[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]
#5 Jimmy Carter. Born again President b. 1924
America had never had a presidential candidate, at least in the nation’s collective memory, utter the words: “I am a born-again Christian,” like the Georgia peanut farmer and Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter did as he plied the towns of Iowa and the nation in an unlikely quest that resulted in his election as president. As a result of this bold declaration and public witness and the publication of Chuck Colson’s biographical account of his conversion, Born Again, Newsweek magazine declared 1976 the Year of the Evangelical.”
Jimmy Carter was different, and observers of his 1976 bid for the presidency readily recognized it. As a candidate, Carter spoke very openly and candidly about his faith, his commitment to Christ, his love for Scripture, and his desire to bring “a new spirit” to government. He quickly became a symbol of the rekindled religious and political vigor of American evangelicalism.
Carter said: “I’m a father and I’m a Christian; I’m a businessman and I’m a Christian; I’m a farmer and I’m a Christian; I’m a politician and I’m a Christian. The most important thing in my life beyond all else is Jesus Christ.”
Based on his Christian testimony and toothy optimism, I—like many other Christian belivers–supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 and delayed my final college work to become part of his Iowa campaign staff. I considered his election a harbinger of good will and healing for our nation, and marveled that such an outspoken Christian was sitting in the Oval Office.
As president, he continued to teach Sunday school, found occasions to share his faith with foreign leaders, readily admits in his post-presidential works that religion was an indispensable guide for his presidential behavior, and believes that Americans “have a responsibility to try to shape government so that it does exemplify the will of God.”
Regarding his frequent public displays of faith, church historian Martin Marty explained that Carter knows no other way to be. “Jimmy Carter is a public Christian…. It’s O.K. to be a private Christian in America, but he doesn’t know how to be a private Christian. Religion for him goes right to the streets, and he successfully relates his Sunday faith to his Monday world.”
My enthusiasm and optimism waned in the next four years, not because of any failure of presidential faith or moral fidelity, but because of a malaise that gripped the nation, Carter’s weakness during the Iran hostage crisis, and the fact that he never seemed to grasp the art of pulling the right levers of presidential power.
[After the campaign, the next time I was with Carter personally was during a Habitat for Humanity build in Chicago in the early 1990’s, when the odd couple of Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Chuck Colson swung hammers together to build homes for four poor but worthy Chicago families. On the first day of the build, Carter and Colson appeared together on the Today show in a live feed from the construction site. When Jane Pauley asked Colson what it was like to team up with Carter, Colson responded (with his remarkable ability to produce on the moment quips): “The last time I worked with a President I got one-to-three years [his prison sentence for Watergate]; this time I just got hard labor.”]
Although Carter failed to retain his early support of many evangelicals and was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the transparency of his Christian testimony—regardless of his politics—further emboldened evangelicals who were moving deliberately toward a greater role in public life and political action. Carter’s race for the nomination and his election to the presidency established for many the arrival of evangelicals as a new force on the American scene.