The faith of Jimmy Carter

jimmy carter

When Billy Graham died in February at the age of 99, commentators offered dueling perspectives. Was the world-famous evangelist “the last high-profile bipartisan evangelical,” as some eulogized? Or had America’s Preacher started a strain of Gospel-infused white nationalism that still exists today?

But if Graham is either the foil or forefather of current evangelical politics, then Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, is the road not taken.

Today it may seem inevitable that evangelicals gravitated to the Republican Party in the 1980s; but Carter, the wealthy peanut farmer from Georgia who won the 1976 election as a Jesus-loving Democrat, complicates the story.

Like the evangelical politicians who succeeded him, Carter talked about his “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” (and famously confessed to Playboy magazine, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times”).

Yet as other evangelicals drifted to the religious right, Carter advocated universal health care, proposed cuts in military spending and denounced the tax code as “a welfare program for the rich.”

Voted out of office after his first term, Carter has dedicated himself to humanitarian work through the Carter Center, the nonpartisan human rights organization he and his wife founded in 1982.

But Carter, now 93, remains adamant about the role of Christians in the political sphere. “I believe now, more than then, that Christians are called to plunge into the life of the world,” he writes in Faith: A Journey for All, “and to inject the moral and ethical values of our faith into the processes of governing.”

The goal of Faith: A Journey for All, as Carter states loftily in the Introduction, is “to explore the broader meaning of faith, its far-reaching effect on our lives, and its relationship to past, present, and future events in America and around the world.”

Fortunately, the book is far less stuffy than such a description suggests.

Peppered with stories from Carter’s political career and quotations from theologians, Faith is the religion-infused appeal of an elder statesman to the country he once governed.

Though Carter’s evangelical faith is on full display, his appeal to readers is religiously neutral.

Whether through the Bible, the Quran or the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Carter entreats his fellow citizens to draw on “these visions of improved human interrelationships…to meet the challenges of the present moment.”

These challenges weigh heavily on Carter. Two paragraphs into the Introduction, he resorts to italics to remind readers the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation “still exists.”

By the last chapter, Carter’s concerns about the United States include its reliance on military might, refusal to outlaw assault weapons, acceptance of oligarchy, inaction on climate change, skyrocketing levels of incarceration and intensified polarization.

Yet his tone—and message—is optimistic. “I still have faith that the world will avoid self-destruction from nuclear war and environmental degradation,” writes Carter, “that we will remember inspirational principles, and that ways will be found to correct our other, even potentially fatal human mistakes.”

The source of his optimism is faith, including his “broader” faith in the American people as well as his religious faith in God. To a degree some will find surprising, Carter’s religious faith is deeply relational: “To me, Jesus Christ is not an object to be worshipped but a person and a constant companion,” he writes. Continue reading

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