The Private Faith of Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter is a former U.S. President, a Nobel laureate, author, and co-founder of The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, former president, Nobel laureate, and global humanitarian Jimmy Carter reflects on public life and the Bible, politics, and love.
MR. JIMMY CARTER: When I look around for a metaphor for the relationships between nations or societies or individuals, the most obviously comprehensible relationship is between a husband and a wife, that on a daily basis, maybe on an hourly basis on occasion, there’s going to be a difference of opinion between people that are forced to live intimately. As in generic terms, we are forced to live intimately with the people in Africa. And you are involved with them permanently and inseparably, so you have to learn to accommodate the idiosyncrasies — or from a personal point of view the faults and mistakes of another person — and to do it without ceasing.
MS. TIPPETT: Jimmy Carter speaks of his born-again faith with a directness striking even in today’s political culture. This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, a conversation on faith and public life with Jimmy Carter, former president and Nobel laureate, author, and global activist. Carter speaks of his born-again faith with a directness that is striking even in today’s political culture. Hear his reflections this hour about being commander in chief, while following, as he says, “the Prince of Peace,” about upholding the law of the land while privately opposing abortion, and about his marriage of 60 years as a metaphor for the challenge of human relationship both personal and global.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Private Faith of Jimmy Carter.” Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical Christian president in modern memory, in a period in which evangelical Christianity was mobilizing in a new way. But he failed to galvanize that movement with his policies. After one term in office, he lost re-election in 1980, amidst economic recession and the protracted crisis of American hostages in Iran. The emerging Religious Right supported his opponent, the non-evangelical Ronald Reagan, despite campaign ads like this.
COMMERCIAL VOICEOVER: Though he carefully observes our historic separation of church and state, Jimmy Carter is a deeply and clearly religious man. He takes the time to pray privately and with Rosalynn each day. Under the endless pressure of the presidency, while decisions change and directions change and even the facts change, this man knows that one thing remains constant, his faith. President Carter.
MS. TIPPETT: After the White House, Jimmy Carter went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to champion organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and to found the Carter Center, which has programs in over 70 countries to help alleviate poverty and disease and promote democratic structures. Jimmy Carter has also published over 20 books of autobiography, political analysis, poetry, and even a novel. His most recent book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, has been bitterly controversial. Some Jewish and Evangelical leaders, in particular, have called it factually inconsistent and anti-Israel. Fourteen members of the Carter Center’s advisory board resigned in protest over the book. Jimmy Carter has discussed this controversy at length and apologized in part. I decided not to retrace that ground in the limited time I had with him.
Instead, I wanted to get a sense of the basic Christianity that formed Jimmy Carter and has undergirded his actions in the White House and since. He has taught Sunday school all of his life and leads Bible study now at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, the church he and his wife Rosalynn have attended for decades. This is a small congregation of 135 members, but several hundred people come from around the world each Sunday to hear Jimmy Carter’s take on life and the Bible.
MS. TIPPETT: Just as we begin, what was the most recent Bible study you taught? Did you teach Bible study last Sunday?
MR. CARTER: Yes, I taught this Sunday.
MS. TIPPETT: What was the lesson…
MR. CARTER: As a matter of fact, I’ve had three Sundays in a row in First John, John’s letter. And they’ve been remarkable because it’s a very deep and penetrating analysis of how love should be applied in our own daily existence. And John was faced in, as I’m sure you know, with a divided church or churches where the members of those churches, the Christians, had turned against one another. And it’s exactly the same even on a smaller scale of what we have now within the overall Christian community in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, it’s quite resonant for our time, isn’t it?
MR. CARTER: It does.
MS. TIPPETT: Or even within denominations in this country, even within your denomination of the Southern Baptist Convention.
MR. CARTER: Yes, the Baptists are divided, the Methodists are divided, the Amish, and the Episcopalian are divided, on with the Anglicans, even to take away one step away that Roman Catholics have sharp divisions among themselves. And I think this saps away from the vitality of the entire Christian church in a generic sense that encompasses about two billion people in the world. It’s the worst blight on the Christian faith in my opinion. So this has permitted me to emphasize that point. As a matter of fact, in all my classes, I try to tie the ancient scriptures from the Old Testament about half the time in the year and in more recent scriptures from the New Testament 2,000 years ago with modern day events. And so I start each class by telling people what’s happening in the world or what Ros and I may have been doing lately and then relate it with the scriptures that we’re teaching.
