The former President tells how his Christian faith shaped his presidency—and how the presidency tested his Christian faith.
Introduction and editing by Wesley G. PippertWesley G. Pippert is congressional reporter for United Press International in Washington, D. C. He is the author of Faith at the Top (Cook, 1973) and The Spiritual Journey of Jimmy Carter (Macmillan, 1978.
Last November, following the publication of Jimmy Carter’s memoirs (Keeping Faith, Bantam),CHRISTIANITY TODAYeditors met with the former President in an exclusive interview. In it President Carter reveals many previously unpublished insights into his personal faith in God and his relationships with world leaders.
Wes Pippert, United Press International White House correspondent during the Carter administration and an authority on the former President, writes the introduction to the interview, which he edited for accuracy.
Shortly after he became president, Jimmy Carter, in one of his many ceremonial duties, welcomed Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Christians to the White House. According to Coptic tradition, Shenouda is the 117th pope to follow Saint Mark, who they believe founded the Coptic church in Egypt.
As the two leaders talked in the Oval Office, Shenouda told the President about the new congregations Coptic Christians had organized in the United States. Flashing the famous Carter smile, the President replied: “You’re establishing several new churches; very good. That’s a good evangelism program. I think Saint Mark would have been pleased.”
In the later years of his Christian life, Jimmy Carter has been an aggressive evangelist, and in a lengthy interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY (excerpts of which follow) he gave intimate accounts of perhaps some of the boldest witnessing in the recent history of Christendom. Carter told CHRISTIANITY TODAY details concerning his witnessing to Chung Hee Park, the dictator of South Korea, shortly before he was assassinated, and to Edward Gierek, then the Communist leader of Poland, while Carter was on a whirlwind trip to Europe, Asia, and Egypt in late 1977 and early 1978. Neither incident is contained in Carter’s recently published memoirs, Keeping Faith.
But one of the most provocative portions of the book describes a conversation Carter said he had with the late Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Venice in 1979 about arms control. “He startled me by laying his hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘If we do not succeed, God will not forgive us,’ ” Carter wrote. Carter acknowledged he erred a day or two later by making reference to Brezhnev’s remark at a larger meeting. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko replied cynically, “Yes, God is looking down at us all.” Carter said Brezhnev looked embarrassed.
Carter once told this reporter about a private conversation with Pope John Paul II during the pontiffs visit to Washington in October 1979. As the two men were in the family quarters of the White House, Carter asked whether the Pope wished to speak as two statesmen or as two friends, and the Pope replied, as friends. Carter said he asked the Pope how he handled all the adulation that continually surrounds him, to which the Pope answered that he prayed more about that than anything else.
Carter paid a price for his witnessing, however. The New York Times criticized him in an editorial for trying to proselytize Park. And many evangelicals condemned him for recognizing China at the expense of the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan.
But Carter maintained a persistent witness. One of the most moving examples was his witness to Hubert H. Humphrey shortly before the senator’s death in 1978 when the two men were by themselves at Camp David. After Humphrey’s death, Carter described what had happened in front of the fireplace at Aspen Lodge. Paraphrasing Romans 3:23, the former President said, “He and I talked about religion, about how deep his faith had grown since he became ill. We talked about sin and how we know that everyone sins and we fall short of the glory of God, but how God forgives us.”
There is no doubt that Carter continues to witness. He is a regular Sunday school teacher now as, he told CHRISTIANITY TODAY, he has been most of his life. He remarked to a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention that he made 30 calls recently to people in and around Plains to get them to come to Sunday school.
It was witnessing that marked a significant step forward in Carter’s spiritual life. After he made a fuller commitment of his life in 1966, which he describes in the interview, he went on several witnessing missions for his church. On one, in Massachusetts, he joined with a Cuban pastor, Eloy Cruz, and the two men saw 46 persons accept Christ that week. Through these witnessing missions, he said, he began to feel “personally present with the Holy Spirit,” to pray more easily, and to feel a sense of peace and security he had never felt.
