(RNS) — As the United States and its friends around the world have learned of Jimmy Carter’s decision to enter hospice care, many leaders and writers are looking for appropriate ways to name his legacy. Much attention has already focused on his post-presidency life. A common narrative for decades has been of a disappointing tenure followed by exemplary service as a former president.
Fortunately, Jonathan Alter’s book, “His Very Best,” goes a long way toward dispelling the tale of an underachieving Carter administration. But in addition, those with religious values have much more to honor when we reflect on Jimmy Carter’s legacy.
When President Carter spoke at the dedication of the Bishop William R. Cannon Chapel at the Candler School of Theology in 1979, Emory University President James Laney welcomed President Carter’s “fusion of piety and pragmatism, so characteristic of our region and still so enigmatic for the rest of the nation”. Perhaps those of us who grew up in the South can appreciate more deeply than others the religious values that nurtured and shaped Carter.
The former president possessed an inner confidence regarding his faith that may not be fully understood by many, even to this day. Welcoming the 1972 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Atlanta, then-Georgia Governor Carter said, “The most important factor in my life is Jesus Christ.”
Claire Randall, at the time the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, had a long meeting with Carter in the middle of his presidency. She later said: “Many people, particularly those unfamiliar with the intensely personal and biblical nature of Southern religion, find it difficult to understand a president who is so publicly close to his God. Having seen this president in various situations and being familiar with such expressions of faith, however, I have no doubt that he is genuine.”
Carter represented the best of evangelical Christianity, seeking to unite deep piety and a vision of justice and righteousness for God’s world. This understanding of the evangelical Christian faith, rooted in the biblical witness, can remind evangelicals today of their rich heritage. Sadly, the ways of living out President Carter’s evangelical heritage are not found in the quasi-religious groups formed in 1979 and later that focused more on conservative politics than religion.
Below are several areas, by no means exhaustive, where Carter’s faith influenced his politics and we’re all the better for it.
Human rights. In his farewell address to the nation, President Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. It’s the other way around. Human rights invented America.” One dimension of the evangelical witness he represented was that ever since Moses appeared before Pharaoh, God’s people have been concerned with human rights. It is impossible to overstate the worldwide impact of President Carter’s statement to the United Nations that at the very heart of our identity as a nation is our steadfast commitment to human rights. His record here, as in all areas, is not perfect or always consistent, but his human rights efforts were a hallmark of his tenure.
World peace. The world of the Carter presidency made the biblical concept of shalom seems less like a distant dream. President Carter established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China which began to create a significant level of communication. He also fulfilled a longstanding US promise to return control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was a great mark of his leadership. His understanding of what was happening in Africa and Latin America gave renewed credibility to US foreign policy to many who had been suspicious after years of US support for repressive regimes.
Atmosphere. President Carter worked to identify what was required for a sustainable future. He understood the need for sacrifice and simplified lifestyles, which reflected his religious values, but few were willing to accept. Opponents mocked the solar panels he placed on the roof of the White House (which were removed by his successor, only to be returned decades later). Generations will benefit from the early advances made over the years in areas of environmental stewardship such as clean air, clean water, and land protection.
inclusivity. Since President Carter was the first person elected to this office from the Deep South in 140 years, the entire nation was watching to see what his record on racial inclusion would be. From the beginning of his administration, President Carter practiced the inclusion of women, people of color, and people with disabilities in government service. He refuted the myth that eminently qualified people in these categories are not available for government service. Some of his successors have gone well beyond his record but, at the time, he was noteworthy. Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to this Georgia president was that black voters gave him the same overwhelming support in 1980 as they did in 1976.
When Jimmy Carter took office as Governor of Georgia in 1971, he declared that “the time of racial discrimination is over. Our people have already made this important and difficult decision.” He surely knew that what he was saying was more aspirational than descriptive. But Jimmy Carter took important steps to tilt the arc of history toward justice. Carter grew up with the teachings of evangelical Christianity entrenched and distorted by racism. He learned well enough to embody a older evangelical tradition of abolitionists and suffragettes, and of those who fought for the poor and against child labor. And he always stood by his faith tradition and the United States Constitution regarding the separation of church and state.
During these days of remembering and giving thanks for the life and leadership of President Jimmy Carter, we dare not forget the immense power of his faith and the values that shaped both that life and his leadership. He would affirm: “Thanks be to God.”
(Lovett H. Weems Jr. was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi during the Carter presidency. He is now emeritus professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)