For first-time visitors who are at least thirtysomething, driving into Plains, Georgia, brings back memories of TV news images in the late 1970s. They see the green-and-white Plains city-limits sign, the late Billy Carter’s gas station, and a giant, smiling peanut statue reminiscent of a Carter-Mondale campaign button that read, “The grin will win.”

Visitors carrying mental images of state dinners and Secret Service escorts may take one look at Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s home—modest, but obscured by a compound fence, guard house, and separate quarters for security personnel—and wonder if they have made their trip in vain. Is it really possible for just anyone to attend church with a former President of the United States?

At the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, the entire church is tailored, with the Carters’ help, to cater to just such an experience. Pastor Daniel Ariail and the church’s board of deacons have fashioned a ministry of hospitality around their feature attractions, Jimmy and Rosalynn. Nearly 3,000 people visited Maranatha in 1992 alone.

Visitors attending the President’s Sunday school class crowd early into Maranatha’s fellowship hall, which seats about 90 on folding chairs. They share seats with regular attenders, including Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity; Betty Carter, the President’s aunt; and Hugh, the President’s cousin. There is a folding partition on one side, a podium in front, and a standing map of ancient Israel. The walls are bare, the décor plain, but first-time visitors are not paying attention to any of it anyway. As the clock approaches 10 a.m., they glance at each new person entering the ...

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