Plainly, no one can confidently predict how large a factor racist attitudes will play in the November presidential election. In the privacy of the voting booth, people’s fears and prejudices may be more powerful than the marked (and widely documented) shifts in both American law and American culture these last 40 years or so. How can they be persuaded to act on their best instincts and not their basest?
Here, it is well to recall that part of Jimmy Carter’s famous Playboy interview of 1976 that almost derailed his campaign:
The Bible says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times…. This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.
The significance of Carter’s words goes well beyond their role in an election. What Carter was saying, I believe, is that all of us have lust in our hearts. The only relevant question we are entitled to ask is whether we act on that lust or keep it in check. The only demand we are entitled to make of ourselves as of others is that we not behave lustfully.
Any effort to persuade voters who are bigots that they are morally wanting is likely to fail. If they’ve not long since gotten that message, the hope that they will at this late date experience attitudinal change is almost surely misplaced.
It will be difficult to refrain from condemnation, but useless to engage in it. What we can say to such people, quite explicitly, is that they are entitled to their private sentiments – but that they are not permitted to let those sentiments determine their vote. There’s a huge difference between lust in the heart and lust in the public square; there’s as great a difference between bigotry in the head and bigotry in the polling place.