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How Jimmy Carter integrated his evangelical Christian faith into his political work, despite mockery and misunderstanding

A close-up head shot of an older man wearing a grey suit jacket
Former President Jimmy Carter has decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care. AP Photo/John Bazemore, File

“I am a farmer, an engineer, a businessman, a planner, a scientist, a governor, and a Christian,” Jimmy Carter said while introducing himself to national political reporters when he announced his campaign to be the 39th president of the United States in December 1974.

As journalists and historians consider Carter’s legacy, this prelude to Carter’s campaign offers insight into how he wanted to be known and how he might like to be remembered.

After studying Carter’s presidential campaign, presidency and post-presidency for years, which included examining more than 25,000 archival documents, media sources, oral histories and interviews, I wrote “Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign.” Along the way, I had the opportunity to interview former President Carter in October 2014, when we discussed his life, his presidency and his legacy.

Based upon this experience, one observation is certain – Carter was a man of faith committed to a vision of the nation that aligned with his views of Jesus’ teachings.

A campaign cloaked in a message of love and justice

In the fall of 1975, after his initial announcement failed to elicit much national attention for his candidacy, the still relatively unknown Georgia governor published the campaign biography, “Why Not the Best?

Within the book, he told the story of his wholesome childhood on his family’s peanut farm in Archery, Georgia, and of achieving his childhood dream through his appointment to the Naval Academy in 1943.

He wrote of his dedication to his family as a loyal son, husband and father and his duty-bound career transition to manage his family-owned peanut farm, warehouse and store after his father Earl Carter’s premature death from pancreatic cancer in 1953. He also shared his lifelong commitment to community and public service.

Moreover, he offered himself as a public servant who could bridge the chasm between the American people and the government that had emerged after the revelations of presidential corruption amid Vietnam and Watergate.

“Our government can and must represent the best and the highest ideals of those of us who voluntarily submit to its authority. In our third century, we must meet these simple, but crucial standards,” he wrote in the campaign biography.

Though Carter cloaked his campaign in Jesus’ teachings about love and justice, most national reporters did not give Carter’s faith much attention until he became the Democratic Party’s front-runner in advance of the North Carolina primary in 1976.

‘Lust in my heart’

When national reporters finally turned their attention to his faith, what campaign director Hamilton Jordan referred to as Carter’s “weirdo factor,” the evangelical politician acknowledged that he had “spent more time on my knees in the four years I was governor … than I did in all the rest of my life.”

A number of people gather around a table, taking notes, as the person at the head of the table speaks.
Jimmy Carter meets with news editors at the White House on April 15, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Bennett

Carter continued to share his understanding of the gospel with journalists and their audiences in a plain-spoken manner, even though it was not always advantageous to his political fortunes. For instance, after continued probes about his faith that summer from Playboy Magazine correspondent Robert Scheer, Carter launched into a sermon on pride, lust and lying that would haunt him later.

“I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted … I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter, believing he was off the record, said in attempting to clarify his religious views. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Carter referred to Matthew 5:28, the biblical passage in which Jesus shares this interpretation of the Seventh Commandment, with the words: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

Uninterrupted, Carter continued his salty explanation of the verse: “Christ says don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”

“We have heard Jesus’ words all our lives ever since we were 3, 4 years old, and we knew what it meant,” Carter later explained to me. “But, obviously, the general public, when I said, ‘lust in my heart,’ that was a top headline, it looked like I was – like I spent my time trying to seduce other women. Rosa(lynn) knew that wasn’t true.”

Though Carter’s comments were “on solid theological ground,” according to many people of faith, up-and-coming leaders of the religious right, such as televangelist Jerry Falwell, castigated Carter. And, in the end, many folks agreed with well-regarded columnist Mary McGrory – the interview “should have been an off-the-record conversation with God, not one taped by Playboy.”

Crisis of confidence

Despite the erosion of support among the emerging religious right after the Playboy gaffe, Carter remained steadfast in his commitment to his Christian values and a faith-inspired vision for the nation that advanced human rights at home and abroad. He called it a “new beginning.”

Carter beseeched his American brethren to chart a new course during his inaugural address in January 1977: “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.”

Carter had achieved what Time magazine hailed as one of the most astonishing “political miracles” in the nation’s history because of his rapid ascension from a virtual unknown politician to the presidency. But many citizens, suffering from an emerging crisis of confidence in the American dream and faith in its institutions and leaders, had already begun to tune out Carter’s political sermons about the looming energy crisis, stagflation and international conflicts.

Moreover, in the coming years, they would become indignant toward the man who had condemned the corruption of his predecessors and promised to never tell a lie on the campaign trail, yet remained loyal to one of his oldest advisers, the Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance, who was accused of unethical banking practices.

Long-lasting commitment to public service

In the end, Carter stood accused of failing to live up to his campaign promises from the vantage point of many American citizens amid domestic crises and foreign conflicts.

Amid news coverage of these events and his dwindling public support, Carter lost his reelection campaign, and his administration was hailed by many journalists, political insiders and average Americans alike as a “failed presidency.”

Nevertheless, Carter remained committed to his religious convictions. “I have spoken many times of love, but love must be aggressively translated into simple justice,” he invoked his audience when he accepted the Democratic nomination in July 1976.

For the remainder of his life, he attempted to model the translation of Jesus’ love into action through his life of public service. His post-presidential commitments involved The Carter Center’s initiatives of fighting disease and seeking international peace and his private efforts of building homes for Habitat for Humanity and teaching Sunday school.

In the end, Carter will leave this world with only one acknowledged regret: “I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them and I would have been re-elected,” he said referring to the April 1980 military rescue attempt of the 53 U.S. hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries.

In Carter’s final days, his words from his presidential farewell address, which remain true today, are worth remembering:

“The battle for human rights – at home and abroad – is far from over. … If we are to serve as a beacon for human rights, we must continue to perfect here at home the rights and values which we espouse around the world: A decent education for our children, adequate medical care for all Americans, an end to discrimination against minorities and women, a job for all those able to work, and freedom from injustice and religious intolerance.”

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