Albert Schweitzer in his marvelous book The Quest of the Historical Jesus writes about, or parodies, the rich, poetic manner of Renan’s Life of Jesus:
Thus he rode, on His long-eyelashed gentle mule, from village to village, from town to town. The sweet theology of love (la délicieuse théologie de l’amour) won Him all hearts. His preaching was gentle and mild (suave et douce), full of nature and the fragrance of the country.
The historical Jesus is never discovered. (Noack, a German scholar writing in the 1870s, thought Jesus was prone to ecstasy because he was born out of wedlock. De Jonge  believed he had discovered in the Gospel of John that Jesus was between forty and fifty years old at the time of His first coming forward publicly. He was a widower and had a little son.)
The political rise of Jimmy Carter who, along with his family and members of his staff, asserts that he is “strongly committed to Jesus Christ” leads us, cheerfully, into the murk of the Christian past, into the cacophony of the Holy Spirit. And indeed theirs is a “born again” world—free and blithe and with the milky theology of a newborn baby.
“Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” was the only sound left of the great Sea of Faith for Matthew Arnold. Still the evangelical movement with its plainness, obstinacy, and intensity lives on. The “enthusiasm” rises in the summer conversion dramas, the altar acceptances of Christ, the murmuring encouragement of the communicants humming “Almost Persuaded.” These practices maintain their hold here and there, with a few shapings and reshapings, with shifts that are not essentially doctrinal since the central belief is that salvation comes from faith in Christ alone. Changes appear as metaphor, and Christ keeps up, now a businessman, now a sort of early astronaut, a neighbor and best friend.
Jimmy Carter set forth on a period of “witnessing”—passing out tracts, preaching, witnessing in humble door-to-door missionary greetings, revealing his own strong commitment to Christ. He went from Georgia to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, encouraging people “to receive Jesus Christ into their hearts and lives.” On a call back home to his wife he said, “I feel as though if I walked across the street no car would even dare to hit me, because the Lord is with me.”
The account above is from The Miracle of Jimmy Carter by Howard Norton and Bob Slosser. The Carter “literature” begins in such presses as Logos (New Jersey), publishers in Nashville and Waco, Texas, and finally leads up to the sayings of Carter, put out by Ballantine and called “I’ll Never Lie to You.” These printed works are presumably presented for our scrutiny and yet the reading of them makes one feel a little sly and unworthy. This is especially true in the case of The Miracle of Jimmy Carter and the book by Ruth Carter Stapleton called The Gift of Inner Healing. True, here, because of the hasty promotion of questionable experiences and the presentation of the experiences and material in the most barbarous language.
The deep pathos and seriousness of the struggle to preserve fundamentalist beliefs in the nineteenth century naturally come to mind when one faces the biographical iconography of Jimmy Carter. Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is a perfect work of autobiography, one of the most beautiful and melancholy creations of memory and intellectual analysis. The elder Gosse and his wife were passionately serious members of the Plymouth Brethren sect. They were dignified, denying, studious people, living for their prayer meetings, their exhausting scriptural and historical investigations, their fervent, dourly demanding witnessing, their union in Christ. “My Father was in the habit of saying, in later years, that no small element in his wedded happiness had been the fact that my Mother and he were of one mind in the interpretation of Sacred Prophecy.”
The awful element in the personal history of these evangelicals was that Father Gosse was an eminent zoologist, a well-known botanist and authority on small marine creatures. The term “intellectual agony” is exact as description of the painful state into which Gosse’s excellent mind was thrown by the publication of papers leading up to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Father Gosse’s heart was broken and in a gray despair and dark scriptural mediation he came up with his own notion which, in his manic hope, he believed would leave the sacred Genesis whole and undamaged.
In answer to geological development, Gosse proposed the idea that God had created the surface of the earth in such a way as to give the structural forms the appearance of a slow organic development. The erosions and successions of the ages, the dense evolutionary evidence, had been “put in” by God, as it were, in the act of creation. The earth was like a backdrop drawn for the stage; the old house and new could be seen by the eye as the curtain went up. The press quickly fell upon poor Gosse and decided his theory meant that “God hid the fossils in the rocks in order to tempt geologists into infidelity.” Carlyle was unsympathetic to Gosse’s effort to heal the wounds of science. He said, “Lying is not permitted in this universe.”
Doubt, discrepancy, and denial gave to many evangelicals a repressed and pinched aspect. As they stood on the street, telling the wind of their scriptural angularities, as they solicited pennies for their work, the Bible seemed to offer the ache of chilblains and the pains of rejection. Dreiser’s opening paragraphs in An American Tragedy, with the little family standing by the portable organ, singing “How Sweet the Balm of Jesus’ Love”—Clyde, very early, resents the fruits of a life deliberately narrowed and stripped. Behavior and dress, arbitrary in their signals, were thought to connect the drab exterior with the hidden illuminations of an inner life.
