The South is the most homogeneous bloc of voters in the country. If you get it at all, you are likely to get all of it. That always gave the South a heavy impact, even when it was poor and under-registered and racked with racial strife. But now it is growing—and growing prosperous, and gaining confidence. The Confederacy and its four border states make up a third of our population; and those fifteen states account for over half the electoral vote needed to become president. Take that bloc, and you can shop around for the other hundred or so electoral votes it takes to win. Denied that bloc, you must scrounge everywhere but in the South, a task beyond the energy, or organization, or pocket-book, of most candidates. The proof of the South’s importance lies in the way Republicans assume that they must fight for it even against Carter. They cannot grant him his home turf and hope to win.
I mean to take nothing from Carter as a politician; he is the best any of us is likely to see. But, good as he is, he could not have pulled off his “miracle” without the structural factors working for him. These factors make the unexpected look, in retrospect, inevitable. If he was to represent the real South, and not just be a front man for Northern liberals (like Terry Sanford or Reubin Askew), he needed most or all of the following traits—and Carter possesses them all in supreme degree.
He should be a military man. A military record helps almost any American politician running for national office—look how McGovern’s supporters emphasized his bombing days from World War II. But the South is the most bellicose region of the country (it would call itself the most patriotic). Nixon won Strom Thurmond’s support in 1968 less from hints at racial toughness than by commitment to ABMs. Southerners fought and died in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. Those who grant Carter a little leeway in his first campaigns on the issue of black rights—the maneuvering room that was given William Fulbright—do not see why he had to express a hedged concern for Lieutenant Calley, a fear for national security when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, a doubt about McGovern’s toughness.
I do not fear bellicose acts would follow such political noises. Carter is not only a military man, with nothing to prove; he will, if elected, be the first Annapolis graduate to hold the presidency. (Grant and Eisenhower, from West Point, are the only earlier presidents from a national military academy). Eisenhower stood up to the Pentagon better than any other postwar president. He saw the military establishment from the inside, as a professional making it his career. That experience can be more disillusioning than inspiring; and Carter has shown a healthy skepticism about the top-heavy military staffs. He thus gets the best of two worlds—a Southern respect for the military without the awe that naval amateurs like the two Roosevelts displayed.
A Southern voice should, ideally, be a rural voice. Even as it undergoes rapid urbanization, the South still thinks of itself as rural, and likes a sense of its farm roots. Many jokes were made, when Carter started his run, about a peanut farmer as president. But Southern politicians must affect a country style even when they do not come by it honestly. Carter knows this. He did not, with success, move from south Georgia to Atlanta, as his friend Charles Kirbo did. (Kirbo compensates by driving a pickup truck around the big city.) People argue whether Carter is a “real” populist; but populism is more a matter of symbols than of ideology in America. It is a style that either stimulates or allays the rural envies. Carter, because of his self-confidence, does not mobilize resentment as Nixon did. When he says, “We are as good as any others,” he really means he is better; and the better voters think of themselves, the less demanding they become.
The Southerner must be a religious man. The South is the last refuge of sin in America, of devils and the fight against devils. Its politicians still quote the Bible. Carter’s late partner would not process peanuts on the Sabbath. The church was the center of social life when Carter was growing up. He is not a fanatic, but a sincere member of the mainstream of Southern belief. This not only gives him substantial identification with the South’s third of our national population; it makes him an appealing figure to the burgeoning evangelical movement all across the country. And thus another historical anomaly is resolved. The evangelical tradition in America, seen recently as opposed to progress and change, has been a reforming influence through most of our history.
Paul Kleppner in The Cross of Culture, his brilliant analysis of the populist elections in the 1890s, separates American religion into two political types, the ritualist and the pietist. The ritualist believes in hierarchy, social structure, compartmentalization, and an intellectual theology. Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews are all ritualists in Kleppner’s terms. In varying degrees these faiths have accepted secularization, departed from Biblical fundamentalism, and been thought of as “enlightened” and progressive. Pietists, by contrast, stress a personal experience of the Spirit, one not mediated by priests, ceremony, or theological argument. They descend from the Puritans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and they call for constant reform, revival, awakening, “new lights.” Like the Puritans and dissenters in England, they were allied with many forces of political reform and liberal change—with abolitionism, temperance, wider suffrage, easier money. The combination of populism and fundamentalism in William Jennings Bryan was not a personal quirk but the natural result of social configurations in his time. Pietists have always tended to think of themselves as the true Americans, formed entirely by this country’s experience—as opposed to “foreigners” like the German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, or Russian Jews.
