James Wall

More on America’s Sacred Reservation, Part II

VTR Date: November 17, 1990

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “More on America’s ‘Sacred Reservation’”
VTR: 11/17/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. … and this the second of two programs on that limited space in American life – that “sacred reservation” to which secular America expects religion to be confined, the “specific sacred space where religion is discussed and ritualistically practiced, but from whence it is not expected to emerge, except on those public occasions where it might lay a wreath on a tomb, open a football game … or even bless a Presidential Inaugural with prayer”.

Any my guest, who defined America’s “sacred reservation” this way at a recent Hofstra University Conference on Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, is Dr. James Wall, the editor of the distinguished weekly publication, The Christian Century, and President Carter’s winning Illinois Democratic State Chairman. Dr. Wall, thank you for staying with me, our last discussion was stimulating, but we didn’t get quite through to some of the things about Jimmy Carter that I wanted to ask. In this talk that you gave at Hofstra, talking about the nonsense you felt has filled the air about Jimmy Carter’s religiosity perhaps preventing him from being an adequate enough Administrator and political person. You talked about … you disapproved that, you attempted to disprove that, you say, “He dealt in campaign data just enough to get the job done. On a fly-around in February 1976, I gave him a briefing on each of the districts in which we were running delegates, more than half of the state. But not including any of the districts in which we would have had o make a futile effort at defeating Richard J. Daly, his delegate candidates in Chicago”. Now, you go on to say, “I explained to him (Jimmy Carter) on the plane going to our first stop, that I thought we might win as many as 40 delegates”. You say you actually exceeded that number on Election Day, but that I felt … you felt, we should down play expectations by expressing the hope that we were hoping to win 12 delegates statewide. Now you say the candidate took the lower figure without hesitation and told an airport press conference in Peoria that “we were hoping to win 12 delegates statewide”. In other words, you didn’t quite tell the truth, ands you go on to say, “in ethical theory, whether it be developed in the Doctrinal classroom at Harvard Divinity School, or the Sunday school classroom in Plains, Georgia, one need not be precise in one’s figures, when the lower figure may lead to the greater good of a speaker”. Now, I need you to explain …

HEFFNER: … that in moral, religious terms.

WALL: You’ve picked out, appropriately enough, in this context an example I used to illustrate that Carter was not preoccupied with campaigning as some of his critics accused him of. One woman biographer said, “he was only interested in campaigning, not in governing”. Couldn’t be further from the truth. My point in this story was that he left the campaigning to those of us who did the campaigning. “You tell me we’re going to win 12, we’re going to win 12. Whatever you say, I’ll go out there and do it”. It wasn’t a lie, bear in mind, it is not a lie, I said, “We hope to win 12”. I hoped that we could even do better, and get 40 and indeed we did get more than 40. But what we call this in Georgia is “poor-mouthing”, we were “poor-mouthing” the result, football coaches do this all the time. It’s nothing, it’s a way of phasing down expectations, so that is not, if you will, evil or a sin, in ethical terms.

HEFFNER: You seem to be telling us a lot about the morality of politics because these are your words, “in ethical theory, whether it be developed in the Doctrinal classroom at Harvard Divinity School or the Sunday School classroom in Plains, Georgia, one need not be precise in one’s figures, when the lower figure may lead to the greater good of the speaker”.

WALL: That’s a style of campaigning. I mean surely you’ve seen enough television in campaign years to know that you try and play down expectations so that no matter what happens you come out looking better. That’s not immoral.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Dr. Wall, you and I have spoken on the air about the evils of “spinning” …

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: … we’ve talked about what has happened to American politics, given the proclivity in our times for putting, not just one’s best foot forward, but hiding the other feet in the closet if you can, and distorting the real picture of American life.

WALL: Now, I catch what you ‘re doing … you are … and this is what happened to Jimmy Carter during his Presidency. Because he is a man of religious sensibility, secular critics were able to say, “I think you shaded the truth a little bit there, therefore, you must not be the man you say you are”.

WALL: … Or, “I think you are playing a political game, therefore …”, it’s a way of treating him as a pietistic person. It’s a device, I recognize that. It’s a device to make light of the man’s religious sensibility.

HEFFNER: Now, look, I’m not making light of anything about Jimmy Carter.

WALL: But you’re riding this particular little point.