John said, “He who does not love cannot know God.” The exhibition of love to those we already know, the expansion of it, act of love, to others in an aggressive way is the essence of success in the eyes of God. How much education do we need? Does a Ph.D. help? Does a big bank account help? Does a 180 IQ help? The answer is no. Quite often, those things that I’ve just mentioned are kind of an impediment to the realization of success in the eyes of God. We can become so obsessed with education, so obsessed with our own IQ, so obsessed with our own influence, so obsessed with our social prominence, with our bank account, with our security in our old age, that we forget about the essence of the life of Christ.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you define love? Because love like faith is a word that is very loaded with stereotypes, and I think simplification in our public vocabulary. I mean, when you’re talking about love in terms of the life you’ve lived in politics and the life of the church, you know, what are you talking about? It’s not the romantic love of tabloids.
MR. CARTER: Well, one of the problems with the English language is we only have one word for love.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. CARTER: And in the Greek language of the New Testament, there were four different words. One was erotic love. Another was the love of brothers and sisters, you might say. Another one was friendship. Another was agape love.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. CARTER: Or self-sacrificial love, which is the love of Christ. And this means a love of unlovable people, who don’t love us back. This love exemplified by action, which is what John emphasizes in his “First Epistle” that we can’t separate feeling a sense of love as adequate from our faith in Christ, that we have to put our love into action. And so it’s been a very interesting session. We had visitors Sunday from, I would guess, 45 states and I think about 10 foreign countries. I didn’t ask them to identify their own faith. Some Sundays I do just to get kind of an analysis. And usually, about 15 percent, about one out of six of our visitors, is a Baptist and the others are, you know, Protestants or Catholics or Mennonites and Amish or Quakers or Mormons and…
MS. TIPPETT: And sometimes non-Christians as well.
MR. CARTER: And sometimes non-Christians, yes. Quite often, we have Jewish people come, either private families or rabbis, who just want to argue with me or talk to me or debate with me or listen to me. And then we have a good many Muslims who come and on more rare occasions, Hindus or Buddhists, but it’s quite an eclectic audience. But I always stick very rigidly, I say, rigid may not be a word, because we’re flexible in our discussion…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: But I stick to the Christian text.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve written quite a lot about your early spiritual upbringing, your religious upbringing. What I’d love to ask, I’ve never quite seen in writing is how this very strong evangelical Christian faith with love at the center, with justice and forgiveness at the center, how that translated for you into a calling, a sense of vocation to politics, to run for governor and then to run for president.
MR. CARTER: Well, the first time I ever ran into that, I had been in the Navy for 11 years. I came home and I was a farmer and farm supply dealer for eight years, and I decided one day to run for the state Senate. And we were having revival and I remember that the revival preacher was a man from Columbus, Georgia, who was staying in my mother’s home. And when I came and told him I was going to run for the Senate, he said, you are departing from your Christian faith by getting immersed in the dirty realm of politics, or words to that effect. And I was taken aback. And I said, ‘OK, how would you like to be the pastor of a church with 75,000 members?’ That was the number of people in…
MS. TIPPETT: Your constituency.
MR. CARTER: …in my Senate district. And he was kind of taken aback. So then I felt a sense of maybe belated humility. I didn’t want to equate myself of being a pastor, you know, healing 75,000 people. But that’s — I saw being in politics as a way that was not incompatible with my Christian faith.
MS. TIPPETT: A form of ministry almost.
MR. CARTER: A form of ministry or dealing with complex issues in a moral sense, but without emphasizing my own personal faith in Christ, because my father was a Sunday school teacher many years before I was when I was a child, as a matter of fact, and he believed very deeply in the separation of church and state, which is a belief that I have inherited and adopted as my own.
