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Column: Searching for a ‘Redeemer President’

  • Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lexington Herald-Leader illustration -- Chris Ware

For the Valley News
Published: 11/2/2019 10:20:18 PM
Modified: 11/2/2019 10:20:16 PM

With the 2020 presidential election only a year away, Americans are still searching for a “Redeemer President,” someone to rescue the nation from the amoral morass that defines the current administration.

This is not the first time. Twice in the past half century, in 1976 and again in 2000, Americans sought a Redeemer President, someone whose election promised to expunge the sins of his predecessor.

By the mid-1970s, Americans had grown weary of misrepresentations emanating from the White House. Lyndon Johnson had underplayed the extent of our involvement in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon had lied even more globally and prolifically. In hindsight, it’s probably no accident that the electorate turned to a Washington outsider, a one-term former governor of Georgia who was also a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. In the course of the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter promised that he would “never knowingly lie to the American people,” a pledge so starkly in contrast to Nixon’s endless prevarications that it catapulted Carter to the presidency.

In 2000, Americans once again sought a Redeemer President, someone who could atone for the sexual transgressions of his predecessor, in this case Bill Clinton, and the tawdriness of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the shame it brought on both the presidency and the nation. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee and Clinton’s vice president, sought in vain to distance himself from Clinton’s indiscretions (not least by naming Joseph Lieberman, then a senator from Connecticut and a Clinton critic, as his running mate).

Albeit by a slim — and contested — margin, Americans turned this time to a United Methodist who, like Carter, claimed to be a “born again” Christian. Bush, like Carter, was a family man; whatever you say about each man’s policies or presidencies, both appealed to the electorate because of their reputations for integrity.

Now, once again, Americans are looking for a Redeemer President. Donald Trump, the incumbent, exemplifies the worst of both previous examples: a documented history of philandering and lying at a rate that would make even Nixon blush.

If ever Americans needed a Redeemer President, now is the time. Deep into an amoral presidency, voters are looking for someone who can demonstrate that she or he has a moral compass.

I continue to be astonished that so few of the many candidates running for the Democratic nomination have tried to make that case. Yes, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders argue for economic fairness. I honor that, but do we have any indication that there is a moral core informing their policies other than their own humble origins? Warren responded admirably to a question about faith at a CNN town hall, quoting Jesus about caring for “the least of these,” but declarations like this rarely come up unprompted on the campaign trail. Kamala Harris apparently has fungible views on the death penalty. That in itself is no impediment; any intelligent being changes his or her opinions over time. But what are the foundational principles that prompted those reconsiderations?

Part of the difficulty voters face in making these assessments is that religion for too long, and for too many, has functioned as a proxy for morality, so the question becomes, “Are you religious?” or “What is your religious affiliation?” The flawed premise behind those questions is that a candidate (or anyone) must have a religious affiliation to be a moral person. That, of course, is demonstrably false.

Lyndon Johnson provides a good example. Although he was nominally a member of the Disciples of Christ, he was by no means a pious man. Nevertheless, he learned from his Baptist mother a simple precept: The strong have an obligation to care for the weak. Johnson used that principle to justify his Great Society ambitions, although he also used it, tragically, to justify the escalation of the war in Vietnam. “There is a great responsibility on the strong,” Johnson told the nation in 1966. “The oldest member of the family has got to look after the smaller ones and protect them when the wolf comes to the door.”

Johnson’s guiding principle proved to be a double-edged sword, but at least he had a guiding principle. In the age of Trump, we want to see that our presidential candidates have a moral compass.

So far, the two candidates who seem most comfortable employing a moral vocabulary on the campaign trail are Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Cory Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey.

Booker’s apparent coziness with Wall Street and Big Pharma doesn’t immediately suggest deep principles — I expect he’ll need to justify those alliances more than once on the campaign trail — but his grounding in the black church leavens his rhetoric and sets him apart from a field whose language typically veers toward pugilism. “Love means that I see you, I see your worth, I see your dignity,” Booker told a rally in Des Moines. “There are some days we may not like each other that much, but love says, I see you.” In the most recent Democratic debate, he called for more civility in political discourse.

Buttigieg is a gay man and an Afghanistan war veteran. He is also a person unafraid to talk about his faith.

During an interview on Morning Joe, Buttigieg declared that he was an active Episcopalian and noted that he and his husband were married at St. James, an “urban faith community” in South Bend. Buttigieg said it was time to “reclaim faith” from “the prism of the religious right.”

When Joe Scarborough interrupted with a question about whether Buttigieg, like Barack Obama, had “accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior,” Buttigieg quickly responded, “Yes, but there’s so much more to it” than these litmus test questions. “When God comes among us,” he said, “you see service, you see humbling, you see foot-washing.” It’s about servant leadership, he said.

The example of both Booker and Buttigieg is especially germane to the Democratic Party, which for too long has been allergic to expressions of faith. “I think the time has come for more of a ‘religious left’ to emerge in our country,” Buttigieg declared. Too often, he said, religious voices talk about exclusion. He told The Washington Post that he lamented that the Democratic Party “has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values.”

While affirming his strong belief in the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, Buttigieg said, “I do think it’s important for candidates to at least have the option to talk about our faith.”

In an election where voters are looking for a Redeemer President, someone with a moral compass, other Democratic candidates might want to avail themselves of that opportunity.

Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

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