It has been two years since Jimmy Carter won the presidency of the United States on a platform that pledged, in part, that he would bring newness of spirit to the American people. He was a confessed “born again” Christian; ergo, he was a moral person.

The fact that CHRISTIANITY TODAY is running articles on Carter’s morality indicates that there is still doubt in the minds of many people, including evangelicals, as to how moral the president really is and how well he has integrated his belief in Christ with the demands of his office.

I have a sense of confidence in his morality. But my confidence is tempered by what I perceive as serious or potentially serious problems. First, private morality. During the 1976 campaign, the people I associate with—reporters, by nature a cynical lot—treated Carter’s faith as somewhat suspect, perhaps a device for winning the votes of the millions of Americans who viewed themselves as born-again Christians. Some people wondered whether they wanted a person who actively said he prayed for guidance from God to occupy the office holding the key to unleashing a nuclear attack.

That has changed. Nearly every reporter I know accepts the genuineness of Carter’s Christian experience, just as I do. Even those reporters who are not especially endeared to him as a person or endeared with his political positions concede that he is a devout Christian. One of my colleagues has said on occasion, “All Jimmy Carter cares about is God and Sunday school. The best way to get to know him is to hear him teach Sunday school.”

In his right-front pew at church each Sunday, Carter begins the worship hour in prayer by leaning far forward, bowing his head and resting it on his hand. Nowhere does he so obviously feel “at home” as he does in Sunday school or in worship at the Baptist church.

I recently completed a book, to be published soon by Macmillan, that compiles and arranges by theme most of Carter’s public statements on his faith as well as the word-for-word transcripts of seven or eight of the Sunday school lessons he has taught on a fairly regular monthly basis. My editor, who is not an evangelical, commented that Carter seems to have become increasingly more spiritual during his presidency. That was my conclusion as well.

He has a mastery of the Bible and his understanding of the basic doctrines of sin, salvation, the cross, the Holy Spirit, and the second coming is evangelical and biblically orthodox. Here are excerpts from what Carter has said.

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On Confessing Sin

“Suppose we kneel down at our bed at night and say, ‘Lord, forgive me of all my sins.…’ I don’t believe it works unless we’re willing to say, ‘God, today I was not kind to my husband or wife, my children. God, today in a business transaction I cheated a little bit. God, today most of the time I was separated from you. God, today I told two or three lies or misled people a bit. God, today I had a chance to do some kind things or I had a chance to forgive someone I had hatred for and who hurt me. I didn’t.’ Enumerate them! Call them by name. Under those circumstances, all your sins are wiped away.”

On Salvation

“We’re not saved because we’re Americans; we’re not saved because we come from a community that’s stable; we’re not saved because our parents were Christians; we’re saved because God loves us; we’re saved by grace through one required attitude—that’s faith in Christ.”

A Prayer For Discipline

“Let us come … to worship you, opening our hearts to reexamine our sins and shortcomings. May we reestablish a closer relationship with Christ, and be made more aware of the needs of our neighbors and our human needs. We have a personal responsibility to represent you. May we have a personal relationship through prayer and the study of the Word.”

On Death

“Physical life is not the most important thing in God’s eyes. We attach great importance to death, funerals, bereavement, and so forth. If we are Christians, that’s the beginning of our promised life with Christ. What Christ was saying was, the destruction of a human being’s relations with one another, relations with God, are much more important than even the loss of one’s life.”

His spiritual disciplines are well known. He and his wife read Scripture together each night. He prays frequently during the day—“Almost like breathing,” he once commented to me. His personal disciplines also are well known (and by citing these I do not claim these are marks of spirituality). He says he has never smoked a cigarette in his life. He drinks so little as to be almost a teetotaler. But he is not adverse to working on Sunday.