MS. TIPPETT: Former President Jimmy Carter. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, exploring the private faith behind Jimmy Carter’s public life. He became a state senator in 1962 and governor of Georgia at the age of 46 in 1971. In 1976, he defeated President Gerald Ford to become the 39th president of the United States. Jimmy Carter inherited the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, Roe versus Wade. His foreign policy achievements were eclipsed as militant students took hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Fifty-two Americans spent 444 days in captivity. They were released on January 20th, 1981, just minutes after Jimmy Carter left office.
MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that your understanding of taking your faith with you into politics was not so much about positions you would hold, which is, I think, a way religious actors in politics are understood sometimes now, but about how you conducted yourself, how you mediated in conflict.
Mr. Carter: Well, I did that, for instance, because I worship the Prince of Peace not war. And I felt as a president and as a governor that I should promote the concept of peace. And human rights as an aspect of justice, and alleviation of suffering are in the footsteps of Christ through foreign aide and through treaty. I had some conflicts. The most serious conflict for me, as a president, was concerning abortion.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CARTER: I’ve never approved of abortion, and I don’t believe that Christ would approve unlimited abortion. I do have an ability to rationalize that it’s OK in the case of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger, but very strict interpretation or limits on abortion.
So, I had to — I took and oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the Supreme Court, and Roe versus Wade was in effect then. So I tried to minimize the need for abortion by promoting adoptions and by encouraging young people to know how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. And if a girl did find, a woman, that she was pregnant, to carry her pregnancy to birth with the full assurance, and this was missing then, and is still missing now, that that when the baby came, that she and the baby would have unlimited health care and support.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CARTER: And this is the difference, and I initiated special programs for women and infant children. We called it WIC, Women and Infant Children. I initiated that. And the reason is that in some foreign countries, for instance, in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Scandinavian countries, they don’t have any limitation on abortions.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: But they have about one-third as many abortions as America does. And the basic reason is that they guarantee that every prospective mother knows that she is going to get full health care and government support for her and her child after birth, after the child is born.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So you felt that for you, it wasn’t for you to impose your personal feeling about abortion as policy but to care for women who had unwanted pregnancies?
MR. CARTER: Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t because I couldn’t overthrow a change in Supreme Court ruling. I had to comply with it. So that was one of the quandaries in which I found myself. And of course I figured out a way, which all human beings to do, to rationalize what I did. I said, ‘I’m, you know, I’m enforcing the Supreme Court ruling, but I’m doing the best I can to avoid abortion.’
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you have written that Reinhold Niebuhr was a formative influence on you.
MR. CARTER: He was.
MS. TIPPETT: As he was on many, many people. And he talked about the complexity of mingling religious ideals with even our best actions that justice had to be the goal of government, and yet we would never achieve perfect justice, that we would sin even in our greatest accomplishments. Did you ever experience that tension to be acute to feel irresolvable?
MR. CARTER: I’ve given you one example of that, and that’s abortion, I think, and the other one was the promotion of peace. I, you know, we were faced, in our, in my time, with many threats to peace for ourselves and other nations around the world. But I felt, as a Christian, that I was worshipping the Prince of Peace, not preemptive war or a war. And so I did all I could to keep our own country at peace and also to promote peace for others between, say, Israel and Egypt, or in the case of Zimbabwe, or to normalize diplomatic relations with China, or to have nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union then, things of that kind.
So, and I was fortunate in being able to go through four years, and I never, as commander in chief, I never ordered the launching of a missile or the dropping of a bomb. We kept our country at peace. And I was fortunate, not just because of my good works, but that was one of the things. And I, somebody gave me a copy of my first book by Reinhold Niebuhr — I have a number of them now — when I was running for governor, and it was related to politics. I’ve forgotten the exact name. And there I read what you just mentioned earlier, that Niebuhr said, ‘that the highest calling of any society is justice, but the highest calling of an individual is agape love, or sacrificial love, and that our society, any government, can’t practice sacrificial love for others.’ That is to do things for other foreigners, say, at the detriment of your own people whom you’ve chosen, who’ve been elected to represent. So I tried to apply that as best I could.
MS. TIPPETT: But when you look back, were there ever times that you felt it impossible to be completely true to your moral sensibility while simply exercising the responsibilities of that office?
