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An Ex-Believer Defends Carter's Religion

A few months ago I called my brother Doug in California to ask what he thought of Jimmy Carter. I figured Doug would offer a perspective not readily available from my friendly neighborhood pundits. This is because my neighborhood is Manhattan and my brother is a full-time Christian worker--the domestic equivalent of a missionary--employed by a Scout-like organization to help win teenaged boys for Christ. From their reading, Manhatanites are aware that many such Christians reside in this nation, but to encounter one in the flesh is deemed a brush with the exotic, like sighting a Hindu in Idaho. And so when I tell people that my brother is a full-time Christian worker, they often don't quite believe me.

If I were an immigrant from the South or the Midwest, maybe they would, but as it happens I'm a native of Queens; my secular humanism, by which I mean my atheism, is so acerbically New York in style that I am occasionally assumed to be Jewish despite my surname. Nevertheless, I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing, amid a white evangelical congregation dominated by first- or second-generation non-New Yorkers who felt far more kinship with the worshipers at two nearby Baptist churches than with the modernists in the New York presbytery. And my brother is what that congregation would have wished a bright boy like me to become. He is not one of those familiar activist clerics who get their spiritual satisfaction fomenting revolution out of the denominational moneybags. The husbandry of souls is his calling, and cementing family values his chief worldly interest. Maybe the conservatives he works with consider him some kind of radical, but I know he switched from Nixon to McGovern only after a 40-minute phone call from me on election eve. Politics is something Doug reads about in Newsweek.

My brother is a very serious person. He cares about social issues, analyzing them in terms of a biblical faith governed by the law of charity. But since like most Americans he neither likes nor trusts politicians, the attention he pays them is mostly a matter of moral obligation. Newsweek is how he tries to keep up. And it was from Newsweek that my brother got his initial impression of Jimmy Carter. This was in early May, before the Maryland and Michigan primaries. What talk there was about Carter in the many churches on my brother's circuit tended to knock his liberalism; in the California suburbs, evangelicals are predominantly Republican, and most of their political chitchat concerned Ford and Reagan, both of whom had professed faith in Christ. But from what he had read, my brother was "pretty excited" about Carter, comparing him to Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, whom many evangelicals moderate-to-liberal politics cite as a model Christian in government. As Doug described Hatfield: "He's true to his convictions, but he doesn't use his political position to advance his religion."

This sentiment makes an interesting contrast, I think, with a letter The Voice recently received from Carl Shapiro of Independent Publications, "America's foremost publisher of Freethought and American Historical Memorabilia." The letter began: "It is not presumptuous to say, as there is enough evidence already, that a vast number of Jimmy Carter supporters consist of aggressive evangelicals whose main goal is to 'Christianize' our country; that is to say, to convert Americans to a particular brand of religious obscurantism. Needless to say, most, or many Carter-fundamentalists despise complete intellectual and religious liberty."

To me, this read like nonsense, but just to make sure I called Shapiro to inquire about his "evidence." I had been looking into Carter's religion for several months without running across any overt organizations of "Carter-fundamentalists," whatever such a coinage might mean. Maybe he knew something I didn't. But all he could adduce was a series of inferences from Carter's faith to the intolerance of some other Americans who share that faith. When I criticized his logic, Shapiro seemed chagrined. Later he called back to remind me that Carter had said that Jesus was the most important thing in his life. He also voiced the hope that Carter, like Gerald Ford, would explicitly include atheists in any inaugural consensus he might invoke.

It would be no more just to hold atheists responsible for Carl Shapiro than to hold evangelicals responsible for Carl McIntyre. In fact, I believe atheists, with their spiritual roots in rationalism, are longer on tolerance than conservative Christians, whose narrowness I thought I'd escaped half a lifetime ago. But Jimmy Carter's unabashedness about being born again has obviously aroused a fear and animosity that approaches bigotry among the secular humanists--not only atheists, but agnostics, Jews, and lapsed or liberal Christians--who dominate America's intellectual life.