And Carter witnesses. Jokes bounced around the White House press room when it was revealed he prayed at congressional leadership breakfasts before the likes of house speaker Tip O’Neill and other politicians from smoke-filled rooms. He says his witnessing missions in the late 1960s revitalized his faith and brought him to a closer union with the Holy Spirit. He has dropped hints that after he leaves office he might become a foreign missionary. He urged the Southern Baptists to increase their number of foreign missionaries, and last spring he remarked to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Missionary Service Corps, “I wish, in a way, that I was free to do more. After my service in my present office, I intend to do more.…”

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I believe that one of Carter’s biggest contributions as president has been the morality and model of his private life. It is important that individuals have persons to whom they look as models. It is just as important that a nation have a leader to whom it can look as a model of private morality. Recent presidents have failed utterly here and we have been embarrassed as a result. Carter has been exemplary, not only in his spiritual depth but in, for instance, his love for the arts and nature, which exceeds that of almost any recent president.

Jordan’s King Hussein, a Moslem, once told Carter in my hearing: “Few world statesmen in recent memory have so clearly and unmistakably defined the personal responsibility of people in high government positions. You have recognized that those who make decisions on behalf of the nation must reflect a code of behavior equal to that of the nation as a whole.”

Yet, I see concerns. There are very few, if any, evangelicals in Carter’s White House inner circle or even his second level of advisers. Why? Why do so few of Carter’s family or his closest aides share the vigor of his faith? Most members of his inner circle have been with him since he was Georgia governor. They believe in Carter and are almost fanatically loyal to him, but they often speak and behave in a way that seems a flagrant mockery of what obviously is of central importance to him. Has he ever witnessed to them? And what of his loyalty to them? Is it so blind that he overlooks their indiscretions? I know that each person is singly responsible for his or her relationship to God, and one must not hold another responsible. I also know that even if Carter’s closest aides were to follow his example, that would not necessarily result in their trust in Christ. But why do they not respect him at least to the extent that even though they may not share the depth of his belief they do try to respect his life style in their actions?

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Of greater concern is the fact that, to my knowledge, Carter does not participate in a small group for spiritual fellowship and growth. He apparently depends almost entirely for his nurture on his daily personal devotions and Sunday worship at the Baptist church. I think the greatest thing that Christians can pray for in regard to Jimmy Carter is that a small group of politically unambitious but spiritually vital persons will spring up around him.

Second, public morality. It is not adequate that a president simply be a Christian. He must also bring to bear the demands of the Gospel on every aspect of his administration, especially in dealing with the poor and the powerless of this nation and the world. It is my belief that Carter has tried as hard and effectively as any contemporary American politician to integrate his private beliefs with his public policies. There are several notable examples.

If Carter were to leave office tomorrow, history probably would remember him for his emphasis on human rights. You can question just how successful he has been in restoring human rights to the millions of oppressed persons in this country and the rest of the world: He acknowledges this. But Carter says that at the least he has raised the consciousness of every world leader to the matter of human rights. He has pointed out that violations of human rights occur in America as well as in other nations.

Carter traces the origins of human rights to the Old Testament Law and Prophets. He once said: “I have been steeped in the Bible since childhood, and I believe that anyone who reads the ancient words of the Old Testament with both sensitivity and care will find there the idea of government as something based on a voluntary covenant rather than force—the idea of equality before the law and the supremacy of law over the whims of any ruler; the idea of dignity of the individual human being and also of the individual conscience; the idea of service to the poor and to the oppressed.…” Often he has expanded his definition of human rights to include the right to a job, a place to live, an education, and good health.

He also has defined power in terms of servanthood, a concept developed by the prophet Isaiah and later by Jesus Christ. He told employees at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare that he came “not as first boss’ but as ‘first servant.’ ” “There is a close correlation between worship services and correcting wrongs,” he said on one occasion. “That’s what the Bible teaches, because Jesus Christ never hid himself seven days a week in the synagogue. He walked the streets. He touched blind eyes. He healed those who were crippled. He pointed out injustice. He brought about compassion and brotherhood and love. And he changed lives.…”

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But the keen observer will realize that Carter’s administration has fallen far short of his lofty words. There are some bright spots. During his presidency, unemployment has dropped about 2 per cent. Of all presidential appointments, about 20 per cent have gone to women—five times as many as during the previous administration. Yet, no one can claim to have adequately responded to Malachi’s admonition not to oppress the wage earner when 6 per cent of the nation’s workforce do not have jobs and the percentage is twice as high for blacks and six times as high for black teen-agers. No one can claim to have adequately achieved justice when the role of most women in the government, even some with college degrees, is still that of the clerk-typist.