MR. CARTER: Well, I really believe that abortion is the most vivid example that sticks in my mind.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CARTER: I had another problem when the Iranians took our Americans hostage.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. CARTER: And overwhelmingly, my associates recommended that I take military action because our nation was crying out for me to do so, you know, to punish these terrible Iranians. Of course, it was just a small group of them who were perpetrating that international crime. But I resisted those importunities and that political advice, and I tried to resolve the case peacefully. I had two goals in mind. One was to honor the principles of my country and not to do anything to hurt my nation’s reputation or its well-being, and the other one was to bring every hostage home safe and free. And so I would say that I prayed more intensely and more frequently during that year of my life than I did any other time in my life.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CARTER: And eventually, my prayers came true because I didn’t violate the principles of my country or hurt my nation in any way, and every hostage came home safe and free, even though it may have cost me re-election and…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, that’s the irony of that, is that maybe what cost you the presidency.
MR. CARTER: Yeah, but still it was the right thing to do. I never had any retrospective regrets about that. And as a matter of fact, God has blessed me with my most pleasant and adventurous, and unpredictable, and gratifying years since I left the White House, although I enjoyed being president.
MS. TIPPETT: Former President Jimmy Carter. After leaving the White House, he and his wife, Rosalynn, created the Carter Center in Atlanta, which they dedicated to promoting democracy, advancing human rights, and adverting disease around the world. The center is known for its near total elimination of the debilitating guinea worm disease. It has ongoing initiatives to combat other widespread, but preventable illnesses worldwide. The Carter Center has also played a key role in establishing international guidelines for ensuring the integrity of democratic elections. It has itself monitored 67 elections in 26 countries.
MS. TIPPETT:The Carter Center, as I understand it, is active in places where high-profile diplomacy and governments and organizations are — where you feel they are neglecting. Is that right?
MR. CARTER: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to read, I was looking at the Principles for Peacemakers that you’ve outlined at the Carter Center. And the first principle was to strive to have the international community on all sides, in any conflict, agree to the basic premise that military force should be used only as a last resort.
MR. CARTER: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m curious about how that principle, how you may be thinking about that in this post-9/11 world? Is it getting harder to talk about that kind of premise? Is it more complicated where religion is involved, or religion is being used?
MR. CARTER: Well, I wrote a book, year before last, called Our Endangered Values, and I pointed out that the current policies promulgated by Washington are a radical departure from the policies of all previous administrations. We have never, in the past, professed to go to war unless our own security was directly threatened. That’s been the official policy. But beginning a few years ago, that was changed. I think, the president made a speech at West Point, and he said that from now on, we would have a policy of preemptive war. That is, going to war even when our own security is not directly threatened. For instance, to overthrow a regime that is obnoxious to us, or to attack a country militarily when we think that sometime in the future, our security may be put in danger, and to do it unilaterally, without seeking international support or confirmation. That’s a new policy.
MS. TIPPETT: Have you thought about if you had been president on September 11th, 2001, how you might have responded differently in the months that followed?
MR. CARTER: I’ve approved the invasion of Afghanistan.
MS. TIPPETT: You did?
MR. CARTER: Yes. Because I felt that was a direct reaction to al-Qaeda and their associates, universally known to be embedded and supported and nurtured in Afghanistan by the Taliban. I thought that was completely justified, and I gave them public support for that. But to leave Afghanistan and to invade Iraq, I wrote an editorial in The New York Times, it was later published in a lot of other papers, saying that it was an unjust war. It was not justified in any way, and it’s proved to be a serious mistake. In that case, we abandoned the legitimate crusade against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to a great extent and shifted our emphasis to a war in Iraq, that was a, you know, preemptive war based on false premises and false statements. Whether the people who said it knew it was false or just were misinterpreted, I don’t know. But that was a serious mistake, so I would have retaliated by going into Afghanistan. I would not have followed up by the other. And I think what’s happened since then has been a serious continuation of mistakes because we have, in this obsession with Iraq and a desire to establish a major military and economic base in the Islamic world, we have also abandoned any effort to make peace between Israel and her neighbors.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: We’ve had not one single day of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the last six years. So that’s been kind of a result of the mistake we made by going to Iraq.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that also, you know, part of my question is that it seems that in this new era, in this post-Cold War world, where conflicts tend to be divided up along ethnic lines, to often involve religious passions. Violence, in every case, I mean, locally, regionally, and globally, seems to be much more quickly a resort.