Now, ordained demagogues with a taste for biblical rhetoric are common on the authoritarian Right in this country, and most evangelicals are attracted to more 'moderate forms of political conservatism. So when an evangelical Christian says that Jesus is the most important thing in his life, it's only sensible for leftish citizens to examine his meaning carefully. But it is just this that Northeastern humanists--with their inbred association of "Southern accent" and "dumb"--have for the most part failed to do. New York journalists who've had to think about Carter carefully--like James Wooten and Kenneth A. Briggs of the Times--deal fairly enough with the issue. The most considered account, however, has come from a Southerner, E. Brooks Holifield, a religious historian at Emory University in Atlanta. (Holifield says he was for Udall when the New Republic requested his piece; in the course of his research he switched to Carter.) Even in the wake of the love-in at Madison Square Garden, the snickering persists--not only among the recalcitrants who are still keen for Gene or plan to spend Election Day quietly at home, but among ordinary left-liberals who expect to vote for this relic only because he will run against Ford or Reagan.

Among transplanted Southerners and Midwesterners who grew up chafing at the evangelical hegemony of Middle America, this hostility is understandable--but it's also uncommon. To know evangelical Christians, apparently, is to take them for granted. To fear them in ignorance, on the other hand, is to fall prey to provincialism as surely as the country singer does who expects to get mugged on his way to the baggage area at La Guardia or the congressman who equates field mice in Iowa with rats in Harlem. So if you like, you can take what follows as a guide to informed paranoia.

The word "evangelical" first came into wide use with Luther. It was the generic term for Christ-believing non-Catholics in this country until the end of the 19th century, when the pressure of Darwinism split Protestants into two camps: the liberals, who questioned the absolute historical accuracy of the-Bible and formalized the Christian practice of charity into the "Social Gospel," and the fundamentalists, who insisted that personal salvation was the sole purpose of Christian faith and held that five "fundamentals" (biblical inerrancy plus the virgin birth, the necessity of Christ's physical atonement for sin on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the second coming) were essential to that faith. Many fundamentalists also believed in "premillennial dispensationalism," which dismissed as futile any attempt to achieve worldly progress until the time of Christ--s return. With its tendency to put doctrine above spirit, its resistance to biblical criticism, and its general reputation for boobishness, fundamentalism was on the defensive almost continually. But in 1944, a more scholarly , less rigid Protestant conservatism began to be articulated in the newly formed National Association of Evangelicals. These new evangelicals tended to be more confident because they were more at home in the world: they could provide an old-time religion that wasn't so shrilly unmodern. Under clergy trained in this tradition, membership in denominations opposed to the liberal ecumenicism of the mainline churches has surged, as has membership in newer conservative denominations and charismatic sects. As of now. Jimmy Carter's religion is the fastest-growing in the country.

Yet despite its intellectual respectability (because of it, in a way), I don't think the term "evangelical" indicates very accurately what 30 million, or 40 million, or 50 million--I've encountered all three figures more than once--members of hundreds of American sects and denominations and thousands of independent churches share with Jimmy Carter. I almost prefer its cognate "evangelistic," which recalls by implication all the great awakenings and revivals that have renewed American popular religion over three centuries. The problem with "evangelical" is that it's not homely enough; many of Carter's coreligionists don't use it. Quite a few, including many Southern Baptists, still prefer "fundamentalist." Among blacks, whose link of faith with Carter is the secret of their passionate support, the favored term is "Bible-believing." And while "conservative" is a precise if colorless theological alternative, its political connotations don't much suit the likes of Jim Wallis, a former antiwar activist who edits a magazine for "biblical people" called Sojourners. Sojourners devoted much of its April issue to "a disclosure of an alarming political initiative by the evangelical far right" led by Arizona Congressman John Conlan.

Nevertheless, with all differences granted, these 30 or 40 or 50 million people are definitely united--by a common allegiance, an allegiance often described as "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." To secular humanists such a phrase sounds mystical and quite out of time, and thus frightening. Or so it is said. Perhaps what's really frightening is its populist thrust--intellectuals always feel threatened when the unsophisticated define their own philosophical prerogatives. The Calvinists who founded conservative Christianity in this country would not have countenanced such chummy talk about the Son of God; for them, the doctrine of salvation by grace meant that one's redemption by Christ was at the whim of the Almighty. But just as the mass revivalism that proved essential to religious fervor in a land so vast and fruitful often operated beyond ecclesiastical authority, so it brought home the individual's responsibility--or "ability" as it was often called--in receiving grace. It has been a recurrent theme of Jimmy Carter's kind of Christianity that any person--regardless of church of birth or past sins or beliefs about angles and pins--can be born again and achieve salvation simply by accepting Christ into his or her heart.

