Jimmy Carter’s Third-Way Religion

Jimmy Carter Signs Copies Of His New Book "Faith: A Journey For All"

This review originally appeared in the July-September Issue of Baptist Peacemaker, the journal of BPFNA – Bautistas por la Paz

Jimmy Carter is 93 now, and surprised to be alive.  Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1991, Carter surrendered to the inevitable (a surprisingly joyful process), got his affairs in order, and waited for death.  When he didn’t die, he decided to write about how faith made him who he is and helped him navigate troubled waters.

Faith is the sort of book you would expect from a 93 year-old statesman: there are copious quotations from earlier writing and tips of the hat to friends, famous and not-so-famous, who have inspired him over the years.  Faith is the self-portrait of a man looking for that illusive middle way between competing extremes.

About a quarter way through the book, Carter shares a story he has frequently used to signal his misgivings about the fundamentalist wing within the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 1980 a high official of the Southern Baptist Convention came to the Oval Office to visit me when I was president.  As he and his wife were leaving, he said, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.”

Adrian Rogers

When Carter first shared this anecdote the “secular humanism” comment was placed on the lips of Adrian Rogers.  Rogers denied he ever said such a thing, but Carter has refused to back down.  He and Rosalyn were unfamiliar with the odd phrase “secular humanism” so it stuck in their minds.

Rogers almost certainly picked up the phrase from Francis Schaeffer, the emerging guru of the religious right.  There were only two “world views,” one was Orthodox Christianity (as men like Schaeffer understood it), and the other was secular humanism.  Since Carter disagreed with the conservative wing of the SBC on issues like the Panama Canal, the SALT treaty and abortion, he was, by default, a secular humanist.

In a nation dividing into warring factions, Carter has always been searching for a unifying third way.

Jimmy on the farmThe Carter family roots are sunk deep in the soil of rural Georgia; a rich blessing and an abiding curse.  Jimmy owns the curse but won’t turn loose of the blessing.  He personifies the pithy advice his favorite school teacher shared with her students: “We must welcome changing times, but cling to principles that never change.”

In Faith, Carter keeps coming back to the wonderful people of Plains, Georgia who taught him the values of hard work, endurance, honesty, loyalty and love.  He also realizes that this rich legacy is riddled with racism and systemic injustice.  Instead of focusing on the victims of Jim Crow racism, Carter devotes an entire chapter to white southerners like Clarence Jordan and Millard and Linda Fuller who, while growing up white and southern, dedicated their lives to the betterment of humanity.

Like many white southerners who came of age in the Jim Crow era, Carter says he was largely unaware of the color line until, at the age of twelve, his black friends started deferring to him in peculiar ways.  Coming to terms with southern racism has been the burden of a lifetime.

Midway through the book, he shares an anecdote from 1966, the year Lester Maddox, an arch-racist famous for driving African American customers from his store with an ax handle, was elected governor of Georgia.  After coming in a distant third, Carter lapsed into a despair too deep for his religious categories.  He finally shared his anguish with his evangelist sister, Ruth Stapleton Carter.

I said, “Ruth, my political life is over!  It’s not my goal just to grow peanuts, sell fertilizer, gin cotton, and built up a bank account.  I have nowhere to go!  God has rejected me through the people’s vote.”

You have to admire a man for owning up to sentiments that superficial.  Carter was appalled that the people of Georgia had voted overwhelmingly for an unapologetic racist; but even at the age of 42, he seemed unable to distinguish the voice of his God from the vox populi!

In one of the most gripping sections of Faith, he describes the rise of the white Citizens’ Council and the John Burch Society in the 1950s.  Carter admits that he was largely on the sidelines during the civil rights movement.  Still, he and Rosalynn refused to align with segregationist organizations, even when the family peanut business was threatened by boycott.

Carter appears to realize that, had he embraced the civil rights movement with enthusiasm, he could never have been elected governor of Georgia in 1971 or received strong backing from southern voters in his 1976 presidential run.  Carter was considered a moderate on the race issue and, if Faith is anything to go by, he’s still unpacking this fraught complex of issues.

Carter in the NavyIf the young Jimmy Carter was an island of racial moderation adrift in a segregationist sea the blame must be laid at the feet of the U.S. Navy.  Thanks largely to Harry Truman, Carter came of age in an integrated military that was out of step with the segregationist South.  The Navy was a disciplined meritocracy, the perfect setting for an earnest Georgia Baptist dedicated to doing the right thing in the right way.

Like being too evolved on civil rights, a religious commitment to pacifism would have disqualified Carter as a presidential candidate.  He admits as much.  He believes in the peace-through-strength doctrine, but has opposed virtually every war the United States has fought since World War II.  “Since that time,” he says, “the military forces of our county have been involved in conflict with more than twenty other nations, in wars that cost the lives of 10 million people, and the potential for further military engagements remains.”  America, in other words, has an earned reputation as “the world’s foremost belligerent”.

Carter shares Dwight Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” anxiety but notes that Americans consistently line up behind their nation’s military misadventures.

