Garry Wills hails Jimmy Carter in a New York Times article blasting the religious right

Historians in the News
tags: Garry Wills, Jimmy Carter

Garry Wills is the author, most recently, of “What the Qu’ran Meant: Any Why It Matters.”

When Billy Graham died recently, we were treated to a roll call of presidents whom Graham had visited in the White House to impart the kind of cheap-grace blessing only he could dispense. One name was missing from this list: Jimmy Carter. How could that be? Here was our putatively most religious president and the nation’s premier relayer of endorsements from God. But Graham was not invited precisely because Carter was our most religious president — a proud Baptist who followed in the tradition of Roger Williams, the man who created the first Baptist church in America and believed in the strict separation of church and state.

Many have expressed surprise that evangelicals voted last year in overwhelming numbers for our arguably least religious president. There is no reason for surprise. The religious right has long been not a religion but an ideology. This was proved during Carter’s presidency. Some think Carter brought religion into politics. That was so only in the sense that Obama brought racism into the White House — that is, he did it only by way of a backlash from racists so stunned by the presence of a black man there that they loved and still love Trump for saying Obama’s presidency was illegitimate. The backlash under Carter was similar, orchestrated by Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to get Carter out of the White House — two-thirds of Falwell’s supporters voted for Reagan in 1980.

When Carter was visited by a high official of the Southern Baptist Convention, the man told him, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.” Two errors lurked in that sentence and its presumption — that secular humanism is a religion, and that the Southern Baptists’ religion is a religion. Carter had shocked them by upholding the cancellation of Bob Jones University’s tax exemption (more influence of Roger Williams), supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, calling for a Palestinian homeland and holding a White House Conference on the Families where abortion, contraception, gay rights, divorce and other important social issues were openly discussed.

In the ideology that the right thinks is a religion, the sin of sins is abortion, though that is not a subject mentioned in the Torah, or the Gospel, or the early church creeds and councils. Even the Catholic Church sees this not as a theological issue but as a matter of natural law, more a subject for philosophers, psychiatrists and scientists than for preachers as such. But science is evil in the rightists’ ideology: Scientists invent nonexistent things like evolution and global warming. The ideology also holds that guns are the very essence of government. Regulate guns in any way and we lose justice, liberty and comity, crushed by an instant tyranny. The ideology also insists that women should be subordinate to men, blacks to whites, and experts to “the common man.” ...

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