This act of acceptance and rebirth, the conversion experience, is not, properly speaking, mystical; it doesn't normally involve visions or seizures. Perhaps the best way of explaining it to skeptics is to call it a turning point--a time of crisis and self-doubt that may last days, months, even years, before it is brought to an end by an emotional resolve that transforms a person's consciousness, sometimes for a whole lifetime. Even skeptics have turning points, and although born-again "Christians will no doubt feel belittled by the comparison, in practice that's what a conversion experience is like. Christians interpret it is the forgiveness of sin by God and often claim a permanent joy as a result. They acknowledge, however, that they do still experience doubt and unhappiness; their joy in the knowledge of Christ manifests itself as a substratum of purpose and confidence that gets them through.

Usually conversion is sudden and distinct, but sometimes it's not--many young Christians go through adolescence wondering whether this or that momentary rush was It, then settle into adulthood somehow convinced they are saved. That is the way it seems to have been for Jimmy Carter. He had what he regarded is a conversion experience as a boy of 11, but that was not why he felt moved to start teaching Sunday school at 18, and later became a church deacon active in Southern Baptist affairs throughout his religion of south Georgia. His church responsibilities were a natural consequence of his status and ambitions--not ordained, certainly, but hardly unexpected. By the time he was 42, a two-term state senator who had just barely lost a darkhorse race for governor, his public piety ensured no more than that he was a typical American politician. Sociologists of religion are fond of pointing out that the conversion experience often takes place during normal times of crisis--especially at puberty, but also around the change of life in middle age. Carter's real Christian turning point occurred after he lost the governor's race in 1966. Bitterly disappointed, he found himself questioning the depth of his Christian commitment, and was finally led to rededicate his life to Christ--by his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. Stapleton is often described as a faithhealer, which is meant to imply either charlatan or nut, but that conjures up images that are much too outlandish. In her book, "The Gift of Inner Healing," she sounds more like a California encounter therapist who happens to be born again--characteristically, she induces the subject to imagine his or her "traumatic experience" and then insert the all-forgiving figure of Christ into the picture (after which one can almost hear her saying, "All better"). But however fatuous her calling may seem, the counsel she gave her brother might have come from any responsive member of the evangelical clergy. She told him he would never find peace until he had put Christ before everything else in his life--even his political ambitions. He resisted at first, but finally agreed.

The root of Carter's conversion experience might have been "psychological," but (as is so often true of comparable conversions to radical politics) it had genuine spiritual and behavioral results. By the following June, he had become a zealous part-time saver of souls. Where previously he had congratulated himself for a witness comprising a few house calls before revival week in Plains, he now traveled to several northern slums to help the unfortunate find the Lord. This is impressive. I recall from my own experience (and I grant that Carter's was very different: I was a callow youth when I considered myself saved, and I did not grow up in a place where my religion was considered the norm) that there is no more trying Christian duty than witnessing to nonbelievers. Many church members avoid it entirely. Not only is it time-consuming, it is embarrassing; it requires a rare inner confidence that springs only from intense belief.

Carter makes clear in his autobiography that his rediscovery of Christ, coinciding with the only major failure of his life, represented a partial victory over the sin that haunts him: spiritual pride. This is a common sin among politicians, and I have been told by both non-Baptist Southerners and non-Baptist evangelicals that it is a common sin among Southern Baptists, but in Carter it seems to transcend such parameters--if, anything defeats him in November, it will be America's tendency to hold its nose at an air of rectitude. In the humble quiet of his public presence, Carter tries to suggest that he is mostly past his own self-righteousness, but succeeds only in conveying that it's still a problem.

At least he's aware of it, though, and because his piety runs so deep that awareness may actually count for something. Secular humanists worry (or pretend to) when Carter talks about the continual presence of Christ in his life; they imagine that someday he will get down on his knees and be ordered to outlaw masturbation or reclaim the Holy Land. But in real life the idea of Christ is more likely to be a safeguard, a moral center, an admonitory image of humility, goodness, and perfect charity. Christians really are quite reluctant to lie; I can remember a family debate over whether to fib to my grandfather about some minor illness when the truth would only have made him nervous. And it has been determined in numerous sociological studies that deeply devout Christians--despite the innate conservatism of their decision to structure their lives around a posited outside authority--show less racial prejudice than those for whom religion is a more peripheral form or instrumentality.