MR. CARTER: I think that’s true, but I would surmise, I believe, that that’s a fringe element of different ethnic and religious groups. During the Iran hostage crisis, to go back to ancient history, I really studied the Qur’an. I read it. I tried to learn its basic premises. I even brought in, every week or two, scholars to explain to me the difference between the different Islamic faiths, the Shiites and Sunnis, for instance, so I can understand what was happening that I might get my hostages back. And I found then, as I have always found in Hinduism and Buddhism and so forth, that Christianity and Islam and the other religions, I need not name them again, have a same basic principles and mandates concerning relations between human beings. They all promote peace. They all promote the alleviation of suffering. They all promote generosity. They all promote humility.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: So those things are not any different. And there are Christians in this country that have been the foremost proponents of war, and instigated and still support not only war in Iraq, but even condemn any sort of peace effort in the Holy Land.
MS. TIPPETT: Former president and global activist Jimmy Carter. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, Jimmy Carter’s definition of fundamentalism and his sense of marriage as a metaphor for global and political relationships.
Visit our award-winning Web site, speakingoffaith.org, to hear excerpts of Jimmy Carter’s Bible study classes and read more of his reflection on life and faith. Sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter with my journal. Also subscribe to our podcast for a free download of this and each week’s program. Our podcast now includes audio clips from my new book and other bonus material. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, exploring the private faith that has influenced the public life of Jimmy Carter. Now 82, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, spend most of their energy on the work of the Carter Center, with political, social, and medical projects in over 70 countries.
Jimmy Carter has taught Sunday school all of his life, even during his years in the White House. And now, he leads weekly Bible study at his church in Plains, Georgia. People from many religious faiths attend those sessions. Jimmy Carter is an Evangelical Christian. He also speaks openly of seeing basic virtues he loves in Christianity alive in other traditions. I asked how he explains the fact that so much division and violence in the post-Cold War world seems to have a religious dimension.
MR. CARTER: I think it’s because of fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is a characteristic of dominant males who, first of all, subjugate women and derogate women’s rights. Secondly, an aspect of their fundamentalism is that they assume that they have a rare or unique relationship with God Almighty, whatever god they define, and their beliefs, therefore, are ordained by God. And since their beliefs are God’s beliefs, they are infallible. They cannot make a mistake or acknowledge a mistake. Anyone who disagrees with them, by definition, is wrong because ‘the disagreement is with me and with God.’ And being wrong, you are inferior and, in extreme cases, you are considered to be subhuman. And so that’s where violence erupts and condemnation erupts and value of a human life within a person who disagrees with you has little or no value. And that’s where the violence comes out, and that’s where the unnecessary war comes out, and that’s where what we define as terrorism comes out.
MS. TIPPETT: The final principles of your Carter Center Principles for Peacemakers are to “be prepared for criticism, no matter what the final result may be.”
MR. CARTER: No, we don’t…
MS. TIPPETT: To be…
MR. CARTER: …we don’t ask for criticism but we expect it.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. “To be willing to risk the embarrassment of failure…
MR. CARTER: Yes. That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: …and to never despair, even when the situation seems hopeless.” I wonder how those kind of pragmatic, realistic stances flow out of your faith, your sense of God and of being Christian.
MR. CARTER: It’s not a matter of us thinking we are right and everybody else is wrong, but we believe in redemption and we also, to get now to a more practical point of view instead of our Sunday school point of view, we recognize that the, some of the basic problems in the world, say, extreme examples of persecution and human rights violations are caused by certain people and civil wars or unnecessary wars are caused by certain people. And since I’m not in public office and I don’t intend to run for public office, I have Secret Service protection, I’m a little bit impervious to criticism. So we don’t have any aversion when it’s appropriate to go to those certain people and try to get them to change their ways.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re talking about people who maybe governments will not engage with.