With the Carter family, evangelical faith appears in a much more practical light. Everything is “as natural as breathing” and the studious isolation of doctrinal particularity and Scriptural tangle is clearly absent. Indeed the evangelical value of religion for these people is found in the therapeutic—God makes you feel better. Extreme moments of recommitment are likely to appear as a pill for depression. It was the loss of the Georgia governorship in 1966, followed by a session with his sister, Ruth, that set Jimmy Carter back into confidence and winning.
Ruth Carter had sometime before had a religious experience that restored her to mental tranquility after a time of stress. “She had a deep rooted relationship with Jesus that produced an unusual freedom and wholeness.” Jimmy and Ruth talked together in a pine forest near Plains, Georgia. From The Miracle of Jimmy Carter:
Dressed casually, even sloppily, he in khaki trousers and work shirt, she in slacks and shirt, they walked slowly and aimlessly, close friends down through the years, both blond, crinkly-eyed, often smiling…. Ruth told him how she had experienced the release of God’s Spirit within her own spirit, the liberation of her being that had come, during a crisis point in her life, some years earlier at a nonsectarian Christian camp meeting…. They knelt there in the forest, brother and sister physically as well as spiritually, and they prayed together. They asked the Lord Jesus for the grace to conform more exactly to his will for their lives….
This experience helped Carter to concentrate on his second try for the governorship. He spent four years on it and he won. In his words, spoken out of a Pentacostal mood, he had “a sense of complete dependence on the Holy Spirit.”
Ruth Carter Stapleton is a healer of “world-wide fame.” Her attention is turned not so much upon the halt and blind as upon the troubled person who has suffered the usual or unusual traumas of family life, love, sex, depression, marital discontent. She sees Jesus Christ as a sort of psychiatrist addressing Himself to the torments of the “inner child who lives on the subconscious level.” He walks about, free from history and legend, partakes fully of the Georgian idyll, and speaks in the language of Ruth Carter Stapleton.
Her scenes are small dramas, Christian case histories:
“…Mary Ann, look toward the front door. See it opening. See Jesus walking in.”
He walks in and stands by the oil stove. “Let him come over to you and tell you how lovely you look….”
“Now, Mary Ann, let Jesus go over to your father….”
Mrs. Stapleton records counseling sessions with homosexuals, Jody, for one—“Handsome, twenty-two years old, warm, intense, and not at all ‘effeminate.’ ”
Jesus says to Jody, “I don’t want you to have problems. I want to take everything upon myself. I want you to see how strong I am. Lean against me.”
Piety and successful ambition are the remarkable qualities of Jimmy Carter. By way of therapeutic invasions of the Holy Spirit, he has reached a confidence of a special kind. Confidence is a neutral quality, morally; politically it is the judicious measure, neither under nor over, that seems to work. “I have never felt that the Lord required me to run for president, or that I am ordained to be president….” Yet, he also feels that “there’s no doubt in my mind that my campaign for the presidency is what God wants me to do.” His wife says, “He was praying about whether he should run for the president and it came to him that God wants us to use our talents.”
Piety and confidence and ambition have been revealed to the public as qualities of the Carter family as a group. They tell, each of them, the same stories over and over. The effect is of a cool, calm, honest people quite in control of their feelings, people with nothing to fear from reporters or cameras. But piety and confidence and ambition may lean, gently or heavily as the occasion warrants, on the arm of “honest self-deception,” a trait of character devastating to less pious colleagues. About Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s religious, moralizing prime minister, it was said by the biographer Philip Magnus: “He conquered the hearts of the Oxford Tories by his exquisite courtesy and simplicity, by his childlike delight in their company and by a fascinating combination of complete sincerity and a seemingly unbounded faculty of self-deception.”
“The will of God” is one of the ruffles political leaders baste on to their rhetorical garments whenever it can be made seemly to do so. Again Carter is in the intimate, obstinate “God’s Will” tradition of the part, of Gladstone that could write: “Why has my health and strength been so peculiarly sustained…. In the great physical and mental effort of speaking, often to large audiences, I have been upheld in an unusual manner…. Was not all this for a purpose? And has it not all come in connection with a process to which I have given myself?…appears to me to carry all the marks of the will of God.”
The Carters astonish by their sunny intrepidity. Their faces, that of each of them, are wrinkled by the tracks of smiles. It scarcely seems possible that Carter and Wallace have lived in and come to represent the same region. The grievance and glumness of the Wallace people, their pinched, suspicious glances, are at once defensive and provocative. Wallace himself, now and before, has always seemed to be a mind buried in phlegm, swimming about miserably without any of the elation of freedom. It was said in Marshall Frady’s book about Wallace that “he ain’t got but one serious appetite and that’s votes.” This he shares with Carter. In the tornado the calm Carter has achieved, both Wallace and the Kennedys have been pulled into the vortex and whirled into fragments.