I am not claiming that born-againers have special access to morality; I am an atheist for good reason. All religions obviously create powerful ethical imperatives for their devout, as do secular humanism and Marxism; what's more, the defensiveness and pinched puritanism of evangelical practice are often inconducive to Christian charity. But I am claiming that because Carter's faith is uncommonly intense, he probably feels his imperatives with uncommon intensity--and that contrary to secular humanist belief, these imperatives extend beyond the thou-shalt-nots. It may seem a contradiction to treat love as a law, but especially since evangelicals do tend to be self-righteous, that's often the way they do it. I have watched my own brother, a reserved and rather proud person, consciously turn loving into an effective discipline. That's what Carter is getting at in one of his favorite homilies, from the Cuban minister Eloy Cruz, the man he says is the finest Christian he's ever met: "You only need to have two loves: one for God, and one for the person who happens to be standing in front of you at any given moment."

The problem here is that implementing Christian charity is nowhere near as simple as Eloy Cruz's formula--or Jimmy Carter's stump speech--makes it sound, and that Carter, perhaps justifiably, is chary, of saying so. He shares with Cruz a dilemma faced by all preachers and politicians who aren't out-and-out hypocrites: They must render comprehensible, ethical questions they know to be perplexing to people who are too busy to be perplexed and aren't even sure they have time to bother comprehending. The trick is never to pretend that things are totally simple--people aren't fools--but never to let on that they're as complicated as you've discovered them to be either. To accomplish this, Carter frequently quotes nuggets of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, to wit: "The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world" and (in paraphrase) "when we quit searching, in effect, we've lost our religion." It's odd for a Southern Baptist to cite these men; Niebuhr's "Christian realism" has its born-again supporters, but I've yet to find an evangelical who would agree with Carter that Tillich, who declared atheism a religious pursuit, was "a great theologian." It's fair to presume, however, that their speculations informed Carter's own analysis of evil and its perplexities, and it's typical of the way Carter under-stands the politics of democracy that he should turn their most inspiring thoughts into slogans that mitigate genuine complication. After all, one must be understood to win. That's a perfect example. Carter may well have mused, of just how perplexing evil can be.

Basically, this is the air-of-rectitude problem again. Carter is clearly at home performing such moral calculations, yet he tries to conceal them; although at their simplest they may only involve fibbing to your grandfather, they can make you look bad, worse than you believe yourself to be. An example: Whether due to poor planning or inadequate financing or the likelihood that favorite son Robert Byrd would lick him good, Carter was not on the ballot in West Virginia, which interfered with one of his favorite campaign boasts--that he had tested himself in every primary. In three days of campaigning I heard him pass off this discrepancy in three different ways, the smoothest (but not the last) of which was the outright lie, or fib, that he had entered "every" primary; in the preceding weeks reporters on the bus informed me gleefully, he had also ventured each of the three explanations suggested above.

It would be more touching to think of poor Jimmy trying to figure out an acceptable version if his quandary weren't the result of his own brand of Christian realism. Having determined to turn his own probity into a political asset, he found that the most nugatory prevarication created a seeming moral dilemma which made it impossible for him to acknowledge the real one--namely, that the sad duty of electoral politics delimits anybody's probity. Perhaps he should have trusted the citizenry to understand that. Radical Christian Jim Wallis. who suspects Carter of exploiting his religion and believes the candidate's positions on issues of class to be far from "the heart of what it means to be a biblical person," says he is even more disturbed by Carter's refusal to be explicit about the painful discontinuities that electoral politics/ make inevitable in a Christian's life. Wallis wants more than a quote from Niebuhr and an admission of mortal imperfection, and he believes a professing Christian should offer more. Other Christians--as well as many skeptical secularists--agree.

Except for some demented Bible-wavers, few Christians seem to doubt the truthfulness of Carter's Christian witness in this campaign number--especially but not exclusively fundamentalists--question the sincerity of his motivation in making that witness public. As Carter's shrewdness becomes a truism--as voters make the connection between his so-called vagueness and his promise never to lie--such questions will obviously proliferate. The answer probably lies somewhere between sheer profiting (as his critics charge) and media accident (his supporters' version). Carter has pointed out that he couldn't have kept his faith secret if he wanted to, which since he published his autobiography with Broadman, the Southern Baptists' publishing arm, he obviously didn't. It stands to reason that he considered the political impact of the alternative scenario and in the end just let it happen--Jules Witcover, the Washington Post correspondent who first wrote about Carter's 1967 conversion experience, reports that the story came out of his research and that Carter's initial responses seemed forthright and unmanipulative. But because the exact extent of Carter's calculation s will never be revealed, the unconvinced are free to assume the worst.