MR. CARTER: Yeah, who are pariahs, pariahs in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, pariahs. You say you’ve often dealt with international pariahs.
MR. CARTER: Yeah, like Kim Il Sung.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmmm.
MR. CARTER: You know, he was a leader of North Korea whom I despised because I was in the submarine force when he was creating the death of more than 50,000 of my fellow people in the service. But I saw that he was a key to that policy so I went to talk to him. And we, I went earlier, in 1989, to meet with Mengistu, who was a communist dictator of Ethiopia, and I had talks with him. And Colin Powell and Sam Nunn and I went down to Haiti to talk to General Cedras, who had overthrown an elected leader, Aristide, and so forth. But if we see that at certain person is involved in a way, we try to be courageous enough to go in and talk to that person, try to get them to see the error of their ways. And one of the positive factors in it is that that person, quite often, will respond favorably if someone from the outside world will acknowledge their existence or deal with them in an honest and respectful way. And they’ll change their ways, which Kim Il Sung did, which Cedras did, which Mengistu did. It doesn’t always work.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: But if you isolate someone who’s perpetrating crimes against his own people, the likelihood is that in his isolation, he’s going to be even more abusive, to stamp out any vestige of criticism or the crying out in pain.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, the experiences you’ve had as president, the experiences you have with the Carter Center have taken you to universes and places that would have been unimaginable in the years in which you grew up. You describe a very traditional Christian faith and you come back to that again and again. You still teach your Bible study.
I wonder if you would reflect a little bit on how your sense of what it means to be Christian and, you know, you used this phrase, and it’s the title of one of the last chapters of your book on Living Faith, “The Lord I’ve Come to Know.” How does your sense of that change, evolve, expand with these experiences you have of the world, including very dark places in the world?
MR. CARTER: That’s one of the things I try to do in my Sunday school lessons…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. CARTER: …is to relate what I have learned as an adult, you know, traveling in more than 125 nations on earth and dealing with people who would be considered unapproachable or dealing with isolated societies that are abandoned by the world and suffering from intense suffering and deprivation, dying from unnecessary diseases.
So without, you know, exalting the Carter Center or myself, I just tell the folks who come to my, our church Maranatha Church every Sunday, ‘This is what’s happening. This is what I’ve experienced. And this is how I relate it to the teachings of Jesus Christ or to the examples that were put forward in Isaiah or in Psalms or in the early history of the Hebrew people.’
And so I try to relate it to, first of all, in my several hours of study before each lesson, to convince myself that I am speaking rationally and logically and accurately, and then to share it with people in the classroom. So I’ve had to do that, obviously, in my own life as well. My mind has been stretched the last 25 years since I left the White House. And my heart has been stretched, and my ability to accommodate the opinion of others and to deal with people who seem to be despicable and unlovable and to forgive other people’s shortcomings and prejudice and sinfulness.
And one of the most surprising things to me has been to learn from experience that people in the depths of Africa for instance, Burkina Faso and in Mauritania and Mali and so forth, abjectly poverty-stricken and suffer from preventable diseases and who live in a deprived fashion. I’ve learned that if they’re just given a chance in life that they’re just as intelligent as I am, and just as hardworking as I am, and just as ambitious as I am to improve their lot in life, that they just need a chance for self-respect and for human dignity, and a chance to have some hope for the future, that it’ll be better.
MS. TIPPETT: Former President Jimmy Carter. Here’s an excerpt from on his Bible studies at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Carter is describing one of his heroes, Eloy Cruz, a Cuban-American pastor.
MR. CARTER: So this pastor’s name was Eloy Cruz — cruz in Spanish means “cross” — would call on me to read the Bible in Spanish, and then he would say a few words to these, apparently, godforsaken, despairing immigrants to the country. Some of them were illegal immigrants. And I was amazed at how their attitude was transformed. It didn’t seem to me that he was all that eloquent, but there was something about him — there was obviously the presence of the Holy Spirit — that amazed me. At the end of the week, I asked him for the secret to his success. He was very embarrassed. He thought I was much superior to him. I had an automobile of my own. I had run for governor, unsuccessfully, but I had been a state Senator. And he finally said that he didn’t know much about theology, but he knew that you had to have two loves in your life: one love for God and the other love for the person who happens to be in front of you at any time.
