Former President Jimmy Carter has been called American's most famous Sunday school teacher for a reason. The former commander-in-chief just finished his 561st lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Carter recently condensed those lessons into a 366-day devotional, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, and the NIV Lessons from Life Bible (Zondervan). The nation's 39th President spoke with Christianity Today about how his personal faith contributed to his time in office and beyond.
In what ways did faith impact your presidency?
I've always been fully committed to separation of church and state. I didn't permit worship services in the White House as had been done earlier. I was careful not ever to promote my own Christianity as superior in America to other religions, because I feel all religious believers should be treated carefully. At the same time, there's no way I could ever separate my Christian belief from my obligations as a naval officer, as a governor or as President, or from my work now. I can't say my commitments as President were free of my beliefs. We worship the Prince of Peace, and one of the key elements of my life as President in challenging times was to keep our country peaceful. I was able to deal with challenges without launching a missile or dropping a bomb. My commitment to peace was an aspect of my Christian faith. Also, basic human rights are obviously compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I made human rights a foundation of foreign policy.
You wrote that you made every effort to keep a pledge that you would not lie. "Still, I was not able to keep 100 percent of my campaign promises," you said. Did you have disappointments or regrets about your presidency?
When you're campaigning, you don't really have an awareness of the limitations of a President in dealing with Congress. Sometimes I made promises, but I had four years instead of an anticipated eight years. I never did violate my promise to tell the truth. I've been asked if there was ever any incompatibility between my duties as President and my duties as a Christian. There was one thing that bothered me and that was the issue of abortion. I've never believed Jesus Christ would approve of abortion except when the mother's life is in danger or as a result of incest or rape. Of course, the Supreme Court ruled differently. Within the ruling, I tried to minimize abortion as best I could. On the issue of abortion my beliefs are contradictory to what the Supreme Court ruled.
From a policy standpoint, some have suggested you didn't do enough on abortion.
I did everything I could to limit abortions as President. One of the major causes of abortion is when the prospective mother doesn't believe she and her child will be adequately cared for. I instituted a program to provide care and provisions for women and children. I also tried to make the law easier so a mother who was faced with childbirth could arrange for adoption.
In the current election, the candidates all appear to be personally religious but are focusing on the economy. Does this mean anything for the future of evangelicals in politics?
The overwhelming commitment of a government is to provide justice and equality of opportunity for people. This meant to me that we should favor poor people, those who are deprived, instead of the richest and most powerful people. Governance should be designed as an equalizer. Democrats are more inclined towards working families and those who are struggling for a better life.
How do you evaluate politicians who claim that God is calling them to run for office?
I personally take those statements with a massive grain of salt. There's always an element of self delusion among people who believe they ought to be President. There's an underestimation of your opponent and an overestimation of your own abilities. This is compatible with being rich and powerful, the idea that we were blessed by God because we deserve to be blessed. As Paul teaches, we're all equal in the eyes of God.
Should Christians consider candidates' personal faith when deciding whether to vote for them?
If someone says they are a Christian, Baptist, Mormon, Catholic, or a Jew, those things can be observed and considered, but in a very small way as far as how that person will perform as President. Regardless of their denomination or identification, they probably have a reputation before they take office, not just what they state during the heat of a campaign.
You write, "Christ calls every believer to have a transcendent mission." Did you ever feel like your faith had a tendency to make you a less effective politician?
No, I don't think so. I served as a Navy officer, and my rationale for being in the Navy was to let my influence within the military be a deterrent to war. I didn't feel it was incompatible with my faith. I don't think any aspect of my life as President or governor was in inherent conflict with my duties under the Constitution. I took an oath that I would obey the laws, so I had to go along with the ruling of the Supreme Court despite my religious beliefs. That's the only conflict I can remember.
Your book draws on your 30+ years of teaching Sunday school and Bible study. Our current President has not found a regular church to attend. Do you think this is problematic?
