Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part reflection on the faith and political contribution of former President Jimmy Carter.
One day in the near future, someone is going to write a history of how religion has impacted modern American politics. When that story is told, the legacy of Jimmy Carter will be acknowledged as one of the more interesting and important episodes in that give and take.
It was Jimmy Carter, after all, who in 1976 made being “born again” a campaign issue. And not just a campaign issue, but nearly a national obsession. There was so much discussion in the media about what the expression meant that Billy Graham decided to capitalize on the debate and write “How to Be Born Again.” It remains to this day one of his best-sellers.
Why so much debate about Carter’s born again-ism? Simply put, prior to Carter’s campaign, politicians simply did not talk about such things. Nearly two decades before Carter, John Kennedy had been forced to assure a nervous electorate that his Catholic faith would not hinder his ability to govern – that he would take direction from the American people and the Constitution, not the Vatican. Kennedy vowed that if he found his faith at odds with his job, he would resign.
Carter asserted just the opposite. He vowed that his faith would help him govern.
American voters were ready for some truth and integrity. Watergate and its aftermath had cut a nasty wound on the soul of the body politic. The American people were looking for someone they could trust. A simple man from the south, a Sunday school teacher and scientist, a man who openly talked about his faith seemed to be just what was needed.
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Carter’s born again-ism was especially refreshing to American evangelicals. They understood him immediately. He spoke their language. When he talked about sin and salvation, evangelicals were out there saying “Amen” with loud voices.
Carter did more for this group than simply affirm their theology; he also drew them into the limelight of politics. For years, maybe going back as far as the 1925 Scopes trial, evangelicals had stayed out of sight. They were busy building their churches and winning souls for Christ. They voted, but they were not political. Carter changed that. He energized evangelicals into a potent voting bloc.
Unfortunately, Carter was not exactly what conservative evangelicals thought he was. In 1978, Carter sought to pull together national leaders around the needs of American families. Many evangelicals were invited to participate, including child psychologist James Dobson.
As it became apparent, however, that the Carter administration was willing to affirm nontraditional family structures, including gays and lesbians, Dobson led the evangelicals out. His “Focus on the Family” was forged in the heat of this debate.
Carter faced several challenges as president. Inflation and mortgage interest rates were both reported in double digits. There were fuel shortages. In the midst of these other troubles, 66 Americans were taken hostage in Iran and 52 of them held for 444 days. The nightly news maintained a daily count of the passing days – a constant reminder that America was held hostage.
About the only positive accomplishment for the president was the peace deal he brokered between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. The Camp David Accords are still hailed as one of the few diplomatic victories in the long conflict between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
TOMORROW: Carter’s Steady Pursuit of Peace, Justice