No doubt Carter, mercifully retired from the White House by the time of the pope's visit to Nicaragua in 1983, expected the "fundamentalist" John Paul II to punch out Ernesto Cardenal on the tarmac at the Managua airport.
In the hands of a theological illiterate like Jimmy Carter, "fundamentalism"is a "Gotcha!" word that substitutes flatulence for thought. Blessed John Paul II was no more a "fundamentalist" than the mid-20th century Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Carter once claimed as an influence--an avowal that doubtless had Reinie spinning in his grave, for there were few, if any, modern American political figures less Niebuhrian than Carter. Indeed, Carter's self-regard is the very inversion of the Niebuhrian ethic, which taught a healthy skepticism about anyone's righteousness, not least one's own.
H.L. Mencken, the bad boy of Baltimore journalism in the Roaring Twenties, once suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that all failed candidates for president should be quietly hanged, so that their further maunderings would not upset the young. One can only imagine what Mencken (who used to deride the sanctimonious President Wilson as "the Archangel Woodrow") would say about condign punishment for Jimmy Carter. In any case, Mr. Carter would do us all a great favor if he would lay off theology and exegesis. Like foreign policy, these are disciplines manifestly beyond his capabilities.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
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