I often write these reflections about the qualities of character of the people I interview, and about the relevance or importance of what they are doing. Jimmy Carter is clearly a person of relevance and importance, a contributor on a grand scale to life in our time. But this interview with him intrigues me just as much for what it says about religion and public life as we enter a new election season.
I have wanted to interview Jimmy Carter for years. We had requested interviews repeatedly and been turned down. This seemed odd since Jimmy Carter was a very religious president. There is no shortage of irony, however, in the religious legacy of his time as president. He campaigned as a born-again Christian, but his most widely-quoted, biblically-toned remarks were those he uttered to a Playboy journalist after he thought the tape recorder (and it was a tape recorder, in 1976) had been turned off. If the New Testament's pivotal Sermon on the Mount is true, the journalist prompted him, did that mean that even Jimmy Carter had lusted after women other than his wife in his heart? As Carter recounts in his memoir, Living Faith, he responded candidly, not cannily, and as a result his lead in the election suffered.
What I had forgotten, what my producers and I revisited with some surprise as we prepared for this show, was the bold religiosity of the appeal Jimmy Carter made to voters in the late 1970s. Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical president in the era of the nascent Moral Majority. But he failed to gain the support of that movement as it took off. As the economy floundered and American hostages languished in Iran, the new Religious Right backed the non-evangelical Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Carter's faith did not translate into policies and positions that fit the new political Christian agenda. Nevertheless, he speaks of the contours and application of his Christian faith more bluntly and elaborately than I've heard any contemporary leader speak, George W. Bush included. He tells me three times that abortion was the most difficult issue for him personally of his presidency — the place where his private convictions clashed outright with the law of the land which he was bound to uphold. But he also tells me, and this I did not know, that his position on abortion led him to expand the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program — to help make it more financially viable for lower income women to bring babies to term.
I decided not to spend the limited time we had retracing the controversy over Carter's latest book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. Some may criticize me for not asking "hard" questions on this — questions I feel have been asked by many journalists, and to which I do not think I could have elicited a radically different response.
I find this a revealing conversation in other important ways. It reveals a straightforward, basic Christian faith that has motivated and framed Jimmy Carter's eight decades of public and private life. He has taught Sunday school many Sundays for most of those decades. And, he says, he and Rosalynn read the same passage of the Bible in tandem every night of their lives, whether they are together or apart. It reveals a man who has reconciled a complex experience of the world with a lifelong set of principles, a life of genuine humility in tension with the self-confidence requisite for high political office.
This conversation with Jimmy Carter brings me to reflect anew about the changes in religion in U.S. political life. We live with the assumption that Christian voices have entered politics with a radically more assertive voice in recent decades. But Jimmy Carter's campaign ads — one of which you will hear in this program — are more blatantly faith-based than anything I can recall in the last two presidential campaigns. The recent era of louder public Christian voices is matched, it seems, by a sensitivity to religious speech that was not there in the 1970s.
As Democrats struggled to match their Republican opponents in religious fluency in the last presidential election, Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman pointed out to me that the only two Democratic presidents the American people have elected in nearly four decades were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — both born-again Southern Baptists from the Bible Belt with a high level of comfort in talking about their faith and Scripture. Democratic politicians in this election season might study the not-too-distant historical precedent of Jimmy Carter and be surprised.