The Carter story, as it has been given to us, is a drastic condensation. Candidate, mother, wife, and staff call upon a thin store of memory and anecdote. Georgia village, simple people who have not forgotten rural hardship, familiar, easy acquaintance with blacks within the racist boundaries of the period, Admiral Rickover, Jesus Christ, determination to win in politics…. It rolls on, automatically rewinding—soft, unpretentious, calm.
The family does not appear to see its story as anything more than its own affirmation. Still there are premonitory whisperings that others, enamored, hooked, may find in their goodness an accusation. The Carter folks exist not only for themselves but as a rebuke to the clever, the sophisticated, the celebrated, the worldly, the skeptical, the urban, the uprooted, the restless, the divorced.
Robert Coles, in a piece in The New Republic, even finds Atlanta already morally out of bounds, corrupt, decadent on the day after rebirth. “He [Carter] won, an underdog fighting the capital city boys, the big interests, the self-confident and well-to-do and proudly urbane Atlanta businessmen and bureaucrats, with their Brooks Brothers suits and revolving restaurants and exposed elevators, and plastic credit cards and guardedly liberal pieties….”
Only a few political families in some way work upon the national imagination as a composition, framed. The families come to represent an idealized possibility—the Roosevelts and the Kennedys were of this sort. The Carters promise to be also, and if they are too strict to inspire emulation, at least they can inspire in us a not very uncomfortable shame. Political persons must be from some place. The Carters are from Plains, Georgia, with a population of 680. The constant repetition of the number gives an idea of the awe in which it is held. This outstanding smallness is a fact of considerable symbolism, a good deal of it from movie sets which the clapboard storefronts of the Main Street in Plains helplessly, ruthlessly recall.
It is well to remember that the Candidate Carters have been restless in Plains much as others would have been. When Jimmy Carter’s father died, the son had been away for eleven years. He returned, set out for power in the state capital, and spent time in the governor’s mansion there. His present destination is not a secret.
Nostalgia and sentiment, a nature prone to many sacrifices and yet alert to both small success and the grandest, highest ambitions. The romantic elements in Carter’s history are fiercely contained within a profound attachment to things as he has always known them, to the people he grew up with. In his personal life there has been little ambitious experiment and there is a marked clinging to the familiar. Evangelical religion makes, against the example of Christ, family men in the fullest meaning of the term.
Outside of his own small group, the one person for whom Carter seems to have felt an agitated and preoccupying attraction has been Admiral Rickover. “He was unbelievably hard working and competent, and he demanded total dedication from his subordinates. We feared and respected him and strove to please him.” Something of the Deity in Carter’s Rickover and much that is Rickoverian in Carter himself—the fine-strung, compulsive organizing of things, the tense, tight control of detail.
The genuinely romantic aspect of Carter’s character, the one deep claim he can make upon the country’s emotions, is his accomplishment of a reconciliation between blacks and whites. Without this, enormous in moral signification and in political and historical possibility, without this he would be a curiosity, clearly narrow in intentions, one who combined in his own ways the humility and arrogance of the missionary spirit. Again, the blacks are recommended to his feeling by their familiarity, their being in a sense part of his family, his lifetime. He extends his loyalty to them, “naturally” as he sees it. If others find them mysterious and unknowable, he asserts just the opposite. Carter refused, under strong pressures also, to join the White Citizens Council in the Sixties, and in that way his attachments were put to the test.
It is interesting that he is free to speak of all this in his own language. The most compelling trait he has to offer has come about by the understanding, the love that issues forth—he claims—from the lived life of the South. That he could make this genuine, on no grounds but his own, is an unimaginable victory for the real. By his loyalty he has erased the ugly obfuscation of the symbolizations of “law and order,” “crime in the streets,” “welfare cheats,” “busing.” He has fit black reconciliation into his peculiarly distant, unquestioning, traditional evangelism, which as it appears in his thoughts knows no intellectual debts and certainly no political debts.
Love and the politics of love. In his acceptance speech, Carter said on this subject, “Now, I have spoken a lot of times this year about love. But love must be aggressively translated into simple justice.” Love—isn’t there something Southern in the word, in the oval shape of it? It is not easy to imagine Reagan or Ford attempting the articulation. In any case they are elocutionists of the negative, ardent in warning, fervent in surgery, secular in their commercial diction. Carter, uniting love and some, actually much, of his opponents’ shudders at libertinage, is a mysterious figure, charismatic in his ascent rather than in his person. It is not love he inspires, but hope. And even the hope that attends him cannot yet entirely break free from its rooting in the arid soil of mere comparison.
August 5, 1976