"I have never detected or experienced any conflict between God's will and my political duty," President Carter told a convention of Southern Baptists the other day. It is a fascinating claim that - in my view, at least - unwittingly reveals the central flaw in the Carter administration.
The president is not sensitive to the conflicts between almost equally good things that are implicit in holding power. Instead of deliberately striking a balance between opposites, he strives mightily for moral positions on every issue and then finds that his positions collide in ways that force him to retreat.
Before going further into this matter, I should like, because delicate sensitivities are engaged, to indicate what I am not saying. I am not saying that Carter is a self-righteous, moralistic man who believes himself to have access to - if not to be the vessel of - God's will. Though that gloss could be put upon his words, it does not square with his deeds.
On the contrary, the Carter administration is not particularly self-righteous. It does not punish, as a sin, differences of opinion either inside or outside the White House. It is as free and open as any administration I can remember, and far less prone to settling scores than the administration of Richard Nixon.
But I have sensed a special quality that I called when Carter was running for president "a lack of structure." Carter and his advisers seem far less acute than most men of experience in detecting implicit contradictions, in seeing the tension (which characterizes most serious problems) between one good claim and another good claim.
They are also especially prone to divide problems up into component parts. Carter himself seems particularly keen on finding for each component part the morally superior position - the position that would, presumably, find most favor in the eyes of God.
The first phase of his administration, indeed, was characterized by indentification with a vast range of these morally superior positions. Carter came out for far-reaching arms control with the Russians. He also came out for vigorous promotion of human rights in foreign countries.
Carter came out for better relations between Congress and the executive branch. He also came out for scrapping a large number if expensive water projects.
Carter came out for improved relations with the allies - especially Japan and Germany. He also came out for restrictions on nuclear proliferation, which limited development of the more advanced nuclear power plants.
Carter came out for more government help in programs to promote health, education, welfare and the big cities. He also came out for tight limits on inflation.
The second phase of the Carter administration lay in the discovery that these goals, admirable as they might be, were in fact incompatible. Experience proved that it was impossible to get a good arms-control agreement with Russia and to emphasize human rights abroad.
Equally, that good relations with Congress had to be lubricated by a certain number of water projects. And that better relations with the allies required a freer rein on building the most advanced nuclear power plants. Similarily that an elaborate domestic program was at odds with fighting inflation.
During the third phase of the administration Carter has had to do his political duty - which is to make choices among the highly moral positions he embraced at first. I believe he has generally made the rights, better relations with Congress over water projects, allied unity over limiting advanced nuclear projects and fighting inflation over social programs.
But it all took time, so the Carter record of achievement remains meager. Worse still, the president has been seen to retreat and compromise. So he is widely believed to be just another ordinary politician, who waffles like the rest, only in a more hesitant and indecisive way.
The president would have achieved far more, and stood far better with the electorate, and he sensed the implicit contradictions from the beginning, and tried to manage them in a way that would yield the best trade-offs. By searching for the right things first and then allowing events to impose the trade-offs, he has, in effect, followed a policy of divine misguidance.