Published April 13, 2012
The Catholic Difference
Given the specter of James Buchanan, the question of whether Jimmy Carter was the worst president in the history of the Republic must remain unresolved; yet there is no doubt that Carter is the worst ex-president ever. Having failed to convince his countrymen to re-elect him, he has spent his post-presidency explaining to the world what is wrong with his countrymen, and his country, in a pathetic attempt at self-vindication. In the course of this endless kow-towing to the gods of political correctness, the little engine of self-esteem from Plains has interfered with the nation’s diplomacy, misrepresented the just war tradition, and described Israeli policy in the West Bank as a “system of apartheid.”
Now, in the course of promoting the “NIV Lessons for Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter,” the 39th president (who promised a government as good as the American people and delivered an administration as inept as the St. Louis Browns) takes on the mantle of biblical scholar, dipping into such knotty questions as the inerrancy of the Bible and the proper methods of biblical interpretation.
The results are not pretty. In the course of an interview promoting the Carter Bible, the former chief executive allowed as how the Bible was written “by human beings deprived of modern-day knowledge,” opined that there is “some fallibility in the writings of the Bible,” and offered his endorsement of same-sex “marriage,” which he implied would be Jesus’s view of things, the Lord having “never said a word about homosexuality.” Such Carterisms are, perhaps, not surprising, given the former president’s previously expressed views that the “mandated subservience of women by Christian fundamentalists” contributes to the practice of female genital mutilation by Islamists, and that pro-lifers “do not extend their concern to the baby who is born.”
Obviously, the Georgian sage has never quite grasped the moral-theological concept of calumny.
But now he has taken to reinventing history.
I was on the north lawn of the White House in October 1979 when a beaming Jimmy Carter welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Executive Mansion, the trademark presidential teeth amply displayed as the Baptist Sunday school teacher gave the 264th Bishop of Rome a two-handed handshake. All seemed sweetness and light. But not so, Carter avers. Now he says he had a harsh exchange over the “pope’s perpetuation of the subservience of women,” after which the two locked horns on liberation theology. John Paul’s adherence to settled Catholic doctrine, Carter charges, made him a kind of “fundamentalist,” a category of Bad People who, Carter has written, “are often angry and sometimes resort to verbal or even physical abuse against those who interfere with the implementation of their agenda.”
No doubt Carter, mercifully retired from the White House by the time of the pope’s visit to Nicaragua in 1983, expected the “fundamentalist” John Paul II to punch out Ernesto Cardenal on the tarmac at the Managua airport.
In the hands of a theological illiterate like Jimmy Carter, “fundamentalism” is a “Gotcha!” word that substitutes flatulence for thought. Blessed John Paul II was no more a “fundamentalist” than the mid-20th century Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Carter once claimed as an influence — an avowal that doubtless had Reinie spinning in his grave, for there were few, if any, modern American political figures less Niebuhrian than Carter. Indeed, Carter’s self-regard is the very inversion of the Niebuhrian ethic, which taught a healthy skepticism about anyone’s righteousness, not least one’s own.
H.L. Mencken, the bad boy of Baltimore journalism in the Roaring Twenties, once suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that all failed candidates for president should be quietly hanged, so that their further maunderings would not upset the young. One can only imagine what Mencken (who used to deride the sanctimonious President Wilson as “the Archangel Woodrow”) would say about condign punishment for Jimmy Carter. In any case, Mr. Carter would do us all a great favor if he would lay off theology and exegesis. Like foreign policy, these are disciplines manifestly beyond his capabilities.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.