I don’t know of a more profound and practical philosophy than that of theology. It’s easy to say, ‘I love God and I love those poor people in Haiti or Togo or Mozambique,’ or, ‘I love those poor folks over on the other side of town.’ But you see, to love God and to love the person in front of you at any time is a continuous thing.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. And this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Now, back to my conversation with former president and Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter on the contours of his lifelong Christian faith.
MS. TIPPETT: Are there passages of the Bible, are there books of the Bible, are there stories or parables that have become more meaningful to you, more relevant because of these experiences you’ve had around the world?
MR. CARTER: Well, I think so. I’ve learned the relationship, for instance, with Samaritans.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. CARTER: You know, who are totally despised people after the…
MS. TIPPETT: The story of the “Good Samaritan” in the New Testament.
MR. CARTER: Yeah. Well, you know, but Samaritans were outcasts. And a Jew like the neighbors of Christ who live in the north, around Nazareth or Sea of Galilee wouldn’t even come through Samaria. They were crossing the Jordan River to go over into what we now know as Jordan, and came, come back around into Jerusalem, to ever take three or four days just to go keep from going through Samaria. And many people thought that if the shadow of a Samaritan felt on a devout person’s feet, that person had to be purified through rites before they could go back into the temple, and so forth. But Jesus went out of his way to exalt these despised people. Back to the “Good Samaritan” you just referred to, and I remember when He cured 10 lepers, they all went away, only one of them came back to thank Him. That was the Samaritan. And then He sat by, the well and talked to a Samaritan woman who had had five men living with her. And she was the first one who pronounced, I think, that she had seen the Son of God and that sort of thing. But He went out of His way to not only to treat the suffering of outcast people, but to exalt them in the eyes of other people.
So I’ve been able to apply that teaching much more vividly because Rosalynn and I, we now have programs in 71, I think, nations in the world, 35 of those in Africa. And we are in the most remote areas of Ethiopia and Ghana and Sudan, even southern Sudan where the war’s has been going on, and Nigeria. We were there last month, as a matter of fact, all four of those countries. Dealing with diseases that are no longer known in the Western world. And so, yes, without being proud of it or bragging about it, I’ve seen that the personal and physical application of Jesus’ teachings that I had never seen during my isolated and blessed and wealthy life before I left the White House.
MS. TIPPETT: I think something that’s interesting a thread that kind of runs through your writings is you reflect on marriage and on the complexity of marriage on the need for, as you say, “repetitive forgiveness.”
MR. CARTER: That’s correct.
MS. TIPPETT: And I see you finding that paradigm of marriage as theologically instructive, also in terms of how nations and neighbors struggle to live together.
MR. CARTER: Well, when I look around for, I would say, a metaphor for the relationship between nations or societies or individuals, the most obviously comprehensible relationship is between a husband and a wife. Almost everybody in my class, whether that’s 200 visitors or 800 visitors, can understand quite clearly the relationship between a husband and a wife — that on a daily basis, maybe on an hourly basis on occasion, there’s going to be a difference of opinion between people that are forced to live intimately. As in generic terms, we’re forced to live intimately with the people in Africa.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. In fact, there are going to be more passionate differences of opinion than there would be with strangers.
MR. CARTER: That’s right. And you’re involved with them permanently and inseparably in a way. So you have to learn to accommodate the idiosyncrasies — or from a personal point of view the faults and mistakes of another person — and to do it without ceasing. As you know, when Peter came to Jesus and kind of bragged about how he was forgiving, he bragged or said, “Should I forgive seven times?” And Christ said, “Forgive 77 times seven times,” which means without ceasing.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is a lovely teaching and really very hard to live, right? I mean, it’s forgiveness is hard to do once in a marriage or outside a marriage.
