Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Jimmy Carter (and hope) in the news

Former President Jimmy Carter, 93, sits for an interview about his new book "Faith: A Journey For All" which will debut at no. 7 on the New York Times best sellers list, pictured before a book signing Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

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“True evangelical hope,” a headline in the current (May 23) Christian Century, drew and held my attention this week. It signaled an interview by Elizabeth Palmer with President Jimmy Carter. They got right to the point of “evangelical” issues and concerns, and the appearance of Carter in the magazine inspired some backtracking and forward-looking on my part. A casual observer of the news scene in recent years may get the impression that Mr. Carter has been quietly receding from it. One scan of headlines on my computer, however, quickened counter-impressions. Far from being obscured in the shadows—which, we are told, often obscure ninety-three-year-olds—he is a) publicly favored or assailed because of his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; b) favored or assailed theologically for the contents of his new book on faith; and c) assailed, never favored, by far-right Evangelicals for …

(Readers can fill that last one in.)

As I scrolled through a score or more of the Carter items on the internet, the subject that jumped out most was evangelicalism. No surprise there, given my and this column’s interest in religious topics. But Mr. Carter came on the scene as—in Randall Balmer’s words—the “First Evangelical President,” a designation which shared space in the same 2014 Religion Dispatches headline with a King James Version-sounding phrase: “His Own Received Him Not.” His own?

Mr. Carter the then-Southern Baptist was properly, but briefly, applauded by evangelicals as one of their own. But all that was back when evangelicals were still lowercase-“e” evangelicals, before millions of them capitalized on their newfound cultural and political visibility with new typography—Evangelicalism with a capital “E”—and became a virtual political party, or at least provided the base for one.

As is clear both from the Palmer interview and from the work of Balmer (who knows evangelicalism inside out and top to bottom), Carter has consistently met the criteria for being considered a classical evangelical. Indeed, he was so firmly, boldly, and openly evangelical that he embarrassed many of his fellow Democrats, who differed with him as to the niceties of religious identification. Take down from bookshelves any dictionary of theology published before 1976, when Carter came on the national scene, and look up “evangelicalism,” or visit the regular small-town Sunday School classes which he leads to this day, and you will find that conversionist, born-again, Jesus-the-Redeemer themes dominate.

An Evangelical reference book of today is more likely to deal with twenty-first century cultural topics such as abortion, LGBT issues, religious exclusivism, nationalism, et cetera. Mr. Carter’s Evangelical critics focus on such, adding to them Christian Zionism, pro-Second Amendmentism, and more. This is not to say that the critics are always wrong in their criticisms, or that President Carter is always right in his affirmations. But it is to call for investigation into what of Carter-era and Carter-style “evangelicalism” remains in this time of “Evangelicalism.”

One thing that comes through clearly from reading Palmer, Balmer, and others is that through all the changes and exchanges, the former president at ninety-three still lives by evangelical hope, and hope in general. And he still works hard to see some of that hope realized.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • Jimmy Carter is a true evangelical Christian, not a phony one like so many others who wear that label. But because he didn’t tow a hard enough line on conservatives’ pet issues of abortion and opposition to gay rights, he was cast aside by the rising tide of evangelical conservatism that followed the upheavals of the sixties and seventies. Only now in hindsight can his presidency be properly evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses.

    After challenging Americans to conserve energy he was rebuffed in the media. When attempting to broker a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians he was tarred by the hawks as being “weak.” He was replaced by a grade B actor who put on a happy face, dutifully read the lines fed to him by his Republican puppet-masters, and made everyone feel good again (supposedly) while running up the nation’s debt the way Republicans always do. Only in hindsight could Ronald Reagan’s many failures be properly evaluated, and his presidency was found wanting, especially after the Iran-Contra scandal.

    Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter’s polls numbers continue to rise. He was under-appreciated when he was run out of DC. History, in hindsight, will be mercifully kinder in its appraisal.

  • Spoken like a true Millennial; I mean Relativist.
    You are correct in only one aspect; he is a good example of a Christian.

  • Wrong again. I was born during the fifties. The word “millennial” hadn’t even been coined yet.