Unfortunately, Carter does not discuss his witnessing in his memoirs. Perhaps he felt he was writing for a broad audience, some of whom might be offended. Carter also did not discuss in his memoirs what this reporter feels may have been the most significant contribution of his presidency: the use of power.
Early in his administration, Carter told a group of government employees that he came to them not as “First Boss” but as “First Servant.” (He told this writer privately that he was criticized for that remark—it seemed to lack macho.) To the Christian, the remark was reminiscent of Isaiah’s Servant passages.
At about that same time he told an elite gathering of politicians and religious people at the National Prayer Breakfast that they often do not understand what it means to be a “servant,” and he reminded them that when the twelve disciples struggled among themselves for superiority in God’s eyes, Jesus told them that whoever would be chief among them must first be a servant (Matt. 20:27).
The Bible’s influence on Carter is strongly evidenced by his Sunday school lessons and speeches. In this reporter’s book, The Spiritual Journey of Jimmy Carter (Macmillan, combat, as happened in Vietnam, it’s hard to control it from then on, because your country loses prestige if you don’t ultimately go ahead and win,” he said to another audience. Again he paid a price because the world viewed this as weakness; it wanted macho. His supporters pointed out, however, that the course of restraint was not only principled, it was pragmatic. The hostages came home alive, and 1978), every one of Carter’s religious statements were pulled together and arranged. He often quoted Tillich and Niebuhr, generally using the same quotation over and over again. Truly vast, however, were his references to Scripture, in both Testaments, in nearly every Book of the Bible. If he was shaped by anything, it was those hundreds of Baptist Sunday school lessons over the years. The Scripture he quoted most often, incidently, was Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned …”) and Luke 18:10–14, the story of the proud Pharisee.
It has been this reporter’s belief that Carter’s restraint in using force—for instance, in dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis and in being the first president in 50 years not to send American troops into combat—grew out of his conviction, which he believed was biblically grounded, that power is to be used to serve, not as force.
Carter discussed this view of power during his unsuccessful 1980 campaign. “I have always tried to use America’s strength with great caution and care and tolerance and thoughtfulness and prayer,” he said on one occasion. “Once we inject our military forces into combat, as happened in Vietnam, it’s hard to control it from then on, because your country loses prestige if you don’t ultimately go ahead and win,” he said to another audience.
Again he paid a price because the world viewed this as weakness; it wanted macho. His supporters pointed out, however, that the course of restraint was not only principled, it was pragmatic. The hostages came home alive, and the United States avoided loss of life in combat. This public perception that he lacked forcefulness, coupled with his inability to communicate in an inspiring way that would motivate the people, probably led to his defeat.
In a recent conversation, Carter acknowledged that he could not communicate as well as Ronald Reagan. Then he added; “I had a sense of calm competence in the strength of my country, in its beneficial influence without the use of military force. I saw the major peaceful weapons were a basic morality and an adherence to principles that other people admire. I saw very clearly the Soviets have no strengths except military strength. They’re an atheistic nation; they don’t appeal to those who have religious belief.… I saw these differences between us and them as an advantage for us and as weapons to be used in lieu of a threat of a superior military force.”
Why did you use the title Keeping Faith on your book?
I. didn’t have a natural inclination toward a title when I started the book. It was only after I got involved in it that I tried to come up with a phrase that would encapsulate several different approaches. One approach had religious overtones, the fact that I saw in my own service in the White House a unique responsibility as a born-again Christian. That was the responsibility to let standards of morality and ethics be part of my administration, my thought process, and part of my decision making.
Another was that when I was elected there was a breakdown among the American people in their faith in the presidency itself. This was in the after-math of Watergate and Vietnam. I offered an administration which wouldn’t tell a lie and promised I would try to be as honest and decent as the American people.
The third idea behind the title was that in spite of the crises that afflicted our country, such as the energy shortage and the Iranian hostage seizure, it was important for our country to keep faith with the basic elements of historical purpose that have shaped it.
