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How Jimmy Carter tried to live out his Christianity

Jimmy Carter, now in hospice care in his home in Plains, Ga., will never be ranked among our top 10 presidents. But his failure to achieve greatness as a political leader means next-to-nothing about his moral center and his status as what he and many other people of faith would call a child of God.

Jimmy-carterThis article from The Conversation by Lori Amber Roessner, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee, unpacks some of what made Carter a politician willing to talk openly about his faith and to live out that faith in a consistent and consistently admirable way throughout his long life.

"(O)ne observation is certain," she writes. "Carter was a man of faith committed to a vision of the nation that aligned with his views of Jesus’ teachings."

Carter's understanding of all this, by the way, is radically different from what has more recently come to be known as Christian Nationalism, a badly misguided attempt to create something close to a theocracy in which just one branch of Christianity sets the national agenda. Rather, Carter's approach has been to take seriously Jesus' words about loving enemies, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry -- all with compassion -- as he looked for ways that such teachings could be implemented fairly in a nation that, at least in theory, welcomes people of all faith traditions and none.

As Roessner writes, "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." Indeed, in many ways it was Carter's insistence on a foreign policy that put human rights at or near the top of the agenda that perhaps best illustrates how his faith shaped his politics.

In his post-presidency, of course, he's known for his work with many humanitarian projects, from building Habitat for Humanity houses to working to eradicate Guinea Worm from Africa.

In 1976, the day after Carter won the New Hampshire primary, I traveled with the national media and met Carter and his campaign at the Philadelphia airport for a press conference before we moved on to other stops that day. Carter's New Hampshire victory was rather surprising for the little-known governor of Georgia at the time.

So as I was walking with other reporters down an airport corridor to attend Carter's press conference we noticed at the other end of the corridor Carter and his campaign staff moving toward us. As we got closer, Jim Wooten of the New York Times put on his big-boy voice and made an announcement to the relatively few people walking in the same hallway: "Ladies and gentlemen: The next president of the United States, James Earl CRATER."

Judy Woodruff of PBS, walking alongside Wooten, looked aghast and picked up her step to move away from Wooten, whose childish joke seemed to amuse almost no one but him, though it did point out how little most Americans knew about Carter.

Later I went to Plains, Ga., where I met Jimmy's mother, known as Miss Lillian, and his later-infamous Brother Billy, and where I stood in a peanut field with Carter watching him shoot a video for his campaign. Jimmy was clearly his mother's son. Miss Lillian was a smart, loving, quick-witted good heart. Both she and I had lived for a time in India, which gave us a little common ground as I interviewed her in the Plains campaign headquarters.

I think what even political opponents came to admire about Jimmy Carter was his consistency when it came to matters of religion. He clearly thought of himself as an evangelical Christian (he regularly taught an adult Sunday school class), but one that was much more interested in trying to live the life he believed Jesus called him to live rather than one who wanted to devote his time and energy to the culture wars, which already were underway during his presidency.

So it was not surprising when Carter moved away from the Southern Baptist Convention, which had been taken over by people who called themselves fundamentalists, and became attached to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The website of his church in Plains, however, Maranatha Baptist, says it's affiliated with both the SBC and the CBF. 

The one small thing I regret (a little) writing about Carter when I covered the 1976 Democratic convention in New York when he was nominated for president was a silly description I used of him. In a piece I wrote for The Kansas City Star, I called him "The Trojan Peanut" as a way of pointing to the unlikelihood of this Georgia peanut farmer slipping in to receive the Democratic party's presidential nomination. I thought it was kind of cute at the time, but, in fact, it was dismissive of his political skills that knocked all the other competition out of the way that year. A small regret, perhaps, but a regret nonetheless.

Well, as someone who served on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care for 12 years, I know the immense value of well-done hospice care. My prayer is that Jimmy Carter is getting the kind of care he himself would be giving to others if he were a hospice nurse instead of a former president.

May your road ahead, Mr. President, be smooth as mist.

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For this second piece today, I am connecting you to this intriguing, serious and complicated article having to do with abortion in light of the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling. The author argues that conservative Christian theology seems to trump all other brands of theology when it comes to court cases these days in the U.S. legal system. The Dobbs decision, the author writes, "overruled Roe v. Wade and allowed state legislatures to criminalize abortion care for the first time in half a century. What the court also did was hand off a fundamentally theological issue to elected state representatives." The result is that now some people are arguing in courts that this or that group is insincere in its theological beliefs. Oh, my. As I say, this is not an easy issue to grasp, but when we turn our theology over to the court system to referee, we're simply asking for trouble. And trouble is what we have.


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