In recent times the increase of secularism seemed to favor the cool and intellectual style of ritualists. Pietists were still there. Billy Graham always showed up in polls as the most admired man apart from the president—but otherwise the pietists made little noise. But ritualists seem to have grown so secular and pale today that they do not feed the spiritual hungers of our time. Pietism was making an astounding comeback in the Sixties even as ritualists proclaimed “the death of God.” And the comeback occurred on familiar turf, amid forces of change and reform. The Sixties style of protest emphasized personal experiences of conversion (“radicalization”), “witnessing,” and emotional assembly. Martin Luther King and his SCLC set the tone. Preachers and hymns turned antiwar marches into modern revivals. Communes were the new monasticism. This atmosphere helps to explain the appeal of the Jesus People, or Pentacostals, or Moon cultists, or Eastern contemplatives, to so many young people.
Evangelical religion of the more traditional sort has been growing in numbers and intensity. The National Opinion Research Center recently found that over a third of Americans claim to have had a mystical experience (the born-again feeling), with the proportion approaching 50 percent among middle-aged middle-class Protestants. Educated guesses now put evangelical Christians at between sixty and eighty million people in this country, with a large fringe of sympathizers or the well-disposed. This makes it far the largest religious group in the country. The person mobilizing that group has a broader political base than Kennedy had in his fifty million Catholic supporters. Carter often says that Martin Luther King made his campaign possible. He means that King broke down the racist isolation of the South. But King as a symbol made Carter’s rise easier for reasons that go beyond the civil rights movement. King was partly a cause, and partly the result, of the evangelicals’ reentry into reform politics. Carter could not have risen so far so fast without the energies of this large social shift behind his effort. Pietists tend to vote for persons of distinct moral character, unlike ritualists, who concentrate on intellectual “issues.”
Only yesterday, it seems, too overt religiosity would have been considered risky in a presidential candidate. Kennedy’s lukewarm Catholicism was acceptable because it was irrelevant. But Catholicism is ritualist and “foreign.” The native religion looks almost like a necessity this campaign year. President Ford, an Episcopalian by formal denomination, has an evangelical mentor, the well-known preacher Billy Zeoli; and, as a congressman, Ford was a devout frequenter of evangelical prayer meetings on the Hill. He has spoken to almost every large gathering of evangelicals this year, where he reminds audiences that his son is in divinity school. Reagan has an ex-all-American evangelical pastor, Donn Moomaw, who has conveyed the message that Reagan is “one of us.” Indeed, in a recent interview Reagan said: “In my own experience there came a time when there developed a new relationship with God, and it grew out of need. So, yes, I have had an experience that could be described as ‘born again.”’ (Off to the right even of Ford and Reagan, evangelicals like Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis have lost influence, though John Conlan of Arizona is taking up some of their “crusade.”)
The energies of evangelical revival help to explain not only Carter’s appeal to others but his understanding of himself—the unembarrassed use of his own character as the prime issue, the need for personal contact, the demand for personal trust; the instant familiarity and first names and diminutives (it is Billy Graham, not William); the discipline and puritanical attitude toward wasted time; the framing of political matters in moral terms. When Carter traveled as a preacher of the gospel, his style of witnessing, of living with the people, was essentially the mode of his campaign. When he ran for governor, he brought friends and neighbors from his own county (Sumter) to vouch for him around the state. In the primaries, he brought Georgians to other states for the same purpose.
Pietism has often gone hand in hand with political shrewdness in America—and it certainly does in Carter. I thought of that, too, as I watched Papp’s production of Henry V, a production whose flow and jumble of scene-changes create a deliberate chaos through which the King can move in a circle of ordering calm. This King jokes a bit, as he did when Prince. But he also prays; and he executes men at each step of his way—the conspirators at home, the prisoners abroad, and even old Bardolph (who was hanged in grisly effigy off the backdrop of Papp’s stage). Those who complain of Carter’s cold eyes would be just as upset if he were a wild-eyed hot-gospeler. As it is, he likes order and creates it, sometimes ruthlessly. As Assemblyman Willie Brown put it, complaining of the way Jerry Brown left his California delegation dangling and uninstructed, “You cash no loser’s tickets at Jimmy Carter’s window.”
Even while Carter graciously praised Governor Brown, he mocked him. Referring to Brown’s ascetic style Carter said, “As we were saying upstairs in his suite—I mean, his room….” He could not finish—the Californians laughed and applauded. Brown had not stayed in the hotel with their delegation but in a fleàbag with Cesar Chavez. Carter talks a lot about love, and presumably means it; but he is a businessman who talks about profit just as earnestly. King Henry woos fetchingly when he meets the Princess Katherine; but he keeps counting the realms he wants in the very midst of his courting: “I am content, so the maiden cities you talk of may wait on her; so the maid that stood in the way for my wish shall show me the way to my will.”