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Jimmy Carter’s religious values were never far from his presidency or his policy

The former president possessed an inner confidence in relation to his faith that may not be fully understood by many, even to this day.

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches during Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Video screen grab

(RNS) — As the United States and friends around the world have learned of Jimmy Carter’s decision to enter hospice care, many leaders and writers search for fitting ways to name his legacy. Much attention has already been focused on his post-presidency life. A common narrative for decades has been of a disappointing term in office followed by exemplary service as a former president.

Fortunately, Jonathan Alter’s book, “His Very Best,” goes a long way to dispel the account of a Carter administration with few accomplishments. But, further, those with religious values have much more to honor as we reflect on Jimmy Carter’s legacy.

When President Carter spoke at the groundbreaking for the Bishop William R. Cannon Chapel at Candler School of Theology in 1979, Emory University President James Laney spoke with appreciation of President Carter’s “fusion of piety and pragmatism so characteristic of our region and still so enigmatic to the rest of the nation.” Perhaps those of us who grew up in the South can appreciate more deeply than others the religious values that nurtured and shaped Carter.

The former president possessed an inner confidence in relation to his faith that may not be fully understood by many, even to this day. In welcoming the 1972 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to Atlanta, then-Georgia Gov. Carter said, “The most important factor in my life is Jesus Christ.”

Claire Randall, at the time general secretary of the National Council of Churches, had a long meeting with Carter in the midst of his presidency. She said afterward: “Many people — particularly those unfamiliar with the intensely personal and biblical nature of southern religion — find it hard to understand a president who is so publicly close to his God. Having seen this president in various situations and being familiar with such expressions of faith, however, I have no doubt that it is genuine.”

Carter represented evangelical Christianity at its best, seeking to unite deep piety and a vision of justice and righteousness for God’s world. This understanding of evangelical Christian faith, rooted in the biblical witness, can remind evangelicals today of their rich heritage. Sadly, President Carter’s ways of living the evangelical heritage are missing from the quasi-religious groups formed in 1979 and later that focused more around conservative politics than religion.

Portrait of President Jimmy Carter on Jan. 31, 1977. Photo by Karl Schumacher/LOC/Creative Commons

Portrait of President Jimmy Carter on Jan. 31, 1977. Photo by Karl Schumacher/LOC/Creative Commons

Below are several areas — by no means exhaustive — where Carter’s faith informed his policy and we are all better for it. 

Human rights. In his farewell address to the nation, President Carter said, “America didn’t invent human rights. It’s the other way around. Human rights invented America.” A dimension of the evangelical witness he represented was that ever since Moses stood before Pharaoh, the people of God have been concerned about human rights. It is impossible to overstate the impact all around the world of President Carter’s declaration before the United Nations that the very heart of our identity as a nation is our own firm commitment to human rights. His record here, as in all areas, is not perfect nor always consistent, but his human rights efforts were a hallmark of his term.

World peace. The world of Carter’s presidency made the biblical concept of shalom seem less of a distant dream. President Carter established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China that began to create an important level of communication. He also made good on a long-standing American promise to return control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. The peace settlement between Israel and Egypt was a high mark of his leadership. His understanding of what was happening in Africa and Latin America gave renewed credibility to American foreign policy for many who had been suspicious after years of American support for repressive regimes.

Environment. President Carter worked to identify what was required for a sustainable future. He understood the need for sacrifice and simplified lifestyles, which reflected his religious values, but few were ready to accept. Opponents made fun of the solar panels he placed on the White House roof (that were removed by his successor, only to be returned decades later). Generations will benefit from the early strides made during these years in areas of environmental stewardship such as clean air, clean water and protection of lands.

Inclusiveness. Since President Carter was the first person elected to this office from the Deep South in 140 years, the entire nation was watching to see what his record would be on racial inclusiveness. From the beginning of his administration, President Carter practiced inclusiveness of women, people of color and persons with disabilities in government service. He disproved the myth that eminently qualified persons in these categories are not available for government service. Some of his successors have gone well beyond his record but, at the time, it was noteworthy. Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to this president from Georgia was that Black voters gave him the same overwhelming support in 1980 as they had in 1976.

When Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as governor of Georgia in 1971, he declared that “the time for racial discrimination is over. Our people have already made this major and difficult decision.” Surely he knew that what he was saying was more aspirational than descriptive. But Jimmy Carter took important steps to bend the arc of history toward justice. Carter grew up on the teachings of evangelical Christianity embedded in and distorted by racism. He learned well enough to embody an older evangelical tradition of the abolitionists and suffragettes, and of those who crusaded for the poor and against child labor. And always he stood fast with his faith tradition and the U.S. Constitution regarding the separation of church and state.

During these days of remembering and giving thanks for the life and leadership of President Jimmy Carter, we dare not forget the immense power of his faith and values that shaped both that life and leadership. He would affirm, “Thanks be to God.”

(Lovett H. Weems Jr. was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi during the Carter presidency. He is now professor emeritus of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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