Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter; drawing by David Levine

That led to his second-most-famous remark of the 1976 campaign. Carter was asked in a Playboy interview if he thought he was a holier-than-thou person because he was born again. He answered that, no, in fact he had committed lust in his heart—again quoting the New Testament (Matthew 5:28). That did it. For much of the Carter presidency, the line of some in the press (and, as I know well, in the academy) was that he was a religious nut. I followed him in the 1976 race and heard a reporter ask Carter why he constantly brought up religion. He replied that he had made a determination never to bring up religion in the campaign. But the reporters kept asking him about it, and he had to answer them or be criticized for dodging the issue.

His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves. Carter is an old-fashioned Baptist, the kind that follows the lead of the great Baptist Roger Williams—that is, he is the firmest of believers in the separation of church and state. Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.

Carter rightly says in Our Endangered Values that the norms of religion and politics are different. His religion, at any rate, places its greatest priority on love, of God and one’s neighbor, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But a president cannot make his nation sacrifice itself—that would be dereliction of duty. The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers—the great majority of Americans—derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

In his new book, Carter addresses religion and politics together in a way that he has not done before, because he thinks that some Americans, and especially his fellow Baptists, have equated the two in a way that contradicts traditional Baptist beliefs in the autonomy of local churches, in the opposition to domination by religious leaders, and in the fellowship of love without reliance on compulsion, political or otherwise. In 2000, these tenets were expressly renounced by the largest Baptist body, the Southern Baptist Convention, which removed a former commitment to belief that “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ, whose will…

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