I have to thank Jimmy Carter for saving my sanity.
Granted, his was not a presidency one looks back to with fondness. Gas lines stretched forever, Iran took our people hostage, and there was disco, besides.
But Carter's ex-presidency has been a model of that unofficial institution. He has built homes for the poor, mediated wars, helped feed the hungry in Africa, fought disease in Latin America. In so doing, Carter, a deacon of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., has obeyed a directive Jesus issued one of his disciples.
Do you love me? He asked Simon Peter.
Peter said yes.
Feed my sheep, said Jesus.
Remembering Carter's example, his very public embrace of that command, is what has gotten me through the last week without a facial tic. Or to put it another way: If one more person tells me "morality" guided their decision to vote for George W. Bush, my head's going to pop like a balloon.
Beg pardon, but one is hard-pressed to find much evidence of morality in Bush's ineptly prosecuted war, his erosion of civil rights and the loss of international credibility his policies have caused. Unless, of course, one has been quaking in one's boots at the prospect of same-sex couples making a commitment straight couples have avoided like SARS. In that case the vote probably reflects one's morality just fine.
More's the pity.
No political tactician am I, but I think Democrats made a fundamental mistake when the Christian right rose as a political force: They watched it happen, ceded God to the GOP without resistance, without so much as a beg your pardon. Democrats, fearful of unsettling the secular West and Northeast, only shrugged as the Almighty was packed up and shipped South, where He is to this day routinely trotted out to endorse various would-be governors, senators and school board members.
Small wonder faith has come to seem inextricable from voting the straight Republican ticket.
And if you are, as I am, a Christian who remembers what Jesus told Simon Peter, it is galling to see Him reduced to a GOP shill, wrapped in a flag and used as a prop to advance a conservative agenda. Which, by the way, stands the Bible on its head.
After all, the book says Jesus consorted with lepers and prostitutes. It says he talked with women -- which was beneath a man of his time and place -- and washed the feet of his followers.
And it tells us he said things that seemed to make no logical sense.
If someone takes your shirt, let him have your cloak as well.
If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left.
Love your enemies.
This was crazy talk. There was nothing conservative about this man.
So I look at the success conservatives on the so-called Christian right have had in claiming him as their exclusive property and I wonder, where in the heck is the Christian left? Where are the people who preach -- and live -- the biblical values of inclusion, service, humility, sacrifice, and why haven't they coalesced into an alternative political force?
Instead of a movement like that, we have an old peanut farmer building houses.
You wish there was more. You wish there were Christian people shouting from the rooftops that these other people, with their small minds and niggardly spirits, do not represent all of us. And that the faith exemplified by the politics of exclusion is not the faith the rest of us celebrate, not the faith that lifts us and settles us and makes us whole.
But nobody's shouting these things. It occurs to me that maybe they're all too busy building houses for poor people. And that maybe I should be as well.
God bless you, Jimmy Carter, wherever you are.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.