This is unfortunate, because the political advantages of Carter's religious stance would appear to be his alone; this will not be a case of evangelicals engineering an electoral putsch for anyone who holds with their theology. Al Menendez of Church and State (a magazine devoted to their separation, by the way) estimates from precinct studies that of 16 million evangelical voters, about 13 million went for Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Menendez projects that against Ford, Carter would at least split the evangelical vote and win big; against Reagan he might have more trouble. Reagan's advantage over Ford is political; Menendez's work confirms my own impression from interviews that many older, more politically right-wing evangelicals prefer to vote for a candidate with sympathetic politics, but will settle for a sympathetic religion as a substitute. And sympathetic means deeply felt: Reagan's and Ford's apparently sincere but rather belated professions of their faith in Christ as savior, while frequently mentioned by regenerate folk who obviously want to vote Republican no matter what, does not have evangelicals the way Carter's more spontaneous, organic, outspoken, and biblically literate testimony does. If Carter is selling religion, he is selling what his religion really is--the difference between the well-respected deacon and the reconverted part-time saver of souls is crucial to his appeal.

So it's gratifying, in a way--at a least it seems fair--that one of the few objections of any ethical substance to be leveled at Carter's religion has do with his zeal in personal testimony. This is a tricky area for any Christian elected official--not to witness is to fail your Christian duty, but to impose yourself is to exploit your position--and Carter's staff insists that he is scrupulous about it. But there comes a point when no scrupulousness will suffice. While Governor, Carter not only taught an adult Sunday school class at Atlanta's prestigious Northside Drive Baptist Church but also called chronic absentees and personally requested their attendance. Well, any good Sunday school teacher does that. But when the caller is the governor, one must wonder whether the absentees experience any unintended pressure--and speculate what it might mean for President Carter to do something similar.

But if Carter had to worry only about nice questions of this sort, I'm sure he'd find the time to answer them in a position paper. The obvious fact is that he faces much more drastic objections, especially from Jewish and Catholic voters. In a way, this is the air-of-rectitude problem again, in a more specifically Southern Baptist guise. The Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., one of only two major denominations (Missouri Lutherans are the other) that are predominantly evangelical. Despite Episcopalian and Presbyterian old money, the Southern Baptists dominate establishment culture in the South. I've talked to more than one born-again Christian who took exception to the Southern Baptists' self-righteousness and exclusivity (most congregations insist on rebaptism when an adult joins, and some exclude non-Southern Baptists from their communion), and to the unsaved they symbolize evangelicalism at its most holier-than-thou. Catholics remember that they spearheaded Protestant resistance to John F. Kennedy; Jews have heard of the Glock & Stark study (disputed methodologically by Baptists) indicating high levels of anti-Semitism' among them. Both are aware that many Southern Baptists believe Catholics and Jews are going to hell. So their suspicions are understandable. But ill-founded.

This isn't only because the stereotype of the Southern Baptist with isn't entirely fair to a group of almost 13 million people who have shown themselves capable of evolution, but also because Jimmy Carter is hardly John Q. Baptist. Comparatively, he is very worldly--widely read and widely traveled, known to take an occasional cocktail, even heard to disagree politely with St. Paul on the subjugation of women. He supported John Kennedy (in south Georgia, his support of Johnson over Goldwater proved more controversial) and employs several Jews in key staff positions. It's probably fair to presume that he believes all Jews and some Catholics, in the absence of the conversion experience, are subject to some sort of damnation; the same would go for all Moslems and some Protestants. But possibly because they don't believe in the next world, the unsaved seem unable to understand just what it means that damnation is a next-world phenomenon. Although Christians obviously believe in the righteousness of the Christian life, no absolute moral superiority is implied; not being saved is by no means equivalent to not being good, and tales of upright people condemned to eternal death are a staple of Sunday school training. If anything, the Christian's duty in this life is to care specially for the unconverted, so that they might yet receive the Word. Jews should also be aware that many evangelicals feel a commitment to Israel almost as deep as their own, regarding it as a portent of the Second Coming. Since the belief in Christ's imminent return tends to discourage concrete planning for the this-world future, I was in fact slightly disturbed to hear Carter refer to Israel once as a "fulfillment of prophecy": I hope that was just campaign bullshit.