I don't think it's for me to criticize other people's church involvement. When I was governor and President, we decided before we left Georgia to join the nearest churches. I participated in Sunday school and church while I was in office. When I was governor, I was a deacon in the Baptist Church. When I was President, I taught Sunday school 14 times without prior notice because I didn't want to bring publicity. Each one of my lessons was comprised of 45 minutes. We had to reduce those lessons down to 400 words for each page. So it was a simplification of what I taught. I just finished my 561st lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church.
You've voiced your concern over the influence of the Religious Right. Do you think they still hold the same kind of influence that they had in the past?
I think it's waning. The Religious Right came into reality during the time I was President; it was not a factor in 1976, but it was a major factor in 1980 with Jerry Falwell and others. The Southern Baptist Convention cast its lot with the Republican Party's conservative element. Their influence was probably waning in 2008 compared to previous years. I'm not involved in politics, but my prediction is that those elements of religious organizations being injected directly into the political process will not survive the historical era.
What kind of influence did Billy Graham have in your presidency?
Billy Graham is one of my great lifetime heroes. I think he epitomizes the essence of what a Christian leader should be. I have participated in some of his crusades a couple of times in Atlanta. I've seen the profound impact he's had on me personally, and on other people who were not Christians and accepted Christ as Savior. In every possible way, his life has been an example for all of us Christians to follow with admiration and gratitude.
Since you've been able to write books like this, do you feel like you made a bigger difference as a Christian in your time as President or in your tenure as a former President?
One of the things that's a little bit embarrassing to me is the Bible that's going to come out with my comments. I'm not a theologian, I'm not a pastor, I'm just a layman. I think my influence on a global basis is probably greater since I left the White House. We've helped cure and prevent disease and promote freedom and human rights in an unrestricted way since I don't have political ties on me anymore. The last 25 years of my life have not only been the most enjoyable and gratifying, but where my influence has been greatest. Part of that is devoted to the little church in Plains where I'm able to teach.
Should evangelicals prioritize their time in areas other than politics, or does politics give them a platform to do other work?
I don't think there's any incompatibility. People who are religious should seek public office if they want to implement the teachings of their own religion and include that in secular life—that is peace, justice, equality, and the alleviation of suffering. The finest teachings of Mohammed, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Protestantism, or Catholicism are compatible where they advocate peace and sharing one's good fortune with those less fortunate. We can't equate democracy with Christianity because the largest democracy on earth is India, which is primarily Hindu. The third largest democracy is Indonesia, which is Islamic. Democracy and freedom are not dependent on Christian beliefs. As a Christian, I don't equate other religions with the impact or influence or supremacy or the Godship of Jesus Christ. Other believers promote similar beliefs in secular life. Our own individual Christian beliefs and the finest beliefs of Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism should be implemented in the promotion of peace, alleviation of suffering, and justice.
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Previous CT interviews with political figures include:
Michele Bachmann: 'It's High Time We Have a Mother in the White House' | Also, the GOP candidate from Minnesota tells CT about her new church. (November 22, 2011)
Q & A: Timothy Goeglein on Redemption After Plagiarism | The former aide to President George W. Bush explains ways to think theologically about repentance. (November 3, 2011)
Q & A: Ron Paul on Leaving the Episcopal Church, and Whether to Legislate Abortion, Narcotics, & Same-Sex Marriage | The congressman who won the Values Voters Summit straw poll tells CT that he believes marriage is a sacrament but laws cannot change morality. (October 10, 2011)
Q & A: Mitch Daniels on the Economy, His Quiet Faith, and a Social Issues Truce | Why the governor of Indiana is ambivalent about "compassionate conservatism," sees fiscal responsibility as a moral issue, and still wants a truce on social issues. (October 3, 2011)
Q & A: Rick Santorum on Muslims, Religious Freedom, and 'Walking' for President | The former senator from Pennsylvania talks about what he thinks Obama got right and becoming a target of the gay community. (April 5, 2011)