  • Yikes. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt based upon your statement above; I figured you had to be a kid who had these chapters in the history book skipped over.
    I think the American people actually liked President Carter – the down home farmer that was difficult not to like. His problems were many: stagflation, the oil embargo and rising gas prices, hostages in Iran (and failed rescue attempt) and government regualtion. Im not sure what was weak about the middle east peace agreement – I still remember the three person handshake.
    As far as Regan, he had his problems; but the improvong economy, the freeing of the hostages and the pressure that he and (Saint) Pope JP II applied to the Soviet Union that led to its fall cannot be debated.

  • Like most US presidents Carter had a positive and negative side.
    The strongest negatives I remember are his support of the cruel dictators: Marcus in the Philippines, and the Shaw of Iran. Also the covert support of genocide in Indonesia.

    The positives are the support of a major study of global sustainability. This was the Global 2000 Report. Unfortunately its dire predictions were not acted upon by subsequent regimes.
    Most people don’t credit him with bravery. I participated in an incident where he showed a different side.

    The U.S Navy had been rescuing Vietnam refugees that it encountered in the Pacific. The military announced that it would cease doing this I attended an outside concert by Joan Bias in Washington not far from the White House. At the end of the concert she asked people to walk to the White House to demonstrate for the refugees.

    A large crowd followed her and stood and chanted next to the White House fence. Carter walked to the fence in spite of his bodyguards resistance. He spoke to the people and began shaking hands through the fence. He offered to shake my hand, but I refused. I told him to save those refugees. His response was “We will.”

    The next day it was announced that the policy was reversed.

  • Agreed, Only US President to receive a Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office. As a professor at Emory College founded the Carter Center which has done some really good stuff. I admire him most for the Habitat for Humanity initiative,

  • No I don’t. This whole crowd was their to remonstrate for the Vietnamese victims, When the president approached the fence they began to cheer him and bask in the proximity to their leader.

    I felt and still do that it was more important to confront him.

  • Jimmy Carter has much in common with Herbert Hoover. Neither was a very good president, but both were outstanding former presidents. They each understood the unique moral capital and influence that a former U.S. president possesses, and they were each willing to use it for the betterment of humankind.

    Some ex-presidents are content to withdraw from the world or parlay their fame into big bucks on the lecture circuit. I don’t begrudge them that, but I do have a special respect for those, like Carter and Hoover, who commit themselves to a higher course.

  • “But because he didn’t tow a hard enough line …”

    Pardon the pedantic reply, but the expression is actually “toe the line”, and it means something different than what you intended. Best to avoid idiomatic expressions for clearer writing.

  • That’s an impressively petty comment, considering that Carter hasn’t been president for 37 years. Hold tight to that grudge.

  • You seem to have problem with assessments by others.

    I did leave out the incident where a typesetter at the Boston Globe got fired for placing the headline over a piece consisting of Jimmy’s pontifications:

    “Mush From The Wimp”

    Carter was somewhat less than a great president.

  • I agree he wasn’t a great president. But that had nothing to do with the things you mentioned. All presidents have such odd little side stories, like Reagan’s open mic gaffe or Bush puking in Japan. Critique Carter for something substantive and I might agree with your assessment. But if all you’ve got are killer rabbits and the Playboy interview, sorry, but after 37 years, yes, that does seem petty.

  • You’re beginning to sound just like him.

    You left out he’s a great guy if you’re looking for a free canal.

  • At least this time you cited an actual policy issue. Congratulations, Bob. You’re growing up.

    Personally, my critique of Carter’s presidency would begin with his mishandling of the Iran hostage crisis. The Panama Canal wouldn’t even make the top ten.

  • I am so happy to please you by citing “an actual policy issue”.

    Congratulations, you’re becoming even more annoyingly prissy.

    If I ever decide you’re particularly qualified to critique my posts, we can take this up again.

    Until then keep your left hand on your hip and your right hand up pointing.

  • I’ll continue to critique anything I like on this board. That’s the nature of a public forum. If you don’t want your opinions commented on, keep them to yourself. As for whether or not you respond, I don’t care. I don’t offer my thoughts just for the sake of one person.