Imagine an America in which prayer was part of the daily ritual in public schools. Imagine an America in which most of those schools celebrated Easter, and virtually all of them celebrated Christmas, with songs and pageants. Imagine an America in which abortion and homosexual behavior were illegal almost everywhere, an America in which even liberal politicians routinely invoked the Christian God, and “Pray for Peace” was a common postal cancellation. Imagine an America in which divorce disqualified candidates tor high public office.
That’s the America in which I grew up, not many years ago. In the Michigan grade school that I attended, teachers led their students in saying grace over lunch, and the day’s activities often began with the Lord’s Prayer. Students were assembled two or three times a year to be instructed in Christian doctrine by a minister from the Rural Bible Mission. The great political issue was whether a Roman Catholic was qualified to be president.
That’s the America that was known to me, and millions, but has been completely forgotten by modern liberals – at least on the evidence recently presented by their current ideological champion, former President Jimmy Carter. Carter has been on TV a lot lately, plugging his new book, an opus breathlessly entitled “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.” The crisis, according to him, has resulted from the attempt of fundamentalist Christians to destroy “our sacred value,” the “wall of separation between church and state- such an attempt, he says, as was never before witnessed in our great nation.
The first question that occurred to me when I heard these extraordinary assertions was the one that occurs to me whenever I run into somebody who actually takes the New York Times seriously: “Hasn’t this guy ever been on the west side of the Hudson?” But of course Carter has. He’s from Georgia – and he’s an evangelical Christian, to boot. And he’s a great deal older than I am. He was actually born during Prohibition, a national experience that ought to provide some inkling about what can happen when churches really interact with the state. So what can account for his seemingly hallucinatory statements about the old America? That’s what I wondered, until it occurred to me that the former statesman must be indulging a rich, though hitherto well concealed vein of humor.
His claim is that fundamentalists are objectionable because they are “always certain that they are right,” and that they therefore continually misinterpret reality. Now, what could constitute a greater, more willful misinterpretation of reality than the contention that America formerly had a wall of separation between religion and politics? Just consider the most faithful supporters of Carter’s own political projects, African-American fundamentalists and the white religious left. Have they ever separated religion from politics? And is there any person in the country who is more habitually certain that he is right – no matter what – than Jimmy Carter?
My conclusion is that Carter is now atoning for his many and grievous sins of self-righteousness with a gargantuan act of self-parody, a show in which he pretends to blame other people for the stupidities in which he himself has inveterately engaged. I, for one, regard this as one of the funniest acts of our time.