HEFFNER: No, I’m asking you about the morality of polities. That’s what I’d like to speak about.

WALL: All right. Well now, this is, I don’t think it’s immoral to try and shape expectations, because after all, what you’re trying to do … this is not a fact … after the fact, this is not saying who did what … this is before the fact, you’re trying to not make people too expectant of what you’re going to accomplish, so that when you do accomplish something, you … if you only expect to win by 6 points and you win by 12 points, in a football game, you’ve done better. But if you say, “I’m going to win by 15, and you only win by 6”, you haven’t done very well.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Jim, you were urging the candidate to say this for, not because you just didn’t know, you were urging him to say it to win a political point. You thought you were going to make political hay at this … all I’m asking, I’m not really being critical, I’m just asking, if in fact, when one examines a political administration presided over by a man who, as you have said since Woodrow Wilson has presented the, the foremost picture of a leader who was informed by his religious principles, whose actions are informed by his religious principles, I’m asking you … at the very end of the 20th century, what we can expect from those who profess a higher morality, in our political life.

WALL: Let me give you an example. One of the papers, one of the longer papers to which I was a respondent in this, this Conference was examining Carter’s problem of not being willing to make these tacit, over trades in politics. He found it difficult to say to Senator A that “if you will do this, I will do this in return for you”. He was so strict about this sort of thing that when someone asked him, “why don’t you at least tell the Senator that you will consult him on foreign policy matters so that he will then vote for you on this economic bill”, his answer was, and this is documented in the paper I’m responding to …his answer was, “because I don’t intend to respond to him and talk to him about foreign policy matters. I’m not going to tell him something I’m not going to do”. The man had a very high moral view. A lot of other Presidents, most Presidents would just play that game. He didn’t play the game very well.

HEFFNER: But now, this…

WALL: I played it for him in this incidence that you …

HEFFNER: Ahah …okay. Now we’re getting because I wasn’t just talking about Jimmy Carter, I was talking about …

WALL: Well, I played it for him … yeah … I like the game.

HEFFNER: … you like the game.

WALL: More than he does.

HEFFNER: How do you make that fit in with your own moral …

WALL: I don’t think it’s immoral. You see you’re defining morality in a very … I didn’t … you don’t lie, you don’t absolutely lie, but then you don’t tell the absolute truth that you hope will come out such as 40 delegates rather than 13.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but look … I depend upon you … when I read you in Christian Century, I have to depend upon your meaning every single word you write.

WALL: Ahhh.

HEFFNER: Should I not?

WALL: Ah, now you see you’re mixing your apples and your oranges.

HEFFNER: You mean James Wall, politician … James Wall, here?

WALL: When I write … when I write in the magazine as a writer, I am going to be as absolutely precise as ii possibly can be.

WALL: There may be a slight tongue in cheek on occasion which I hope you’ll recognize as designed to suggest to you that I’m saying to you, imaginatively, means this, but it also could mean that. Now that’s what happens in the game playing of politics. The reporter who writes down he’s going to win 13 delegates, is a smart person and they’re saying “I betcha he thinks he might also win 40”. They’re not expecting the absolute precise scientific, rational phrase. You see, politics is more of a game than it is a scientific enterprise.

HEFNER: A game?

WALL: Yes, it certainly is a game.

HEFFNER: There’s …

WALL: It’s the best game in town.

HEFFNER: There’s certainly a awful lot at stake.

WALL: Well, yes. Nothing wrong with that.

HEFFNER: Do you play that game as if it were a game?

WALL: Oh, yes. It has to be played as a game, but it’s a very serious game, but you must enjoy it, otherwise it’s no fun to play.

HEFFNER: I don’t want you to enjoy yourself as a politician.

WALL: Why not?

HEFFNER: I want you to be straight with me, to be honest with me.

WALL: Why not?
HEFFNER: I want you to be straight with me, to be honest with me.

WALL: I will be, I will tell you the truth, but I will also, in the process of going to … getting elected or, or playing the game of expectations, that’s not the same thing as, as lying to you on whether or not I met with a Keating person, or not met with a Keating person. That’s a fact.