Overriding all this is what almost any thoughtful evangelical will tell you--that a Christian officeholder's most effective witness is to uphold his or her solemn oath as faithfully as possible. Although Southern Baptists do half-wittingly impose a certain political hegemony on the South, they are also acutely proud of a history stretching back to Roger Williams, the founder of religious liberty in this country, and are counted very strong on church-state separation. Thus they oppose an antiabortion amendment, although most of them are morally opposed to abortion, and resist state aid to Baptist (not to mention Roman Catholic) schools. There have been some complaints that the Broadman Press's advertising for Carter's autobiography is constitutionally improper political support, but that would seem to be stretching a bit; more worthy of inquiry, I'd say, is why Carter agreed to go with the publishing house (which approached him 1974, before he declared for the presidency and while it was still completely tax exempt) when he knew that the book would eventually serve as a campaign tool.

But that once again is a nice question; what is clear overall is that a Carter presidency would do no special favors for Southern Baptists, evangelicals, or religion in general. It's impossible to say whether Carter would include atheists in any inaugural consensus, but he might--as a state senator, he proposed substituting the wording of the U.S. Constitution ("no law shall be passed respecting the establishment of religion") for language in the Georgia constitution guaranteeing only "the natural and inalienable right to worship God." As governor, he enraged coreligionists by signing a law permitting 18-year-olds to buy liquor, and ended Sunday services in the governor's mansion. He did not mention God in his nomination acceptance speech. Indeed, a Carter presidency would be likely to do away with the sanctimonious civil religion that flourished so vilely under Nixon. To quote Mark Hatfield, who admits himself less than satisfied with the Christianness of all of Carter's stands, this is a man who "goes to church instead of waiting for the church to go to him." That much humility he definitely has.

A major part of what I've tried to say is that sympathy for Jimmy Carter's religion does not equal support for Jimmy Carter. After reading in Newsweek about the Robert Shrum affair, my brother cast his primary ballot for Jerry Brown, who seemed to understand what "servanthood" was all about, at least on an "image level." I voted for Fred Harris myself; in November, I expect to go with Carter, but with a heavy heart. Basically, I agree with Jim Wallis that Carter's real position on class issues despite certain countervailing rhetorical flourishes is . . . well, I wouldn't say unbiblical, but morally disappointing. Which is about what I expect from presidential politics on the concrete level.

On the image level Carter might not be so great either. The moral tone of his presidency would almost certainly reflect negatively on sexual issues I care about. Even my brother avers--regretfully--that homosexuality is proscribed in the Bible, which for Carter is a public position; consistent with his commitment to church-state separation, he also insists that he would not oppose; gay rights legislation, but somehow I doubt such laws will make much headway as long as Carter is the mirror in which Americans see themselves. For similar reasons, I fear for pornography. And although I'm a passionate monogamist myself, I also worry about nuclear-family fallout--I would hope that my children can organize their sexual lives in a manner appropriate to their experience, not mine or Jimmy Carter's. Nor does the psychological boost a Carter presidency would likely provide evangelicals, especially young ones, please me especially young ones, please me especially. I respect their philosophical and spiritual choice, and I believe it works for them, but I respect mine more; pure tolerance is for liberals.

These are "religious" objections, too, but they're not the ones you usually hear. Instead you hear that Jimmy Carter thinks he's got a hot line to God, that he's going to force his prejudices down our collective throat. Lies like this are typical of the way New Yorkers explain away their ideological distance from the rest of the country--when it is impolitic to state flatly that you think most Americans are stupid, then you make up some folderol about how they're being misled by demagogues or the media. The people who tell such lies deserve Jimmy Carter, just to rub their faces in how far from America they are.

I hope Carter will do these folks some good. Perhaps his opponents will discern, eventually, that on the issues--which is what serious left-liberal secular humanists care about, right?--Carter's belief in Christ makes him more humane, not less. Maybe they'll learn to perceive the substance in even such an unenlightened philosophical system. And maybe the next time they have a shot at some power--the loss of which, of course, is the real root of their distress--they'll sense how to apply it a little more wisely, so it actually reaches what Americans t feel themselves to be. As Carter a himself has made clear enough, born again isn't necessarily so far from busy being born.

Village Voice, Aug. 16, 1976