Ed Driscoll

Breaking News from 1976

“Is California Gov. Jerry Brown becoming the Jerry Falwell of the left?” asks Claremont’s Jack Pitney at the Christian Science Monitor:

As you may recall, the late Reverend Falwell was one of the founders of the contemporary religious right. In 1979, with conservative activist Paul Weyrich, he created the Moral Majority, an organization that mobilized religious people on issues such as abortion and school prayer. Falwell quickly became notorious for proclaiming certain issue positions as Christian and suggesting that those with other viewpoints were immoral or un-Christian.

Lately, Governor Brown has been doing the same thing. During a visit to Washington, he said that GOP opposition to President Obama’s immigration actions is “at best is troglodyte and at worst is un-Christian.” He used similar language to condemn Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s fight against carbon pollution regulations. “President Obama is taking some important steps,” Brown said on “Meet the Press.” “And to fight that, it borders on immoral.” On the same program, he said that Sen. Ted Cruz’s stance on climate change renders him “absolutely unfit to be running for office.”

“Before keeping up the insults, the governor might ponder what happened to the reverend,” who eventually “even alienated conservative Republicans,” Pitney adds.

While Brown may have gotten nastier and even more useless in the ensuing decades, the underlying premise of Pitney’s thesis regarding Brown’s streak of religious fundamentalism is nothing new. Under the subhead “The Holy Roll” of his ’70s-defining New York magazine essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” from 1976, Tom Wolfe placed Brown into context with another Democrat who was paying lip service to the born-again Christianity so popular in the 1970s:

The two most popular new figures in the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown, are men who rose up from state politics . . . absolutely aglow with mystical religious streaks. Carter turned out to be an evangelical Baptist who had recently been “born again” and “saved,” who had “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior”—i.e., he was of the Missionary lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piny-woods Baptist faith in which the members of the congregation stand up and “give witness” and “share it. Brother” and “share it, Sister” and “Praise God!” during the service.* Jerry Brown turned out to be the Zen Jesuit, a former Jesuit seminarian who went about like a hair-shirt Catholic monk, but one who happened to believe also in the Gautama Buddha, and who got off koans in an offhand but confident manner, even on political issues, as to how it is not the right answer that matters but the right question, and so forth.

Newspaper columnists and newsmagazine writers continually referred to the two men’s “enigmatic appeal.” Which is to say, they couldn’t explain it. Nevertheless, they tried. They theorized that the war in Vietnam, Watergate, the FBI and CIA scandals, had left the electorate shell-shocked and disillusioned and that in their despair the citizens were groping no longer for specific remedies but for sheer faith, something, anything (even holy rolling), to believe in. This was in keeping with the current fashion of interpreting all new political phenomena in terms of recent disasters, frustration, protest, the decline of civilization . . . the Grim Slide. But when the New York Times and CBS employed a polling organization to try to find out just what great gusher of “frustration” and “protest” Carter had hit, the results were baffling. A Harvard political scientist, William Schneider, concluded for the L.A. Times that “the Carter protest” was a new kind of protest, “a protest of good feelings.” That was a new kind, sure enough—a protest that wasn’t a protest.

In fact, both Carter and Brown had stumbled upon a fabulous terrain for which there are no words in current political language. A couple of politicians had finally wandered into the Me Decade.

And of course, Carter would go on to define the box canyon thinking of the left both then and now with his infamous malaise speech. Brown’s worldview would also never leave the 1970s; how long will the state of California as a whole remain trapped in the echo of that horrible decade?