HEFFNER: I, I want to go further with this …but first I want to ask you something else about Jimmy Carter. The charge made, and you responded to it just now and you responded to it in your speech at Hofstra. Charge was made that Jimmy Carter was so involved in truth-saying, in terms of his own moral posture …

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: … derived from his sense of his relationship to his Creator, that he couldn’t play the political game very well and, therefore, you’d better keep this … these religiosos out of politics, or at least away from the White House. But that was the charge that was made.

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: Now you’ve responded to that, said that wasn’t true. Or have you said that yes, that was true, he did not, would not tell a Senator …

WALL: He didn’t … that’s right … he did not do that as well as his aides wanted him to.

HEFFNER: Well, then, what’s the downside of the criticism that has been made about having a person who is concerned about something other than organizing and running his Administration as best he can.

WALL: You see, it seems to me you’re taking religion again, and defining it as strict moralism. And, l someone once said that moralistic behavior is giving answers. The moral approach to something is raising the questions. I think that’s very well put. That was done by a film director, a Polish film director … said by him. And in terms of Jimmy Carter in this regard, he was just, simply out of his religious sensibility, more rigid than I would have wanted him to be. But them religion is a very complex process, and I’m not going to demand that every person have a response to every situation that is precisely the way I would have it done.

HEFFNER: But, Jim, the rigidity that you’re talking about. Was that a function of his religiosity?

WALL: well, you … I don’t … as you know, I react against the word religiosity.

HEFFNER: Pick your own word.

WALL: Religious sensibility.

HEFFNER: Religious sensibility.

WALL: Ah, yes. His particular religious sensibility leads him to be very strict on matters of “I will not trade with a senator on this particular matter”.

HEFFNER: But now, when we look at our best and most accomplished Presidents, whether you’re talking about Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt … you’re talking about those who knew how to trade.

WALL: Yes. That’s the strength of the residency, the ability, as Neustadt said to persuade comes from the ability to shape people’s thinking and to trade here and to trade there. It, it’s a maneuverability on man’s process.

HEFFNER: But then … then how are we going to reconcile the admiration that you feel for Jimmy Carter, as a man of religious sensibilities, sensitivities …

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and Jimmy Carter with his re sensibility to the American people to do the things, to have that flexibility, to do the things that need to be done for the national well-being.

WALL: That’s what he did. I, I don’t see the separation that you’re trying to draw there.


WALL: I think he did that, I think he did make those hard decision. He came to the American public and he said, “We are being too wasteful regarding the use of energy and oil”, and had this country followed his guidance ten years ago, we would not be so enthralled with what’s going on with the oil in the Middle East.

HEFFNER: There have been those who had said… who’ve said that if he hadn’t said that to the American people if he hadn’t seemed to mean it so strongly and to be lecturing the American people, as he did, as I thought was appropriate, so don’t pin …

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … the tail on me, as one of those who disagreed with him … that he would have had a second term, and been able to accomplish more. Do you disagree with that?

WALL: Well, I would think one of his problems in dealing with the … in dealing through the secular media, to get through to the public, in dealing with the public through the secular media, was that it came across as moralistic judgments and preaching. Interesting that the speech he gave after the Camp David meeting, not the Camp David meetings with the Israeli and the Egyptian leaders, but the one he had where he was conferring about what to do with the … what was later called “malaise”, that he never actually called it “malaise”. He simply did not … remember when he gave that speech?

HEFFNER: I do, indeed.

WALL: All right.

HEFFNER: I remember what he wore.

WALL: White House … the White House polls that were taken … every White House takes a poll every night… the immediate response was overwhelmingly positive …very high. Once the media got a hold of it and started calling it a “sermon”, a “malaise” speech, everything else, the public response went down. What does that tell you? Except that he was reaching a cord in the American people with his speech, which was then interpreted by the media in such a way that it was turned into something you didn’t like. In other words, he touched the cord out there, the media then said, “wait a minute, he’s not really touching you, he’s preaching to you, and you don’t like preaching, do you, public?”. And public says, “no, I don’t like preaching. So, okay, we don’t like it any more”. You see, what I’m really trying to make the case for, and I think it’s interesting that in 1992 we’re going to have another Democratic nominee. Whoever it might be, Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, Al Gore … who could it be.