So there are multiple meanings to the title. Some of the editors felt it had too strong a religious connotation and they disagreed with my choice for a while. But eventually they agreed.
It’s obvious you thought the greatest test of your presidency was the hostage crisis. How did you handle the spiritual dimensions of that as it related to your own faith, your own walk with God? How did a crisis of that kind affect your prayer life?
I spent more time praying while I was President than at any other time in my life. My decisions affected many other people and involved life or death, war or peace. The decisions I had to make were presented to me in terms of conflict. The decisions that have to be made by the President are ones that are too complicated, too far reaching, too difficult, and too controversial to be made by anyone else.
The most vivid memory I have of being President in difficult times was the loneliness of making a final decision. I invariably turned to God in prayer and asked him to give me guidance and wisdom and sound judgment. I also prayed that my actions and statements would be compatible with God’s will.
I was obviously impressed with keeping peace, the production of nuclear and conventional weaponry, the stewardship of the earth, and the basic value of human life. To return to your question, there’s no doubt that the last 14 months of my presidency, when the hostages were being held, were the most difficult times in my life.
I had a dual responsibility. One was to protect the integrity of my country and its basic purposes and goals in dealing with the Iranians and others. The second was to protect the lives of those 52 people. I tried to resolve that inherent conflict and I think I did it successfully. We were ultimately able to protect the integrity of the country and eventually, in answer to many prayers, to bring those 52 people home safe.
In one of the Sunday school lessons you taught in the couples’ class at First Baptist Church in Washington, you gave an exegesis of a New Testament passage about testing the spirits, discerning which voices are of God and which are not of God. In a situation in which your advisers were split down the middle and there didn’t seem to be any clear-cut way of knowing, how did you go about testing those voices?
I don’t think my prayer life would be any different from yours, or any different from mine as a sometimes troubled father in my own home, or as a businessman getting started and dealing with customers. There’s no basic difference in attitude. One thing that happens when you reach the highest elective office in this country, maybe in the world, is that you can quite often remove consideration of political aspirations, financial rewards, or public esteem from those decisions. That is true if you have a feeling of self-assurance and confidence, and you’re not trying to mislead the public or shape a false image. You don’t really have as many temptations to reward yourself as you do when you’re hoping someday to be a state senator or a rich man. I don’t think the danger of being selfish or self-serving in your decisions is any greater as President than it is as an editor, teacher, merchant, or whatever.
Do you believe God gives special grace for special situations?
Yes. When I became President I looked anew at the lessons in which the Bible teaches us to honor those who hold public office. I never did have a feeling that I was chosen by God to be President because I was superior but I felt a responsibility as one of God’s secular representatives. As a President I could also realize the amplification of my own voice.
As a man of prayer, a born-again Christian, were you misunderstood? Did the secular press understand that side of you?
No, I don’t think so. I went to Washington with some question marks hanging over my head. “Here’s a Baptist, a so-called born-again Christian. How could he possibly make objective decisions that affect Jews, agnostics, atheists, and others? Is he going to wait for a flash of lightning to come out of the sky to tell him what to do? Does he think he’s better than we are? Is he going to condemn those whose lifestyles are different from his?” All those questions penetrated the consciousness of the secular press. I was suspect. I never tried to put my faith forward because I didn’t see a political advantage to be derived from identification as a born-again Christian. I could see the consternation that might arouse in the Jewish community and others. So your question could be answered affirmatively. There is a lack of understanding among the secular press about what it means to be a born-again Christian, and my experience as a candidate and President has at least helped to focus the question, whether or not it has provided answers.
What about the country as a whole? Did the people accept your spiritual situationmore than the Washington press accepted it?
Yes. There is more of a concentration of cynicism within the Washington press than there is in the country as a whole.
We were told not long ago that a number of evangelical senators prefer not to be identified publicly as evangelical Christians. They think they can do a better job if they avoid a strong public identification as evangelicals. Did you ever wonder if perhaps you could have done a better job if you had not come out so strong as a Christian?
