Opinion

Revisiting Jimmy Carter’s truth-telling sermon to Americans

Rami, a gas station manager, watches President Jimmy Carter giving his energy speech over national television, July 15, 1979, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mao)

(The Conversation) — Nearly 40 years ago, on July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television to share with millions of Americans his diagnosis of a nation in crisis. “All the legislation in the world,” he proclaimed, “can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” He went on to call upon American citizens to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives together.

Carter made several specific policy prescriptions. But in a presidency animated by spirituality perhaps more than any other in American history, this speech called more generally for national self-sacrifice and humility.

At a time when political strongmen, hypernationalism, and xenophobia have risen in the U.S. and the world, Carter’s speech offers a powerful counterexample to these trends.

A nation in “very serious trouble”

In 1979, Jimmy Carter was three years into his presidency. The burdens were many. Leading a divided Democratic Party, he faced a staunch and growing Republican opposition. The nation suffered from stagflation, a combination of economic stagnation and 12 percent inflation.

In 1973 the OPEC cartel, comprised mostly of Middle Eastern countries, had cut oil production and imposed an embargo against nations that supported Israel. In the late 1970s production declined again. Coupled with high global demand, this generated an energy crisis that increased gasoline prices by 55 percent in the first half of 1979.

In protest, truckers set bonfires in Pennsylvania, and Carter’s approval rating sank to 30 percent. An anxious Carter cut short his overseas trip to Vienna where he was holding nuclear-arms talks with the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev.

After a brief stop in Washington, the President retreated to Camp David for 10 days. As he considered the severe and interlocking problems facing his administration, Carter read the Bible, historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, and economist E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, a meditation on the value of local community and the problems of excessive consumption.

He also invited representatives from many sectors of American life – business and labor leaders, teachers and preachers, and politicians and intellectuals – to consult with him. By the end of his retreat, Carter had concluded that the country faced more than a series of isolated problems. Collectively they comprised a fundamental cultural crisis.

The malaise speech

Having cloistered himself for an unprecedented length of time, the President emerged from Camp David with great drama on July 15, 1979. In a nationally televised speech that was watched by 65 million Americans, Carter intoned an evangelical-sounding lament about “a crisis of the American spirit.”

He said,

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption.”

Indeed, the President’s sermon expounded at length about excess. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” he preached. But “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”

It was a penetrating cultural critique that reflected Carter’s spiritual values. Like the writers of the New Testament, he called out sin. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, he confessed to personal and national pride.

In the mode of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he noted the limits of human power and righteousness. In this moment of national chastening, he committed himself and the nation to rebirth and renewal.

As a scholar of American religious history, this so-called “malaise speech” (though Carter never actually used the word “malaise”) was, in my opinion, the most theologically profound speech by an American president since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

A squandered opportunity

This articulation of economic and political humility sounded the perfect pitch for a nation whose confidence in civil institutions had been shaken. The Watergate scandal had revealed corruption in the nation’s highest political offices. The Vietnam War had ended with a Communist victory.

The “malaise speech” was a continuation of a long-running theme for Carter. In his 1977 inaugural address, he intoned, “We have learned that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better,’ that even our great nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems … we must simply do our best.”

Popular memory suggests that the nation reacted negatively to his speech. In The Age of Reagan, historian Sean Wilentz writes that Carter appeared to be blaming the American citizens for their problems. Others panned Carter’s idealistic approach to the energy crisis as naïve.

Soon after the speech, Carter got a bump in his approval ratings. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

But that was not how most Americans received the speech. In fact, Carter enjoyed an immediate 11 percent bump in his job approval rating in the days that followed. Clearly many agreed with Carter’s line that the nation was mired in a “moral and spiritual crisis.”

The President, however, failed to capitalize on the resonance with his meditation. Just two days after his speech, Carter fired his entire cabinet, which seemed to suggest that his government was in disarray.

The President’s poll numbers immediately melted. As Time magazine described it, “The President basked in the applause for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself.” Reagan soon capitalized on the disillusionment. “I find no national malaise,” said Carter’s successor, who campaigned on a platform of America as “a shining city on a hill.

About to win the Cold War, America was ready for some exuberant nationalism, not a plain-style president who insisted on carrying his own garment bag aboard Air Force One.

New resonance

Forty years later, national jingoism pervades both political parties. Republicans and Democrats alike speak of the United States as a “city on a hill,” and Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric has lifted hubris to new heights and alienated allies around the world.

The ConversationJimmy Carter’s sermon of humility speaks more than ever to crises of our times.

(David Swartz  is associate Professor of History, Asbury University. This article was originally published on The Conversation)

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  • Jimmy Carter’s main “sin” in that speech was over-estimating the maturity and intelligence of the American electorate. He foolishly assumed that we were mature enough to confront the unpleasant truth about ourselves and then seek ways to make corrections. That’s what mature, responsible, intelligent adults do. What he clearly failed to comprehend about Americans is that our so-called “exceptionalism” has been ingrained in the American psyche from the very beginning, and challenging that assumption is always met with anger and resistance – the result you’d expect from an adolescent child that thinks s/he’s all grown up but is still throwing temper tantrums when s/he doesn’t get his way.