Carter also opposes most of the crippling economic embargoes that are often employed as a supposedly non-violent alternative to war.  Only the poorest citizens are impacted, he says, often in dreadful ways, while autocratic leaders successfully cling to power by demonizing an oppressive America.

Carter keeps coming back to the proper role of religion.  Although he is remembered as America’s first born-again president, he has always been troubled by the worldwide profusion of authoritarian religion.  But, whatever Adrian Rogers might have believed, Carter is no secular humanist.  The ex-president is respectful of the world’s great religions but remains an unapologetic Christian.  Fundamentalism is a problem, he says, precisely because its spirit (“pride, domination, and exclusion”) can’t be squared with the religion Jesus sponsors (“humility, servanthood of leaders, and breaking down walls between people”).

As a young man, Carter wrestled with the unreflective biblicism he imbibed in Sunday school.  Trained as a nuclear scientist, he had a problem with miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus in particular.  He doesn’t tell us how he resolved these doubts, but he came to believe that there is no conflict between faith and scientific inquiry, a point he repeats throughout the book.

In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James distinguishes between “healthy-minded” individuals (who see human history, and their own lives, as an evolutionary advancement toward the good), and “sick souls” (who view the world, and themselves, as flawed, scarred and broken beyond repair).  In Faith, Jimmy Carter reveals himself as a poster boy for the healthy-minded spirit.  “I do not remember any time when Jesus was absent from my life,” he says.  “[Jesus] explains the true character of the God of love and reassures us that ultimate power on earth will be good, not evil.”  Over and over in his book on faith, Carter shares his confidence that the world is evolving toward better things.

Carter’s intellectual difficulties with religion were resolved shortly after his ill-fated 1966 run for governor.    “After some discussion,” he says, his sister Ruth “advised me to search for a way to serve others for a while, and not be so preoccupied with my own ambitions.”

A few days later, Jimmy was invited to join an evangelistic team sponsored by the Baptist Brotherhood.  The idea was to share “a step-by-step ‘plan of salvation’” with the Yankees up in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.  Surprisingly (for me, at least) Carter seems comfortable with this essentiually “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to evangelism.  Throughout the book, he shares his appreciation for Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann and the Niebuhr brothers.  His professed admiration for Norman Vincent Peale also comes as a surprise.

Jimmy Carter was a fan of Billy Graham, but, unlike other presidents before and after him, he never invited the world’s most famous Christian to the White House.  He thought it “inappropriate” but doesn’t really explain why.

Carter likes this quote from his favorite theologian: “To establish justice in a sinful world,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is the whole sad duty of the political order.”  Like Niebuhr, Carter believes “there are deeper religious values, such as humility, atonement, forgiveness, compassion, and love that transcend what a government can achieve.”  The humanitarian work of the Carter Center, for instance, requires cooperation with secular governments, but goes far beyond what government alone could accomplish.

This focus on compassionate work as the solution to religious doubt may be the greatest lesson we can draw from what is likely Jimmy Carter’s last book.

Carter can’t talk about faith without returning, again and again, to his profound love for Rosalyn his wife and life partner.  He shares a terrific quote from H. Richard Niebuhr (Reinhold’s brother), “we are bound to each other only as we are mutually bound to some third reality, to a transcendent cause to which both owe loyalty and on which both depend.”

How terribly old fashioned.  How utterly true.

Jimmy Carter is still teaching Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, and when he does, you can’t get a seat unless you arrive hours early.  But it won’t be long before Jimmy Carter goes to his reward and the thirty-or-so stalwarts who make the little church run will be left to their own devices.

As will we.  Jimmy Carter has always been sui generis, as good as a man with presidential ambitions could afford to be.  Ultimately, Jimmy proved to be too good for either the White House or his beloved Southern Baptist Convention.  But he was never too good; just a little better than the rest of us.  He was of our tribe.  Even his odd mixture of 1940s neo-orthodoxy and revivalistic piety is familiar: that was pretty much what they were teaching at Southern Seminary in Louisville when I arrived in 1975.

Jimmy has always been one or two steps ahead of his moderate Baptist tribe.  But, like the rest of us, he was struggling with a legacy of religious racism and ticket-to-heaven spirituality.  When he grasped for something better, some of us found the courage to follow his example.  If Jimmy thought the Palestinians were just as human as the Israelis, we were willing to agree.  If Jimmy thought the SALT treaty was a good thing or that the ravages of guinea worm could be eradicated, or that homeless people could live in their own homes, we thought so too.

The third-way project Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter launched has been a wonder to behold.  Faith: A journey for all may not prove to be Carter’s last will and testament, but if you’re searching for the soul of this good man, it’s a great place to start.

One thought on “Jimmy Carter’s Third-Way Religion

  1. I finally read this. Computer has been on the fritz and across the alley with computer whiz Ron Love. So here I am.
    Loved this article. I identify with Carter in appreciation for many of the values of my rural Texas Panhandle roots while deploring the just below the skin racism and nationalism. Of course his was rural Georgia, but I’m just one long generation removed from that.

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