April 2023 Friends Letter
Dear Friends –
Our attention has recently been drawn to Jimmy Carter, our 39th president. As we know President Carter is quietly facing death at home under hospice care. Like him or not, Jimmy Carter has modeled faith throughout his long lifetime. Few doubt this if you can move the conversation away from policy to the man.
James Earl Carter, Jr., born October 1, 1928 (98 years), was the 76th governor of Georgia (1971-75). He was then elected president in 1976, serving only one term (1977-81). Remarkably, he has been married for 77 years. In the words of the president of Emory University, at the dedication Emory’s seminary chapel in 1979, “[President Carter’s] fusion of piety and pragmatism [is] characteristic of our region and remains enigmatic to the rest of the nation.” This made it difficult for many to assess the real Jimmy Carter. This is especially true for conservative Christians who voted for him in 1976 and then abandoned him for Ronald Reagan in 1980. As a pastor I never publicly endorsed political candidates. I see a vote as a sacred trust, given to us under our form of government to use for good. Your vote is for you to make without pressure from the church. This does not mean moral issues are ignored but rather that they inform us so we can make up our minds in an election. In an age of intense polarization I still urge this stand e upon church leaders. (Sadly, this approach changed in the Carter era with the rise of conservative groups openly urging ministers and evangelical churches as specific and special political constituencies!) Now, all these years later, I can say I voted for Jimmy Carter twice. I have no regrets.
We must understand that Carter was the most openly Christian man of any U.S. president in the twentieth century. (I have no doubt other presidents were Christians but the word openly is the key to my statement.) In 1972, as the governor of Georgia, Carter welcomed the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to Atlanta by saying, “The most important factor in my life is Jesus Christ!” Simply put, Jimmy Carter represented evangelical Christianity at its best! In doing so he sought to develop a deep personal piety united with a public vision of justice and righteousness. (In this, whether Carter knew it or not, he was following the influence of the great Jonathan Edwards in his belief about the gospel creating a culture and transformation of love!) He lived what N.T. Wright calls “God in public life” while maintaining a personal faith which continued to grow over his nine-plus decades.
A friend recently told me about a visit to Plains, Georgia, to see the Carter home and hear him teach Sunday School. He met the former president, as all visitors did who stayed around long enough. He was amazed that Carter’s personal life remained so simple. There was no outward ostentation, no extravagant lifestyle. He lived well below what his earned income provided. His basic choices about life always featured generosity, simplicity and love for all. If ever a well-known American loved God and his neighbor as himself it was Jimmy Carter. For this reason I read many of his books and have followed his life since I first heard of him in 1975. (Anita and I met him for a handshake in a line to sign a book.)
There are two basic aspects of Carter’s life that stand out to me. First, Carter possessed core basic faith in the Lordship of Jesus. He continually celebrated the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus his hope was solidly grounded in Scripture as authority without embracing fundamentalist arguments about the Bible. He read widely, especially the most important theologians of the 20th century. The way he remained a lifelong learner bothered many conservative Christians but it inspired me even I did not always agree with him. His personal joining of piety and intellect pattern intrigued me. It actually helped me move away from the rigid stance of certain aspects of my own background.
Second, Carter’s values were openly Christian especially he embraced them as president. (Many speak of him to this day as a “bad” or “weak” president but a “great ex-president!”) I reject this distinction for the several reasons.
The first reason I see was in Carter’s farewell presidential address where he said “America did not invent human rights, human rights invented America.” He called us to open our hearts and affirm the rights of all persons made in God’s image. Further, during his presidency he made world peace, rooted in the biblical truth of shalom, a matter of priority. His foreign policy reflected this stance again and again. He never used power to threaten nations. Carter was mocked in the 1970’s for installing solar panels at the White House. We now know he was far ahead of most Americans in seeing the issues of environmentalism as an ultimate existential threat to our planet. Finally, Carter was the first president from the Deep South in 140 years, something never lost to me since I am a child of the Deep South. He practiced inclusiveness before the term became popular. He had a stellar moral reputation on race. He included women, people of color and persons with disabilities in his government. (Some have gone well beyond what he did but he was a true pioneer.)
Jimmy Carter was not a perfect man. Nor was his administration without flaws. Clearly, his lack of executive experience, serving only as a one-term Georgia governor, was not adequate preparation for administering the complexities of the White House. But Carter took a number of positions in which, to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., he sought “to bend the moral arc of history toward justice.”
Several years ago I enjoyed reading Stuart Eizenstat’s thousand-page book, President Carter: The White House Years (2018). The author, who was Carter’s chief domestic advisor during the White House years, does not whitewash Carter’s record. His account of those four years was inspiring to me. Eizenstat, who is Jewish, speaks admiringly of Carter’s Christian faith and says he was never treated with anything but respect and grace by his friend.
Carter was finally defeated (1980) by the mobilization of many of the same “born again” voters who had elected him. Reagan, supported by the rise of the religious right, became the choice of a large number of folks who spoke of the Carter “malaise.” Yet Carter told us hard truth, even to his own political peril. I am reminded of the popular lines of a well-known movie: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” I think this was true of Jimmy Carter. People did not like being told hard truth then as they still don’t today. I wonder what would have happened if we had heeded Carter’s basic call for justice and peace and given him four more years. (I feel certain Iran-Contra, a dark time, would not have happened.)
As Jimmy Carter prepares for his final journey in this life I follow his story with even deeper interest. Like him or not it is hard not to see him as our finest Christian president. He may not be our “best” president but he is surely not our worst. (As an American history major, and lifeline learner, I might someday tell you my list of our “worst” presidents. The “best” were clearly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.)
Jimmy Carter lived his faith and gave God the praise for the grace he knew personally. He was a pietist without pretense and an intellectual leader who spoke the truth even if he was condemned for his decisions. I pray for him almost daily and I thank God for his immense encouragement in my own life. God bless you Jimmy Carter, my brother, and may your Lord lead you across the river to your eternal rest and peace.
- I asked last month for prayer regarding the sale of our daughter’s house. We listed it and it sold three days later, after multiple bids. This is almost unheard of these days. We sold it for $12,000 more than the list price. This will retire all our debts incurred over the last two years in helping our daughter and the boys. Our adjustments in merging our families have been minimal. I cannot think of a better way to finish my journey than to love my family!
- I have begun to write again, this time my book about God’s love. My health tends to block my mind and impact my ability to concentrate for significant periods. Please pray for this work.
From My Library
I read a number of books last month but two stand out for very different reasons.
White Hot Hate: A True Story of Domestic Terrorism in America’s Heartland (2021), Dick Lehr.
I found this book I hard to put down, reading it over three days. It recounts how the FBI foiled three militiamen in Garden City, Kansas, who plotted for over a year to kill Muslims out of pure hate! The key witness was a gun-rights citizen in the group who became an informal undercover agent because his Christian influence gave him courage to say no to such hate. Arrested hours before they planned to set off bombs that would have killed hundreds of people, these men were convicted in federal court. This raw portrayal of hatred on the far-right, and the way Christian nationalism is being used to promote anarchy, is deeply troubling. Be aware and pray. The New Testament cannot be used to support anarchy!
Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (2023), Collin Hansen.
Hansen’s biography is a deep dive into the social, cultural and theological convictions and formation of the famous New York pastor and best-selling author. I confess I knew little about Keller before reading this book. My respect for him has increased ten-fold. Here is a man whose fame never spoiled him. His piety is real and his influence is still bearing fruit. While I disagree with Keller on several issues, especially his opposition to the ordination of women as ministers, I respect his missional balance and deep convictions about the gospel. I have friends who know Keller well thus I now understand why they respect him so profoundly.