I really don’t think I came out that strong. When I was campaigning (in 1976) I didn’t try to hide it. But I was finally asked a question about my Christian beliefs; I think it was on the back porch of a home in North Carolina. There was a small group of reporters there, and I answered the question. Because I was beginning to have some political success, it was intriguing to the Washington press that had begun following me. They pursued it aggressively, and I tried to answer the questions accurately but without exaggeration and without trying to stimulate further questioning.
Would you have preferred not to have the born-again label?
No. I don’t regret that at all. It’s part of my nature, it’s part of my character.
Who are some of the theologians who have influenced you?
Reinhold Niebuhr is the one theologian whose writings I’ve read most. When I was in the state senate a friend gave me a compilation of Niebuhr’s writings about politics and government on the one hand and religious belief on the other. I’ve got a very good library on theology, including Niebuhr, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and others.
You were speaking about honoring those in high elective office. When you became President and Christians knew of your commitment, did you feel from them a sense of prayer and support, feeling that they were really behind you?
Yes—not only because this is an innate feeling and a natural expectation, but also because they would so frequently tell me so. When I was inaugurated we were having a series of receptions at the White House, and I was overwhelmed when the hundreds of military leaders who came to the White House repeatedly commented, “Mr. President, we’re praying for you. God be with you.” As a state senator and as President I was involved in official prayer groups that met privately. As you know, there are some very devout Christians in Washington.
We also had a good church life. When I became President, as when I became governor, I wanted to have the life of an average Christian. I didn’t want anything special, I didn’t want to visit all the churches in Washington one Sunday after the other, always to be a visitor. I wanted to be a part of a church. When I was governor I was a deacon in the church; when I was President they asked me to become a deacon, but I didn’t think it was appropriate. I was active as a regular church member and felt the need for the Baptist church to reach out in a broader program of evangelism. I invited the leaders of our denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to the White House, and we had some talks about how to heighten or broaden our ambitions for our foreign mission program. I talked to the members of the Mormon church in some depth, and asked them how they went about getting so many volunteer missionaries. We tried to do a similar thing in our Baptist denomination. I did some things like that because I was President. Otherwise I really tried to be an ordinary churchman.
When you were a statesman, traveling overseas, did you at any time try to present your faith, or did you feel those were not the right times and settings?
Yes, I did, and it was surprising. For instance, when I met with Edward Gierek, then first secretary of the Communist party in Poland, I talked to him about the Christian faith, and witnessed to him in a quiet way. He told me his mother was a devout Christian. He was a Communist and atheist. I talked to him at length about his need to accept Christ and to reestablish the faith of his childhood. He said he thought his Communist faith was adequate, but I reminded him very much of his mother. He’s now out of office, since the agitation in Poland.
Another person I witnessed to aggressively was President Park in Korea. One of his daughters was a Christian, one was a Buddhist, and he had no faith. As we traveled around Seoul together, I talked to him about my own religious faith. I had been to church that Sunday in the same place Billy Graham had his tremendous sermon. He promised me that he would convince some of the Christians in South Korea to come and talk to him about Christianity and what it meant. I pursued it as far as I legitimately could. Later I wrote the Christian leaders there and told them that President Park would be looking forward to their visit.
I met with Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping. Others had said the Chinese Communist government wouldn’t permit Bibles to be imported to China. Deng told me that if I went to China, I would find the Chinese Christians there had decided they did not want foreign missionaries to come in and they thought the gospel would be accepted more effectively if it was not tainted with a foreign flavor. But he said he would do what he could about modifying the Chinese constitution to permit religious freedom and try to investigate the impediments to Bible distribution. In March of 1981, he initiated an amendment to the Chinese constitution guaranteeing freedom of worship. When I visited [in September 1981], Christians were distributing Bibles throughout China with the help of the government.
Those are just a few quick examples. I thought it was appropriate. But I never made a public issue of it.
Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is prominently mentioned in your new book. What kind of man was he?