Time and time again the biblical writers speak of concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Yet millions of people remain locked in poverty and on welfare rolls. The task before the nation is to change the institutional causes of these gripping human problems. Jimmy Carter’s task has just begun. Many evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis and Wes Michaelson at Sojourners magazine, have aspired to prophetic roles in calling America and the president to national righteousness. They have pointed to the unevenness of the Carter Administration in its human rights policies throughout the world and its inconsistency of talking about nuclear disarmament while actively considering plans to build the neutron bomb. All of us, including Jimmy Carter, need to pay attention to what they are saying.

“The virtues which we admire in private life and profess in our religion become secondary qualities in our rulers. The test of greatness in tsars or presidents is not in their private lives or even in their good intentions, but in their deeds” (Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie, Atheneum, 1967).

Yet, the modern prophets enjoy a luxury that Jimmy Carter does not. They can write with the knowledge that their words will not much affect the nation or the world. This gives them an abandon that the president does not have. Every time Carter yawns or utters the simplest statement the mass media, of which I am a part, records it and distributes it around the world. It is analyzed and tested in the furnace of the public, the Republican party, the Soviet Union, China, and who knows who else. He has to speak with great care. His words determine the course of events.

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But our responsibility as Christians and as citizens require that we continually probe the president’s actions and motives. Has Carter been inconsistent in applying the standards of human rights throughout the world because he is devious and lacks courage? Is his failure to press for welfare reform the result of not paying attention to what the Bible says about the widow, the orphan, and the alien? Was he being dishonest in making campaign promises that he now has had to set aside temporarily, such as tax reform?

Not necessarily. Politics is the art of the possible and of constructing fragile coalitions. The complexity of our age and the seriousness of our problems and the colliding interests of people probably are too demanding for one person, even the president, to handle in the way he or she feels best. The compromise energy bill fell far short of what Jimmy Carter proposed in April 1977 when he described his approach as being “the moral equivalent of war.” But the sad truth was that the compromise, even with the gradual deregulation of natural gas, was about the only version that Congress would enact.

Nowhere has this been illustrated more dramatically than in Carter’s handling of the Mideast crisis, During the 1976 campaign. Carter said on several occasions that he believed modern Israel was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. A short while ago I was speaking to a group of evangelical college students and during the question-and-answer period a student raised the matter of the Middle East. He contended that Carter was not seeking to restore to Israel the boundaries that God promised Abraham in Genesis 15—the river of Egypt (probably Wadi Arish, in the middle of the Sinai) and the river Euphrates. Thus the president was being unfaithful to Scripture. God is a God of history and eventually his will shall be accomplished in the Middle East. But had Carter pressed for those boundaries in 1978, there probably would have been a conflagration that would have destroyed Israel and probably brought war to the world. I suggested to the student that the best thing that Carter could do to help Israel was to take steps that would help insure its survival as a nation.

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Most diplomats and journalists see the problems of the Middle East through a political lens. From the very start of his conversations with Israel’s Menachem Begin, a Jew, and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, a Moslem, Carter emphasized the religious nature of the ancient dispute. He sought unity on the fact that all three of them were religious persons and looked to Abraham as their father. And when the three leaders came down from the Camp David summit, Carter said their first agreement in the marathon negotiations had been to ask the people of the world to pray.

When Carter was reporting to Congress on Camp David, he added a sentence extemporaneously to his speech: “And I would like to say, as a Christian, to these two friends of mine, the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God.’ ” It was a moral statement from a moral man.

Wesley G. Pippert is a reporter who covers the White House for United Press International.

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