    Thankfully, Ronald Reagan knew better. As a grade B actor who never won an Oscar, he had just enough acting skills to hoodwink an entire nation into thinking that if you could just put on a happy face, talk about America as that “shining city on a hill” while simultaneously running up the nation’s debt on a credit card in order to make everyone feel good about the economy you didn’t need any of that dour Democratic gloom and doom being thrown over everything like cold water to ruin everyone’s party.

    Only in retrospect does Carter’s maturity and our immaturity come clearly into focus – except of course for people who only watch State TV. There, as always, it’s the other way around.

  • Nationalism (aka jingoism) has always been an obstacle to civilization, and today’s flavors of Christian nationalism and white nationalism are especially ugly forms of it.

  • You make me laugh. Republican media operatives like Roger Ailes would have devoured Rogers faster than a piranha does a minnow. Carter might have been unprepared for the media onslaught that assailed him but Rogers would have withered almost on Day One. His soul was too pure for Washington’s gutter politics; so no, he would not have make a better president. He was good at what he did, which is not unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but his was an altogether different calling than being POTUS.

  • I was under the impression that Roger Ailes was in broadcast media, not politics. What office did he run for?

    Carter was a micromanaging Goody Two Shoes who spent a great deal of his time overseeing minutiae – while he wasn’t touting a 55 mph speed limit – and missing the entire big picture.

  • Oh Bob, don’t play dumb – it doesn’t suit you. You know very well that long before Ailes ran Fox News he began his foray into politics by being Richard Nixon’s media consultant before working in similar capacities on the campaigns of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the latter of whom advanced his career incorporating the now-infamously racist Willie Horton ad, which was the brain child of both Ailes and his protégé/disciple, Lee Atwater. Only when Republicans were out of office did Ailes finally have time to launch a brain child of his own – State TV, aka Fox News. You know this. Don’t pretend otherwise.

  • What in the h-ll difference does what Roger Ailes did have to do with anything?

    I rarely run into people silly enough to suck these political intrigues down and believe them, but you seem to be one.

    I feel like I’m having “None Dare Call It Treason” read to me by a political science student.

    Both parties are as dirty as the day is long, and the sooner folks realize that, the sooner things will improve.

  • “What in the h-ll difference does what Roger Ailes did have to do with anything?”

    Oh let’s see: He founded a media empire dedicated to the sole purpose of advancing the political agenda of the Republican party while also seeking to destroy the Democratic party. I could go on but why bother?

  • He didn’t actually found anything. He was president of CNBC and hired by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to head up Fox.

    The fact that he apparently espoused beliefs incompatible with the Democratic Party more or less explains what you observed, in the very same way that the tilt of the New York Times and the Washington Post explain their coinciding with the Democratic Party.

    There is no need to go on unless you can dispense with the paranoid conspiracies and get factual.

  • Very well said. Nationalism and the myth of Exceptionalism plus xenophobia are all essential components of this countries Psyche. All are components of fascist philosophy and rather than fostering greatness will ruin us and most of this civilization.

    I was, with good reason, critical of Carter. It would certainly improve our chances for the future now if we had a president and society with his foresite .

  • Nationalism built Western Civilization. Multiculturalism is destroying it. And you applaud it’s destruction.
    Anti-Racism is Code Word for Anti-White. No White GeNOcide.

  • The earth doesn’t need God for that. You’ll do it to yourselves if it wasn’t for Science.
    IF only it was ADam and Steve in that garden. We could all live in peace.

  • “Speaking of … ‘Former President Jimmy Carter … [being] absolutely wrong … Jesus didn’t come to promote sin [Franklin Graham, Facebook, July 10, 2018]'”?

  • LOL, your kind always come out of the closet eventually. Try not to go crazy and kill anyone in the mean time, like Dan White.

  • Actually it didn’t. Certainly not your version of it. If anything it led to the destruction of western civilization and culture.

    “Multiculturalism” is a blanket term by neo-nazis for trying to put a tramp stamp on civilization for White Christians. Expecting to have their posteriors kissed on the basis of their skin tone and nothing else. Taking credit for things they had no part of in any conceivable fashion.

    The chief strength of the United States has been its ability to absorb and incorporate different cultures and peoples within it relatively peacefully. Your brand of nationalism brought us death camps. American “multiculturalism” liberated them and brought the US to world power status.

    “White GeNOcide.”

    White Genocide is a term neo-nazi incels use to cover up their inadequacy to find and mate with racist white women. Roy, its not minorities who are preventing your ability to mate, its your personality.

    “Anti-White”

    Code for “one is so useless, unskilled and unintelligent that the only thing they think commands respect is their skin tone”

  • Carter likely had the highest discordance between his own assessment of his intellect and the reality.

    His years were awful, and led to a disaster in the middle east and southwest asia.

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