WALL: Maybe someone we don’t know yet. One of those or someone else. What attitude will that person take about religious world view? If that person stays as stiff and as cold as a removed and as reserved and as cerebral as Michael Dukakis was, a man who had absolutely no interest in religion, I think Gary Wills documents that very well, he not only had no interest, he was indifferent to religion. That communicated to the American public. He had… he simply did not have a religious sensibility and he wanted… he didn’t mind you knowing that. What will the candidates … now Republicans don’t have that problem. Somehow or other they make religious noises every time they come up and run. But … and bush has done it, so he’ll be a candidate in 92, but the Democratic candidate has got to come to grips with his, or if the case is … a her … religious sensibilities. Sam Nunn of Georgia is a Baptist and now is a Episcopalian. Will that come through? I don’t know what Bill Bradley is. We know Mario Cuomo is a Roman Catholic. That comes through. He has additional problems because of that. All of what I’m saying is that these people will or will not display a religious sensibility. In a pluralistic society we do not wish them to use religious language that turns off two-thirds of the people. And that is something you must be respectful of.

HEFFNER: But, of course, you’re saying that I wasn’t Jimmy, Jimmy Carter’s language or his points of view that turned off the American people, it was the media’s interpretation of and use of …

WALL: Exactly.

HEFFNER: … what it was he had to say.

WALL: Exactly. I make that case. I would make it over and over again and I think it’s been documented very well.

HEFFNER: We’re pretty damn foolish then, as a people, aren’t we? The big media and the little me … we’re so tricked by …

WALL: You’re not …

HEFFNER: … manipulated …

WALL: … you’re the viewer… you’re the reader, you’re the viewer. And you’re helpless in the hands of the secular media and the academy … you see, remember, I blamed, and I will continue to blame this emphasis upon rationality and this disdain for religion which is quickly termed “religioso”, which is quickly termed “moralistic”, which is quickly termed “preaching”… this dislike for religion permeates the leadership elite of this country. That’s really my point. And either they don’t believe, either they don’t have a religious sensibility, or they make sure they quash it in their own thinking because to let it show is to be an embarrassment. You don’t talk about things like that in polite society.

HEFFNER: Well, in our last program I was saying that we still have to deal with the fact that the American people have embraced these people. These are their leaders and you can’t assume, it seems to me that they simply have pulled the wool over the eyes of the American …

WALL: Embraced … embraced what people?

HEFFNER: The leadership that you discuss …

WALL: Oh. Sure.

HEFFNER: … has been elevated to its position…

WALL: Listen …

HEFFNER: … by the American people.

WALL: The educational system that we operate with in this country has been so rigidly deprived of any value teaching that “these people” as you described them get a hold of us when we are five and six years old … so it takes a long time to overcome that, does it not? I mean we … in the public school system, and leading right up to the academy, to the University level … secularity is the religion that is worshipped. And you must be very careful not to pursue anything other than that.

HEFFNER: If … if you feel the need for involvement … a kind of religious involvement … sensitivity, sensibility …

WALL: Sensibility.

HEFFNER: Sensibility. Then why are you so quick to reject, as a religious sensibility what the American people have embraced?

WALL: You mean secularity?

HEFFNER: Yes. Precisely.

WALL: I don’t think it has much substance to it. I think it stops at the top of the Empire State building.

HEFFNER: But, Jim, you …

WALL: It goes no higher.

HEFFNER: … you are contemptuous of secularism, and you are contemptuous of those who put down a different kind of relief. I don’t understand that.

WALL: A different kind of belief?

HEFFNER: A different kind of belief than you have.

WALL: In other words, you see me saying that the secular faith of our governing elites is a religion …

HEFFNER: You’ve said so.

WALL: You, you … no … all right … not it isn’t a religion. That’s a misnomer. It’s not a religion, it is a non-religion, but it is a prevailing ideology of our leadership culture. That’s the point I’m trying …

HEFFNER: It’s a sensibility or sensitivity?

WALL: It certainly is a sensibility. I, I … again … Dukakis I don’t use him just to criticize him personally, but there was no doubt in his campaign, it was clear that a religious sensibility was not at work there. And I think that showed to the American people. That’s why … that’s why George Bush was able to make things look so bad for him. Bush was able to communicate a religious sensibility … shallow through it came across, and he played with the flag and he played with the Pledge of Allegiance, and he played on shallow emotions. But it worked. And this cerebral Dukakis, who seemed to show no compassion, no passion, but was managerial and competent, with the true religion of Harvard … that’s the religion that he is celebrating … and again, I don’t like to use those … that’s the ideology that he’s celebrating. It doesn’t resonate with the American public.

