimination”. I jsut finished reading Bruggemann’s new book, The Word militant. Bruggemann spends a great amount of time on the significant changes in indentity that have occurred in the U.S. in the last fifty years. I am a firm believer that much of our culture’s fear of the future and of change are worked out with very little fear or trembling in the church. Faith and God are am obvious choice to dig one’s feet in and struggle against the tide. I wonder how much of the carter election, and regan-era rejection have nothing to do with morales or even politics but a connection between people’s fear of change and hope for keeping the old script in tact. I am admittedly a much more astute theologian than historian, so please let me know if I am way off base here.



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Bob Brague

posted January 29, 2008 at 10:06 am


Scott Watson, I wish you would tell that to Mike Huckabee.



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Bob Brague

posted January 29, 2008 at 10:07 am


Scot McK, I apologize for suggesting what you weren’t suggesting. I must not have been assuming what you were assuming. :)



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John W Frye

posted January 29, 2008 at 10:51 am


I listened to a podcast of Frank Schaeffer talking about his new book *Crazy for God* and he emphasized that his father Francis was not comfortable at all with being identified with the then emerging leaders of the Religious Right–Falwell, Robertson, D James Kennedy et al.



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John C

posted January 29, 2008 at 11:10 am


John Frye – the book also emphasises that Schaeffer senior found some of these people pretty distasteful (es; Falwell/Robertson), but it argues that the Schaeffers provided a substantial boost to the Religious Right. A Christian Manifesto, for example, helped to consolidate the belief that the United States was founded on a Christian/Reformational foundation which was being undermined by ‘secular humanists’ – and Schaeffer was very upset by Evangelical historians like Marsden and Noll who emphasised the Enlightenment roots of the Founders.



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Michael Cline

posted January 29, 2008 at 11:11 am


I think the abortion side of the story has to be in there somewhere for Schaeffer to join arms with the Religious Right. Perhaps it was co-opting on behalf of Falwell and Co. but with Schaeffer’s voice ringing out so loud and clear about the moral downfalls of Western Society and proclaiming the doom that is abortion through the world and u.s. history, certainly that is where Schaeffer got thrown into the mix. His voice could either be co-opted or challenged, but never ignored.



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John W Frye

posted January 29, 2008 at 11:57 am


John C,
I agree with you and Fank even admits that he and his films helped push his father into the Religious Right Wing limelight. Frank reports that the Religious Right leaders wanted to own Francis as their intellectual/philosophical hero. Francis did find some of those leaders disgusting.



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Darin

posted January 29, 2008 at 3:52 pm


Have you read “The Preacher and the Presidents” about Billy Graham’s relationships with the different presidents? It is interesting that Graham wasn’t that close to Carter but was very close to Nixon.



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Ted Gossard

posted January 29, 2008 at 8:18 pm


Over here in Grand Rapids, U.S. Congressman Paul Henry (who died in 1993 of cancer, and son of Carl Henry, evangelical theologian) delivered a paper expressing his concern for the burgeoning religious right. It was quite a scholarly paper, and I can’t recall that much about it, except to say that he had reservations and concerns about this new movement within evangelicalism, at the time.



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Dianne P

posted January 29, 2008 at 11:09 pm


#14. Interesting point. Maybe Graham felt that Nixon was in greater need of his companionship than was Carter.



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VanSkaamper

posted January 30, 2008 at 9:48 am


#16. It’s more likely that Carter and Graham just didn’t hit it off on a personal level…which makes it more odd that somehow he connected with Nixon, but interpersonal chemistry is a mysterious thing.
Back to the main topic, it’s a profoundly frightening thing, to me, any time any human being is the focus of Messianic hopes and expectations. There’s only one person (fully human yet fully God) that was worthy of those expectations, and as we all know, the powers that be executed him.
Both the rise of Carter and Reagan were due at least in part to a thirst for positive leadership and hope. If Carter hadn’t been such a profoundly bad president, he could have started his own re-awakening movement. As pointed out, just because a man has sincere religious faith it doesn’t follow that he’s a good leader or would be a good president (paging Mike Huckabee). And yet we seem to have an insatiable human desire to project unrealistic hopes and dreams on to people that we don’t really know, but who are more than happy to serve as a screen for those projections (paging Barak “Magic” Obama).
On the one hand we seem to have this innate desire for morality, truth, justice and it manifests itself in electoral politics. Just as real, however, is the very human capacity for foolish self-deception and gullibility, and history is full of false political messiahs who wreak various levels of havoc on those who give them power.
It may be that as the collective social consciousness isn’t able to see that acting on the calls of people like Schaeffer to pursue justice is first and foremost an individual responsibility and not necessarily a call to vote for everyone who claims to be able to lead us out of the wilderness via government policy.



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