Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part reflection on the faith and political contribution of former President Jimmy Carter.
While it is true that Jimmy Carter’s born again-ism reintroduced conservative Christians into the political process, they didn’t stay with him. The conservative Christian base that Carter energized with his born-again campaign rejected him for his liberal politics.
Along with Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the newly politically charged Christian community also made common cause with Jerry Falwell, then pastor of Liberty Baptist Church.
These evangelicals embraced with great enthusiasm the positive warmth and winsome charm of Ronald Reagan. Though Reagan himself was only a nominal Christian, he articulated strong support for many of the concerns of the evangelical community. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, and Falwell and Dobson took credit for the victory. And the legacy of this victory is now known to us as the Religious Right. Back then they were the “Moral Majority.”
Carter left office and entered the ambiguous world of former presidents. He returned to his life before the White House. He taught Sunday school at the small church in Plains, Ga. He considered additional public office. But in the end, President Carter decided to put his faith and his political visibility to work in the cause of justice. He founded the Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982.
From that platform, President Carter has worked tirelessly for peace. He has promoted democracy in places no one dreamed democracy was even possible. And he has continued to work for peace in the Middle East.
In recent years, his work for Middle East peace has earned him the ire of many Israelis who feel Carter is overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. However, in 2002 Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his many humanitarian efforts. Though many believe he should have received the prize for his work on the Camp David Accords, in the treacherous world of politics and peacemaking, better late than not at all.
Last year, my wife and I took a Sunday off and drove to Plains to hear Carter teach his Sunday school class. As I watched him work his way carefully and thoroughly through the lesson, it occurred to me that all President Carter has done in his life is a witness to his faith. From his international election monitoring, to his work on behalf of the poor of the world, and even taking his turn to cut the grass at the small Baptist church where he worships, all of this is rooted in a simple yet devout faith in Jesus.
The Apostle Paul wrote once about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This fruit has been evident in President Carter’s life for a long time.
His faith and political vision changed politics in America forever, though maybe not in the way he hoped. But this much is clear: President Carter has demonstrated what a lively and positive faith can accomplish. Not by changing laws that force faith on those who do not want it. But a lived faith that demonstrates that stubborn commitment can bring about the possible, and maybe even the impossible.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.