HEFFNER: Now, what it is that disturbs you about this? That as a …

WALL: It’s inadequate, for one thing.

HEFFNER: … consequence…

WALL: And it prevails so much that it does not allow room for the rest of us, who have a different sensibility to get off of the reservation.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “get off the reservation”?

WALL: Well …

HEFFNER: … for those of you …

WALL: Because anyone with a religious sensibility that attempts to speak of this sensibility in the secular environment is looked down upon, is frowned upon, is … it’s an embarrassment for someone to … you know, you, you can just almost feel the, the shudders that go through a group if you dare to say there is something other than the top of the Empire State building in reality. Or there’s something more to the life than the accumulation of what experiences we have here.

HEFFNER: It’s almost as if they were using a … the “I” word such as “humanism”, right? It depends upon where you stand, it seems to me, depends upon where you sit. And you’re sitting at one end of this spectrum, they are sitting at another…

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and you’re using as ”dirty words”, or “dirty” thoughts … or inadequate words and thoughts … on the one hand “secularism”, on the other hand, “religious sensitivity or sensibility.

WALL: I’m arguing … now you were saying I’m using them as “dirty”. That’s your judgment that I’m calling them dirty words. I am asking …

HEFFNER: And may I ask what your judgment is?

WALL: I’m saying that the secular sensibility that pervades our cultural elite leadership is the dominant sensibility of our leadership, and it allows for very little reference to any religious sensibility. All of this has come out of a discussion of Jimmy Carter’s difficulty in getting his sensibility understood or heard … is squashed. So when I see what I believe strongly in being squashed, yes, I am going to object to those who do the squashing.

HEFFNER: And you’re going to play the fame the way everyone else plays the game.

WALL: Well, that … there’s no point in playing politics unless you play the game the way the game’s rules are written. You’re not going out on the football field and play baseball.

HEFFNER: No, no, ok, but you’re going to go out on the field and either play dirty or play clean.

WALL: I don’t say it’s dirty.

HEFFNER: It’s just political.

WALL: I don’t say it’s political … it’s necessarily dirty … I’m saying you shape … going back to my example that you keep bringing up to me of the number of delegates that we were or were not going to win, I don’t think that’s either dirty, or it’s a immoral, or illegal, or dishonest …

HEFFNER: Just shaping.

WALL: It’s playing the game the way it’s played.

HEFFNER: And you’re willing to stand by the game the way it’s … the political game the way it’s played in this country.

WALL: Well, if you want someone elected to the office that you’re trying to get them elected to, you’d better play that game. I don’t particularly like it, I don’t like the way the money is required to play the game. I mean you have to have 8 million dollars to run for the Senate. But, unless you want to do it like Laughton Childs and go out there and do it on a hundred dollars apiece …

HEFFNER: And he did it.

WALL: He made it. Maybe he’s going to change the game. Now, I would certainly wish that Laughton Charles experience in Florida, running for Governor, maybe changes the rules of the game. But right now we’re totally dominated by those PAC’s that can bring in these big dollars so that’s the game.

HEFFNER: Jim, not so long ago at this table you said, you saw secular humanism on the decline in America. Do you feel that way?

WALL: By the way, I don’t like using the word “secular humanism”, if you don’t mind …

HEFFNER: All right.

WALL: … because it’s being misused by the Right Wing.

HEFFNER: What do you want to call it? What do you mean “by the Right Wing”?

WALL: I don’t call it “secular humanism” … the Right Wing, the religious Right Wing in this country refers to secular humanism as kind of a … an evil thing out there. I’d simply refer to it as a dominant sensibility that we have to deal with. That I grew up in, that I live with and have to deal with.

HEFFNER: In 45 seconds, what do you think about its lot now?

WALL: I think the longing, the hunger for ultimacy in this country is so strong and in Western civilization … not to mention Eastern civilization … is so strong that this sensibility is showing cracks. That is to say, the secular sensibility is showing cracks, and the next Democratic candidate in 1992 had better be prepared to respond to that longing for ultimacy and know how o speak in a pluralistic society in a way to communicate that and communicate that he or she feels that connection to what’s true of the American people.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ll be here again at this table before that election, and we’ll talk about it some more. James Wall, thank you so much for joining me today.

WALL: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.