Carter, Obama, and the Evangelicals

David Stokes
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Posted: Jun 29, 2008 12:01 AM
Carter, Obama, and the Evangelicals

As Barack Obama coasts to his coronation as the Democratic nominee in late August, he’s managed to convince many that he wears the mantle of Camelot. Toward that end, he’s been chasing Kennedy coattails every bit as much as he has delegates.

Some who are clearly less-than-enamored of Mr. Obama have tried to suggest that his candidacy looks more like George McGovern’s in 1972 than that of Jack Kennedy in 1960, or brother Bobby in 1968. But that argument hasn’t developed much traction. A closer look at current personalities and patterns suggests another comparison, one that may actually be the best political parallel between a past campaign and the current phenomenon.

Could the ascendancy and candidacy of Barack Obama be the second coming of Jimmy Carter? Consider these interesting parallels.

First, Jimmy Carter appeared from nowhere – he was an obscure, though fiercely ambitious, southern governor who, eighteen months before his juggernaut reached full and unstoppable speed, had been hardly noticed and was given little chance of success. But his carefully calculated message wrapped in a resonate promise, “I’ll never lie to you,” had a populist impact that was underestimated by party insiders.

The peanut farmer knocked-out seemingly formidable opponents early on in the primaries the way Joe Louis handled pugilistic foes (c.1939-1941) during the days of his “bum of the month club.” And by the time all hopes were placed on Hubert Humphrey, elder party statesman, to “stop Carter” – it was already too late. The Carter nomination was a virtual done-deal.

Of course, Jimmy Carter didn’t have one single formidable opponent to give him the trouble that Hillary gave Barack. But he bested an impressive field of opponents: George Wallace, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Morris Udall, Frank Church, Jerry Brown, and Lloyd Bentsen. And for all practical purposes, he wrapped things up by early May 1976, after winning eight of the first ten primaries that season.

This brings out another similarity between then and now. James Earl Carter Jr. was able to approach the selection of a running mate with the kind of deliberate and drawn out drama we are seeing today, as Mr. Obama conducts his dog and pony show (and, of course John McCain is doing the same thing). Long gone seem to be the days when a nominee had little time to think seriously of such things until the smoke-cleared in the wee hours of a morning during a frenetic 24-hour period of political posturing.

In 1976, VP wannabes made their trek to tiny Plains, Georgia with imagery now reminiscent of the journey many of the same movers and shakers made to Camp David a few years later. That occasion was when they were summoned to the mountain by the Georgian guru, as he picked their brains for help while preparing his stinging rebuke to America that became a metaphor for his failed presidency.

You want malaise with that?

But the most powerful similarity between Jimmy’s run in 1976 and Barack’s today can be seen in what’s happening among Christian evangelicals. Mr. Obama is trying, with some success, to convince these voters that he’s sufficiently one of them, glaring evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Jimmy Carter, complete with born again professions, received 48% of the evangelical vote in November 1976 doing exactly what Barack Obama is doing today – talking the talk. The problem is that he never actually walked the walk. Front-loaded euphoria about having a person of “I’ve met Jesus and He’s met me” faith in the White House, gave way to pervasive frustration as it became glaringly clear that Carter was not only in way over his head, but that head didn’t really think like an evangelical.

Jimmy Carter had mastered the God-speak VOCABULARY, but he was using a very different DICTIONARY. Barack Obama has discovered that dictionary. It’s now digitalized and part of his campaign.

And younger evangelicals are on the verge of making the same mistake in 2008 that many of their parents did back in 1976.

George W. Bush garnered 77% of the evangelical vote in 2004 on his way to reelection. Do the math. If Obama can approach Carter’s 1976 numbers – or even ten points less than what Carter received then from evangelicals – it could prove to be the margin of victory for him this November.

His strategy is clear – talk selectively about elements of the Biblical message that resonate with everyone (help those hurting and in need – DUH), while ignoring other vital aspects of scripture – things like righteousness and that “minor” matter of individual salvation.

