“If more Christians were like Jimmy Carter, I might still be one.” ~ Julie Ingersoll on Twitter
Late in February it was announced that Jimmy Carter was entering hospice care at his home. End of life. I felt sad … unusually, undeniably sad, and I had to pause for a moment to think about why.
There is a sense of warmth I feel whenever I see Jimmy Carter or read an article about him. It’s not as though he seeks the spotlight but snippets of the former President’s life naturally leak into the news cycle now and then.
Interestingly, Jimmy Carter’s life has become a touchpoint of wellness for me. He has been a reassurance that life can be important in the simplest and easiest of ways, and he’s a gentle reminder of how wholesome and productive a christian faith can be.
I already miss him.
Jimmy Carter learned about moral choices from his mother, Lillian. During the Jim Crowe years in South Carolina she had her property damaged and was often insulted as a ‘n***er lover’ because of her outspoken support of racial equality. She joined the Peace Corps to provide nursing care to the poor in India … at age 68.
Carter’s biographer described him as the most intelligent President of the twentieth century. Most people don’t realize that he was serious and hard-nosed in both business and politics and the list of his accomplishments is long.
One interesting footnote Canadians will appreciate is that Jimmy Carter was part of a team that came to Canada in 1952 to help disassemble a reactor when the world’s first serious nuclear accident occurred at Chalk River .¹
Carter is frequently tagged as a progressive, born again christian – an idea that is foreign to many onlookers. He accepted the title willingly, although it carried consequences during a time when conservative politicians and fundamentalist evangelicals were openly in bed with each other.
For the purpose of this blog I want you to consider this partial list of difficult choices Carter made based on his christian beliefs and compassion for the underprivileged.
- Shunned and called a ‘n***er lover’ when he befriended the only black midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy;
- Refused to join a racist group called the White Citizen’s Council despite their threats to boycott his peanut business;
- First President to talk openly about his faith, even using evangelical terminology;
- Pardoned draft dodgers and always advocated peaceful options over violence;
- Appointed more women to posts in his administration than any President before him;
- Considered his wife Rossalyn to be a trusted advisor and often involved her in cabinet meetings;
- Endorsed ideas like universal health care, care for the environment, increased education spending, employment equity, guaranteed income, cuts to military spending;
- Variety of anti-discrimination initiatives for elderly, gay, pregnant women, people of colour, etc.;
- Expanded welfare and the minimum wage to cover additional workers;
- Described tax code as ‘welfare for the rich’ and initiated tax reforms for lower income families;
- Supported the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women equality;
- Advocated for human rights and help for impoverished people around the world.
These policies and more, ran counter to the values of christian conservatives who called themselves the Moral Majority. Yet there were two even bigger Carter pills that conservative christians couldn’t swallow:
- The Internal Revenue Service was continuing to enforce existing laws against institutions that resisted racial integration.² Bob Jones University was a conservative christian school that refused to accept non-white students, so the IRS took away their tax-exempt status. This resulted in a major lawsuit with evangelical leaders outraged by the ‘attack’ on their religious rights.
The beginning of the end for Carter was the perception that he didn’t protect the tax breaks of openly racist christian institutions. This was ground zero for the evangelical backlash against Carter, but there was also another notable event.
- In 1980 Carter attempted to organize a forum to discuss ways to strengthen American families, which was a common concern at the time. The ‘White House Conference on Families’ called on a variety of concerned groups to participate in the discussion. Good idea, right?
Except some of the invited guests had liberal views about childcare, the ERA, domestic violence, accessible education, paid government services, etc. The evangelicals disagreed with many of the topics as well as with Carter’s inclusion of feminists, gays, and non-christians. So they walked out.
If Bob Jones University’s tax status was ground zero, the White House Conference On Families was the explosion. Faith leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Tim & Beverly LaHaye, James Dobson, Paul Weyrich, the Amway guy, and many others on the Religious Right immediately began to openly campaign against Carter.
Evangelical leaders preferred to throw their support behind a smooth, articulate, non-christian candidate who pandered to them rather than behind a faithful christian brother who valued the voices of all.
Ronald Reagan became the next President of the United States with unprecedented support from white evangelicals and the path was cleared for the rancorous politics we are experiencing today.
But it was after the White House that Carter really began to flourish. In a culture where Presidents retire to play golf, write their autobiographies and get rich from speaking engagements, Jimmy Carter stands apart.
The photos of him constructing houses for Habitat For Humanity were common place. He built his Presidential library, taught at Emory University and wrote numerous books (including poetry). He was especially proud of establishing the Carter Center which advocates for peace and the well-being of the poor around the world.
I recall reading a wonderful article a couple years ago about the former President’s daily life in his later years. He and Rossalyn remained in the same, modest home where they had always lived and most people in Plains, Georgia knew them. He taught Sunday School at their local church on a rotating schedule. Each Sunday after church they walked down the street to a local restaurant for a simple meal.
Naturally he didn’t avoid controversy in later years, either. He had honest opinions about the state of the nation he loved and the world he cared about. He spoke graciously but pointedly about concerns he had with pollution, racism, politics, faith, and Donald Trump.
In 2000, Carter cut ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (after 70 years) because of its declaration barring female pastors and its insistence that wives fall under the authority of their husbands. He said:
“The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.”
What is most significant about the 39th President is an observation others have already made: For Jimmy Carter, the White House was only a stepping stone to greater things.³
I like Jimmy.
Carter wasn’t without fault of course, but his life stands in sharp contrast to the glut of pseudo-religious politicians today who have become dangerous under the influence of fundamentalists. His life is an example and a reassurance for those of us who are concerned about idolatrous evangelicalism.
Jimmy was a christian. He was a smart, humble, ecumenical, church-going, Sunday School teaching, equal rights supporting, health care advocating, tax lowering, military cutting, shelter building, truth-speaking, peace loving, life loving, Jesus loving christian.
Be like Jimmy.
~ ~ ~
¹ See here
² Bob Jones University did not begin accepting black students until 1971 and didn’t allow inter-racial dating until 30 years later. Brief article here.
³ Numerous sources, including here