I went to the public library today and looked through a book about Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, also known as the “malaise” speech. The book is by history professor Kevin Mattson and is entitled, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. Mattson tries to argue that the malaise speech should be put on par with the Gettysburg Address, for it exhorted the American people to affirm certain basic values, such as humility and a regard for their fellow human beings. Michael Moore makes a similar point in Capitalism: A Love Story, in which he features an except of the speech where Carter laments materialism in America and the tendency to honor people not for what they give, but for what they make.
Ironically, the book says that Jimmy Carter’s message actually overlapped with that of Jerry Falwell, who was conducting “God Save America” rallies at the time. Both disliked the shallow culture of America, with all its self-centeredness. The difference was that Falwell didn’t support the sort of “humility” that Carter advocated, for Falwell tried to incorporate his critique of American society into a larger patriotism and optimism. And that’s essentially what Reagan played on: he encouraged Americans that they were good and could pull through together, rather than putting them down for being selfish and lacking confidence.
One part of the book that caught my eye concerned Jimmy Carter’s admiration for the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had a significant influence on Carter’s worldview. Niehbur emphasized that human beings are sinners who seek to dominate, yet he also believed that a just society was possible. He wasn’t a utopian, mind you, but he thought that society could be fairer than it currently is. At the same time, he maintained that we should always have an attitude of humility, for our nature is sinful, and even our best intentions can go awry because of our selfish desire to be number one.
My religious background (Armstrongism) was always skeptical about the ability of humans to create a just society. We’re sinners, after all, incapable of self-government! According to Herbert Armstrong, God gave us 6,000 years to rule ourselves, all to show us that we couldn’t rule ourselves, for we’re corrupt. That would set the stage for the second coming of Jesus Christ, the only one (besides God the Father) who can rule us in a righteous fashion.
But I wonder: can I believe that human beings are sinful, while also having hope that justice can be possible in this society? I’m not saying society will ever become perfect, but can it become more just than it currently is? Maybe we are incapable of self-government all by ourselves, but can we govern ourselves better with the help of God? And if we’re simply supposed to sit on our hands, wait for Jesus Christ to return, and do nothing to promote and bring about justice in this world, then why did God command the rulers of ancient Israel to do justice? It’s all over the Torah, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets! Was God commanding them to do something he didn’t think they could do, at least on some level?