Odd Cult Claims

Garry Wills says something odd in his review of Jimmy Carter’s new book.

I was surprised when [in 1976] so much was made of his religion as he ran for president. It began when he was asked, while visiting Baptist friends, if he thought of himself as “born again.” He answered yes – not surprisingly, since the Gospel of John (3:5) says that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, and Saint Paul says that baptism is being reborn into Christ (Romans 6:4). Reporters did not know this as a basic belief of Christians – they treated it as an odd cult claim.

Uh – yes. Because, what is the difference? What is the difference between a basic belief about what one has to do to ‘enter’ a nonexistent (or at any rate highly speculative) place, and an odd cult claim? I’ll tell you what the difference is. There isn’t one. I know everyone pretends otherwise. I know we’re supposed to pretend that as long as a religion has been around for some critical number of centuries (five? eight? fourteen? twenty? thirty?) then its basic beliefs are no longer odd cult claims but perfectly normal and routine and reasonable. But guess what – just adding years to a fantasy doesn’t make it any truer. Not even a little bit. Just adding years doesn’t have any effect of that kind at all. Really – the years are quite inert in that respect.

That led to his second-most-famous remark of the 1976 campaign. Carter was asked in a Playboy interview if he thought he was a holier-than-thou person because he was born again. He answered that, no, in fact he had committed lust in his heart – again quoting the New Testament (Matthew 5:28). That did it. For much of the Carter presidency, the line of some in the press (and, as I know well, in the academy) was that he was a religious nut.

Yes, I remember that. Well – same again. He was a religious nut. He was a lot more benign with it than most religious nuts, but that’s not the same thing as not being one at all.

His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves…Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.

No, it doesn’t seem quaint now, it seems like – a lost paradise. A time when public religiosity in political candidates wasn’t considered either routine or mandatory – when in fact it was greeted with surprise and mirth. Those were the days.

The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers – the great majority of Americans – derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

That third sentence is a complete non sequitur, and that ‘even’ is an absurdity. Separation of church and state has nothing to do with separation of morality and politics, for the simple and blindingly obvious reason that church and morality are not synonymous, and are in fact independent of one another. Believers may derive most of their moral insights from their beliefs (or think they do, which comes to the same thing), but that’s mostly because the association is so often made. The moral insights don’t in fact depend on the beliefs, or if they do, they’re the ones that need doing away with, because they have no other justification. ‘God wants me to hate gays.’ Hmm – let’s drop that one, shall we?

It’s a good article in other ways though. As Southern Baptists go, I certainly prefer Carter’s kind to Pat Robertson’s kind. But I do miss the quaint old days when religion wasn’t compulsory.

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