Remembering President Jimmy Carter, a distinctly Christian politician

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Remembering President Jimmy Carter, a distinctly Christian politician who was at odds with both Democrats and Republicans

February 21, 2023 -

FILE - Former President Jimmy Carter smiles as he is awarded the Order of Manuel Amador Guerrero by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela during a ceremony at the Carter Center, Jan. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Well-wishes and fond remembrances for the former president continued to roll in Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, a day after he entered hospice care at his home in Georgia. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

FILE - Former President Jimmy Carter smiles as he is awarded the Order of Manuel Amador Guerrero by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela during a ceremony at the Carter Center, Jan. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Well-wishes and fond remembrances for the former president continued to roll in Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, a day after he entered hospice care at his home in Georgia. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

FILE - Former President Jimmy Carter smiles as he is awarded the Order of Manuel Amador Guerrero by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela during a ceremony at the Carter Center, Jan. 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Well-wishes and fond remembrances for the former president continued to roll in Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, a day after he entered hospice care at his home in Georgia. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Former President Jimmy Carter passed away on INSERT DAY HERE at the age of ninety-eight. He had been in and out of the hospital several times recently before deciding “to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”

And so Carter’s life ended much as it began: surrounded by family and friends in a small, unassuming Georgia town.

What he accomplished in between, however, was truly historic.

From peanut farmer to president

Jimmy Carter was born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia. His father, Earl Carter, was a peanut farmer who served in the Georgia state legislature while his mother, Lillian, was a registered nurse. Later in life, she would volunteer to serve with the Peace Corps in India.

Jimmy grew up in Plains before eventually getting a degree from the US Naval Academy in 1946. Carter married Rosalynn Smith, whom he had known since childhood, shortly after his graduation. He would go on to serve as a Naval officer on submarines in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets for the next seven years, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

During his time in the Navy, Carter was selected to train in the nuclear submarine program, taking graduate-level classes at Union College in reactor technology and nuclear physics. Upon completing his coursework, he became senior officer of the pre-commissioning crew of the Seawolf, America’s second nuclear submarine.

However, following his father’s death in 1953, Carter left the Navy to return home and manage the family farm. He quickly became a pillar in the community before following in his father’s footsteps and running for public office. He got his start as a state senator in 1962 and served in that role until losing his first gubernatorial campaign in 1966.

In fact, that loss was instrumental in Carter’s faith journey. According to a New York Times article from 1976, Carter “spent his formative years in a distinctly Baptist culture, a mixture of revivalist religion, traditional folkways and prevailing mores. But not until after his defeat in his first attempt to become Governor in 1966 did he have what Baptists term a ‘conversion experience.’ Mr. Carter has not disclosed details, but he says he came away from it with ‘an inner peace and inner conviction and assurance that transformed my life for the better.’”

His faith would become an integral part of his politics, and he would win his second gubernatorial bid, becoming Georgia’s governor in 1971.

From there, Jimmy Carter rose to become the Democratic National Committee campaign chairman for the 1974 election cycle and announced that he was running for president in December of that year. He won both his party’s nomination and the 1976 election, defeating incumbent Gerald Ford to become the thirty-ninth president of the United States.

Was Jimmy Carter a successful president?

Carter’s time in the oval office, however, was hindered by a litany of domestic and foreign issues. And though the degree to which he is responsible for those issues remains a matter of some debate, most agree that his time as president was not overly successful.

What victories he had often occurred on the international stage, where he presided over the Panama Canal treaties, the Camp David Accords, the SALT II nuclear limitation treaty, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. Closer to home, much of his time was spent battling inflation and championing legislation concerning the environment, such as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

However, his successes were not enough to overcome the gas shortages, inflation, economic recession, and international issues like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—which ultimately suspended the implementation of the SALT II treaty—and the hostage crisis in Iran after fifty-two Americans were taken from the US Embassy in Tehran. The latter crisis dogged Carter’s last fourteen months as president and the hostages were not released until the day he left office in 1981.

Ultimately, he lost his bid for reelection in 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

After leaving the White House, the Carters returned to Plains and began preparing for a life of continued service outside of public office.

Jimmy Carter’s Christian testimony

In 1982, Jimmy Carter took a position as a Distinguished Professor at Emory University in Atlanta and started the Carter Center, which worked as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization to address “national and international issues of public policy.” Through the Center, Carter devoted the remainder of his life to philanthropic efforts such as supporting Habitat for Humanity—the Carters dedicated a week each year to building houses with the organization until 2020—and mediating conflicts around the globe.

His work in places like North Korea, Bosnia, Sudan, and elsewhere earned him the Nobel Prize in 2002 “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

Carter’s public record during this stage of his life was not entirely without controversy, however.

For example, his stance on abortion put him at odds with both Republicans and Democrats. Carter defended it as established law but argued that Jesus would not approve of it and “installed an anti-abortion Catholic as his secretary of Health and Human Services.” Some argue that his public opposition to the practice gave cover for Congress to pass the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Still, he opposed a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision, which was and remains a step too far in support of abortion for many in the pro-life movement.

His position on same-sex marriage proved to be an even greater point of divergence for many who shared his faith. He argued that “I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else and I don’t see that gay marriage damages anyone else.”

Even those who disagree with his understanding of both issues, however, would have difficulty arguing that he was not both a serious student of the Bible and a faithful follower of Christ. Prior to his latest bouts of illness, he’d taught Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains since the 1980s and was public about his faith throughout his time in office and on the global stage.

As such, his life offers an important reminder for us today.

A temptation to resist

One of the most difficult temptations for Christians to resist in our culture today appears to be the tendency to focus on our differences to the point that we lose sight of how much more we have in common. And when it comes to issues that tend to overwhelm our collective conscience, few rise to the level of abortion and same-sex marriage for believers today.

Dr. Jim Denison has written at length about our ministry’s stance on both abortion and same-sex marriage, and we understand how important those issues are. However, a person’s stance on those subjects does not define the totality of their identity in Christ or the legitimacy of their faith.

As we look back on the life of Jimmy Carter, let’s not allow any theological differences we may have to obscure all the ways that God used him to bless others and share the good news of Jesus. He was not perfect—and was among the first to tell you so—but he loved Christ and wanted to serve him well.

Will the same be said of you?

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