He was a devout Muslim. But he always emphasized when he was around me—and Begin—that our faiths were compatible. He was thoroughly familiar with the meaning of monotheism, and he always reminded Begin that the Jewish people and the Egyptian people were descendants of Abraham and shared a common background in the Old Testament. He emphasized that all three of us worship the same God, God the Creator. He often brought up the prospect that if we did reach peace in the Middle East, all three of us would join together to build a worship center on top of Mount Sinai. Muslims, Christians, and Jews could go to the top of Mount Sinai, which is holy for all of us, and worship in our own way. Anwar had an ecumenical approach to religion that was inspiring. He always reminded me that I was one of his best friends and that he revered Christ, and in his deepest part he knew that Christ was worthy of his total reverence.
What about Israel’s leader, Menachem Begin?
There is no doubt that Begin uses the ancient biblical promise as a basis for his claim that Israelis have a right to all the disputed territory. Recently he has expanded his area of boundary on both sides of the Jordan. He’s not limiting his ambitions anymore to the Jordan River: he’s interested even in the east side of the Jordan. I’ve always disputed Begin’s claim that this fulfills ancient prophecy. I’ve never really gotten into an argument with Begin on theology or the New Covenant, but I have criticized him because he looks upon the Jews as special people, yet sees the Palestinians as subhuman. He characterizes all of them as terrorists, even the women and children, so that he can avoid the responsibility of providing them basic human rights. He sees no incompatibility in his religious claim and the deprivation of Palestinian rights to assemble peacefully, to have freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to hold property without it being confiscated.
This is a reason for the continued crisis in the Middle East, and I think it’s one of the greatest obstacles we have to overcome. Whether this is an element of Begin’s sincere religious belief or whether it’s a means by which he can lay claim to these disputed territories, I have no way to judge.
Over the last few years conservative Christians have been trying to make an impact in Washington with some moral issues, such as prayer in public schools, tuition tax credits, and abortion. Based on what you’ve seen, are they likely to do that?
I think not. Conservative Christian leaders exemplified by Jerry Falwell reached their peak of influence in 1980. Then they made an effort to define what a Christian was by whether or not he was for or against the Panama Canal treaty, for or against the SALT treaty, for or against the establishment of the Department of Education, and so forth. In many ways my attitude toward the Bible is conservative. I’m a Southern Baptist, and if you had to put me in the liberal or conservative wing, I’d probably go with the conservative, or moderate, wing. But I think the effort to shape politics by defining what a Christian is has passed its peak. I consider this an aberration on the political scene, and it is going to fade away, not into absolute obscurity, but it will have a lesser impact.
Could you tell us about your spiritual roots?
This has been more of an evolution than a revolution. I was a regular Sunday school student when I was 2 years old. All the way through my grammar school and high school years I never dreamed of not going to Sunday school. When I went to the naval academy, I taught the 12-year-old girls, daughters of the officers and enlisted men who were stationed at the academy. In the submarine, on special occasions, we held Bible classes between the torpedo tubes and I taught. When I came home from the navy I began to teach junior boys and girls, 9, 10, 11, and 12. When I was elected governor we moved our letter to the church nearest the governor’s mansion. About one Sunday out of four, I taught the senior adult men, all over 65 years old. When we moved to Washington, I taught about one out of four Sundays. I now teach every Sunday that I’m in Plains.
There was a change in my spiritual life when I was defeated for governor in 1966. It was the first real disappointment in my life. I had been able to achieve all my great ambitions—to go to college (no one in my family had ever finished high school before me on my daddy’s side for 300 years or so), to be a naval officer, a submarine officer, to have a successful business, and to be a state senator. I ran for governor and was defeated. It was a major setback in my life. I was in debt. I had to reexamine my priorities. I found in self-examination that when I did achieve success it wasn’t gratifying. My sister [Ruth Carter Stapleton] was very active in lay evangelism. We had a long talk and she explained to me the simplicity and beauty of the more intimate relationship with Jesus that is possible for a Christian. That added a more intimate dimension to my religious faith. So I’ve grown as a student too.