MR. CARTER: Well, it is. Rosalynn and I have been married now soon to be 61 years if we stay together next four, five months. You know, we’ve learned, first of all, to give each other plenty of space. Not to dominate one another. We have tried in the past, but both of us have failed. We have given up about dominating. So we give the other person plenty of latitude and, you know, to evolve our own spirit and our own capabilities and our own interests. And the second thing is that we learn not to go to sleep at night angry. I guess that would be an element of forgiveness. We decided a long time ago that we would read the Bible. That’s one of the last things we do in the evening before we go to bed or to sleep. Now, for, I guess 30 years, I don’t think we’ve ever missed a night. We read the same chapter, the same page in the Bible. One night, Rosalynn reads out loud when we’re together. The next night, I read out loud. And sometimes, we read the New Testament in Spanish. Just to practice our Spanish. And when we’re apart, you know, we have the same Bible. And if I’m in Washington and Rosalynn is in Plains, we read the same text. And sometimes, we have long discussions about it, maybe the next morning. What did that mean, and so forth. So, you know, I would say that giving each other plenty of space and becoming reconciled as best we can — I don’t say we are perfect at the end of every day — no matter if we did have some differences during that day, that that is what has kept us to perpetuate our marriage, plus love for each other.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve noted, as many people have in our time, that our country is politically and racially polarized, that that seems to be getting worse. And I wonder if you how you think about the spiritual underpinnings of that?
MR. CARTER: I think our country is probably more divided now than it has been at any time of my lifetime. It obviously is not as divided as it was during the War Between the States, you know, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed in a war. But I think we are divided pretty deeply now because of various factors. I noticed that the blue states and the red states, in 2004, were identical with the red and blue states in the year 2000, which shows that there was a four-year perpetuation of those political differences.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But I mean spiritually, morally, are we less capable as a people of some of these virtues that you’ve spent your life pursuing — forgiveness?
MR. CARTER: No. I don’t think we are less capable of it. The thing that does bother me that comes up in my class every Sunday, either because of questions or because of my initiative, is that the different denominations of Christians are divided now. I think more than any anytime since the Christian faith originated, even among the early churches, to which John wrote in his epistle that I’m teaching right now, and that Paul wrote about to the Ephesians and Galatians and so forth. They were concerned about divisions then. And I think the divisions now are more divisive than they were in the early church. And I fight to explain that and give some advice on how those things can be healed.
MS. TIPPETT: Where would you have people look for hope in that, or for images of healing?
MR. CARTER: In the basic text, you know, of the Bible, the ones that we teach every Sunday. All of us teach. Paul said to the Galatians that before God, there is no distinction between men and women. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek. There is no distinction between a master and slave, for instance. And Paul and John wrote repetitively that even though the Christians were divided in those early churches, about whether you should eat the meat sacrifice to idols or whether you had to be circumcised and become a Jew first, and then become a Christian. And these were deep and honest and fervently debated differences just like abortion is now, or gay marriage is now, or women pastors is now, those issues. Paul said, ‘Put them aside. Not in your own mind. Debate in a secular way, but don’t let them come between you as brothers and sisters in Christ.’
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. CARTER: ‘Just remember one thing. And that is that we are all saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. And if we believe that, we are Christians, and we should love one another.’ I think that John’s first epistle is an equally expressive and emotional and complete picture of what love ought to be, not only between Christians, but between Christians and other people.
MS. TIPPETT: President Carter, thank you for your time.
MR. CARTER: Well, I’ve enjoyed talking to you.
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you very much.
MS. TIPPETT: Former president Jimmy Carter. He is co-founder with his wife, Rosalynn, of the non-profit Carter Center in Atlanta. Leading a Worthy Life is the title of the first volume of a new audio series, “Sunday Mornings in Plains,” that presents classes Jimmy Carter has taught at the Maranatha Baptist Church.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Contact us at speakingoffaith.org. The companion site for this program includes excerpts of Jimmy Carter’s Bible study classes and more of his reflections on life and faith. Our podcast includes an MP3 of each week’s show. And now we’re adding exclusive content, beginning with audio excerpts from my new book, Speaking of Faith. Also, sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter with my journal on each week’s topic. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson and associate producer Jessica Nordell. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.