This is exactly the mission of “The Matthew 25 Network” - the new group taking its name from what Jesus said in, well, Matthew chapter 25:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” – Matthew 25:35-36 (New International Version)

Certainly, this passage highlights important compassion-driven actions consistent with loving God and our fellow man. But context is always important. And anyone taking time to read the entire chapter will notice that the theme is not a discussion of public policy, then or now, but rather a powerful discourse by Jesus on things like Heaven, Hell, judgment, and his second coming. It also flows from his Olivet Discourse (this would be “The Matthew 24 Network”) – a powerful polemic about the end times, tribulation, and the absolute exclusivity and Lordship of Jesus.

But quoting stuff out of context is commonplace among politicians and spin-doctors.

Why is this kind of thing effective with people who should know better – those who profess to believe the Bible and follow Jesus? Well, the sad fact is that we are dealing with an often underestimated and ignorant illiteracy in many evangelical circles today. As more and more people find theology and doctrine dry and irrelevant, and matters of the soul, eternal life, and moral imperatives not nearly as important as SOCIAL ACTION, the situation is ripe to be exploited by someone with a message that sounds right.

St. Paul put it this way in some of his last written words:

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” – II Timothy 4:3 (New International Version)

That time is now. And a lot of younger evangelicals are not only weak on theology; they also don’t know their history.

A hundred years ago the idea of a SOCIAL GOSPEL was very popular. Inspired by the writings of men such as Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), it emphasized portions of scripture that talked about the need to do things for others (no-brainers). But all of this was at the DELIBERATE and CALCULATED expense of other issues such as PERSONAL MORALITY and SALVATION.

Social actions – good works, if you will – are taught in scripture to be by-products of personal renewal, redemption, and commitment to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” They are the fruit, not the root, of faith. And those who bought into those ideas a century ago also learned that this activist emphasis was part of a larger systemic denial of basic truths explicitly taught in the Bible. They sought to “demythologize” the Bible (read: no miracles). By the time these spiritual and political antecedents were done, the book revered by so many as the Word of God had been reduced to a collection of a few benign directives about doing good.

The SOCIAL GOSPEL was no gospel. The gospel, by definition (look it up, I Corinthians 15:1-8), is wrapped around the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (and the Social Gospel fans of old denied that Jesus actually rose again). And, though Barack Obama apparently prefers stuff from Matthew over that “obscure” (his word) book of Romans, Paul’s epistle reminds us that the gospel is essentially about the righteousness of God (Romans 1:16-17).

By the way, Jimmy Carter also told us in 1976 that he believed the Bible, but couldn’t “go along with Paul.” Many evangelicals didn’t catch that until too late. It feels like “déjà vu all over again.”

Social Gospel proponents back then, as well as “The Matthew 25 Movement” types today, willfully ignore the preponderance of Biblical teaching and seek to reduce its message to a few commonly accepted platitudes.

Again, they have a familiar VOCABULARY – but not the right DICTIONARY.

Finally, let me get back to the theme of this piece – the comparison between the Jimmy Carter of 1976 and the Barack Obama of 2008. It’s important to remember what actually happened after that man was swept into the White House with a tidal wave of expectation, complete with the support of evangelicals.

It didn’t take Americans long to figure out that Mr. Carter was an ineffective chief executive. But worse than that, his presidency was regarded as a betrayal by the very Bible-oriented people who trusted him with their votes. The backlash led to the creation of initiatives like the Moral Majority and other manifestations of the so-called Christian Right.

And then Ronald Reagan came to the rescue, after evangelicals woke up and realized that they’d been sold a bill of goods in the guise of faith, hope, and charity.

Evangelicals today, especially younger ones who may be bored, or even disillusioned, with some of an older generation’s political stridency, would do well to step back and take a better look at the subtle political winds swirling around them.

We learned the hard way during the days of the Carter presidency - those who seem to talk the talk don’t always walk the walk.