Carter’S Latest Book
Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, by Jimmy Carter (Bantam Books, 1982, 622 pp., $22.50), is reviewed by Wesley G. Pippert, United Press International, who covered Carter’s two presidential campaigns and his four years in the White House.
Jimmy carter’s Keeping Faith is a faithful, detailed account of his presidency. His self-portrait is consistent with what has been reported publicly many times: that he is a devout Christian, a student of Scripture, and especially, a man of prayer.
“I prayed a lot—more than ever before in my life,” Carter wrote of his presidency. He cited specific examples of times when he did so.
He recalled that he had prayed publicly for peace at the First Baptist Church in Washington in 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem in the first big break-through of the ancient problems in the Middle East. He prayed during his 1978 Camp David Mideast talks—which dominate the book—when he, a Christian, met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a Jew, and Sadat, a Muslim.
Carter wrote that one of his tools in the 13-day Camp David talks was his annotated Bible, which he had accurately predicted would be needed in talks with Begin, who always uses the biblical names for locations in Israel. Carter sometimes went off by himself during the intense negotiations to pray. On the crucial eleventh day, he wrote, he asked Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown to leave him alone and he “prayed fervently for a few minutes that somehow we could find peace.”
Two days later, the Camp David accords, which still dictate the Mideast peace process, were reached.
There was prayer on lesser occasions. He and Bert Lance, also a devout Christian, prayed in the President’s small inner office when the then budget director’s 1977 Senate hearings began on his alleged mismanagement of his financial affairs.
Carter wrote that in praying, he asked God “to give me a clear mind, sound judgment, and wisdom in dealing with affairs that could affect the lives of so many people in our own country and around the world.
“Although I cannot claim that my decisions were always the best ones, prayer was a great help to me. At least, it removed any possibility of timidity or despair as I faced my daily responsibilities,” Carter wrote.
Numerous times during his presidency he said publicly that he and his wife read the Bible together in Spanish and prayed each day—without fail. He meant it. In fact, he told a town hall meeting in Oklahoma on one occasion that because he was going to be away that night, he and his wife had had their time of worship—their term for “quiet time” or “family devotions”—that afternoon in the White House.
But, regrettably, Carter does not discuss what part in his presidency this constancy in private worship played, except for one brief story.
He wrote that as the 1980 Democratic national convention neared and stories about his brother Billy plagued him, his wife Rosalynn called him and said she needed to be calmed.
“I told her to reread the words of Jesus from our previous night’s chapter, which happened to be John 14, ‘Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in Cod, believe also in me,’ ” Carter wrote.
There never was any doubt about the Carters’ singular love for each other. His book gives a clue that he saw his wife as a gift from God.
Carter wrote that late in the summer of 1980, as Ronald Reagan’s big margin in the polls shrank, he gave his wife a little picture frame, in which Ecclesiastes 9:9 had been translated from the Living Bible (which the First Lady always carried with her to church) into Spanish: “Live happily with the wife you love through the fleeting days of life, for the wife God gives you is your best reward down here for all your earthly toil.”
Carter had a mastery of Scripture that was revealed in his Sunday school lessons and dog-eared Bible. He always followed the assigned Baptist lesson for each Sunday. One Sunday the lesson was about the persecution of Naboth in 1 Kings 21. That Sunday, Baptist preacher Georgi Vins, who had just been released from a Soviet prison, was in his class, and Carter drew a parallel between his and Naboth’s persecution.
But Carter’s book does not reveal nearly enough about other ways Scripture shaped his presidential decisions. He once said that his sense of human rights came from the Old Testament and a childhood “steeped in the Bible.” He makes no reference to this in Keeping Faith.
The Christian reader of Carter’s book cannot help saying, “Tell us more details! Tell us more details!” Carter admits there may be another book inside him. It is to be hoped that he will be as explicit in it about how he integrated Scripture, prayer, and witnessing into his official duties as he already has done on other occasions.
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