The Grace of Jimmy Carter
As the former head of state battles cancer at the age of 92, Jimmy Carter continues to draw thousands of people, democrat and republican, to a small church in Plains, Georgia. As he greets visitors from around the world, he shares his faith in God and his hopes for the future.
Before dawn on a chilly Sunday morning in late October, a line quietly begins to form again at the doors of a small brick church in Georgia’s farm country. Hundreds will join, old and young, coming from every corner of the country, liberals and conservatives, all here on an unusual pilgrimage to attend a Sunday School class.
In nearby Florida and North Carolina, preparations are underway for big political rallies as a long, ugly and divisive presidential campaign enters its final, frantic two weeks. On this day, as they have for months in appearances from one political battleground to another, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton each will take the stage, shout out a well-rehearsed litany of insults against each other and predict doom for the nation if their opponent should prevail. An article in the Sunday New York Times quotes a series of psychologists who say the 2016 election is causing an unprecedented level of fear and anxiety across the nation.
But here outside the Maranatha Baptist Church, the morning is calm, and those in line speak in hushed and reverential tones about a different political figure, a Georgia peanut farmer who surprised the establishment when he won the Presidency in 1976 with a pledge to “never tell a lie” and has since emerged as a national model of decency and civility.
“Jimmy Carter is definitely a different sort of politician,” said Henry Morris, a visitor from Indianapolis.
“You have to love Jimmy Carter,” said Margaret Evans, from nearby Macon. She lowered her voice. “Coming here to see him has been on my bucket list for a long time, and neither one of us is getting any younger.”
In August of 2015, at the age of 90, Carter revealed he was battling cancer. He held a news conference to report that a small tumor on his liver had been diagnosed as melanoma and had since been found to have spread to his brain. “I have had a wonderful life,” he said, adding that because of his deep religious faith, “I was surprisingly at ease … It is in the hands of God.”
Carter said he would have to cut down on his international slate of activities, but pledged to continue teaching a Sunday School class at the Maranatha church near his home in Plains, Georgia, as long as he was able. The cancer announcement set off a flurry of obituary-like articles about Carter’s life and political career, from his four years as governor of Georgia and his single term in the White House to the global human rights activity he began after leaving office. Defeated by Ronald Reagan in a bid for a second term as president, Carter has been widely praised for his diplomatic efforts after leaving office, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his ability “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights and to promote economic and social development."
Carter had taught Sunday School in Plains for years, even before he became president, and the class had attracted only a modest number of visitors. But his cancer diagnosis sparked the same idea in the minds of many – a journey to Plains. The following Sunday, more than 1,000 people and several media outlets showed up for the class – far more than the small church could accommodate, said Jill Stuckey, a church member who has become its official guide for visitation. An “overflow room” with a TV had to be set up for those who arrived too late to be seated in the main church sanctuary, which can hold fewer than 300 visitors.
Overflow crowds continued to arrive, week after week, guided by a schedule on the church’s website listing which days Carter would teach. And those who attended the first class in December of 2015, less than four months after Carter announced his diagnosis, heard the surprising news that doctors had just pronounced him cancer-free. “The church, everybody here, just erupted in applause,” Stuckey told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Sunday. The good news did nothing to stem the flow of Sunday visitors. “You never know about cancer,” said Anne McCoy, a visitor from Indianapolis. “That’s why we decided to come now.”
We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams. ~ President Jimmy Carter
On this Sunday in October, Carter seems in good health and good spirits. Slightly stooped and a little hard of hearing – he is 92 now – he walks into the crowded sanctuary wearing a dark suit and a bolo tie. The big smile so loved by editorial cartoonists is unchanged. He starts by asking folks where they’re from. “Alabama.” “Pennsylvania.” “Arizona.” “Montana.” Dozens of states and several countries are shouted out. When Carter hears “New Zealand” he makes his only indirect reference of the day to the current presidential campaign. He has told his wife, Rosalynn, he says, that New Zealand might be the place to go “if I ever had to leave this country.” He adds quickly, to laughter, “I’m not talking about this year’s election.”
Carter notes that he has recently been reading a book about the spiritual life of Bob Dylan, “one of my favorite artists.” He recalls meeting Dylan for the first time in 1974, inviting him to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion after a concert appearance in Atlanta. “Bob Dylan wanted to talk to me about my religion,” he says, “so we went outside in the garden and talked about an hour and a half, just about what Christianity meant to me.” He adds that a few years later “Bob Dylan accepted Christ as his savior and all during his 1979 concert tour and during part of 1980, he only played religious songs, which was a disappointment to many of his fans.” Carter says he has sent Dylan an e-mail encouraging him to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature he has been recently awarded for his songwriting.
For his lesson, Carter tackles the topic of tithing, which he notes is so unpopular pastors hesitate to talk about it and leave it up to Sunday School teachers. But Carter encourages his audience not to place a limit on what they give in gratitude for all they have been given, in particular, “the freedom or liberty to choose what we do.” Everyone, he says, needs to ask: “How can I be a good person? We can’t live a perfect life … but each one of us can strive in our own way to live the kind of life of which we can be proud – a superb life … a wonderful life.”
To illustrate his point, Carter tells the barometer joke. A physics professor asks his class to explain how to use a barometer to measure the height of a building. One student – the class “wise guy” – says he can’t respond because there are too many possible answers. Challenged by the professor, the student lists several technical possibilities, but says there’s an easier way: “I’d take the barometer and find the building superintendent and I’d say, ‘Sir, if you will tell me how tall the building is, and I’ll give you this nice barometer.’” The story shows “there are many ways to do things you might consider difficult,” Carter says. If you say, “I want to be a good person. I want to be the best I can be, then who can limit the number of ways you can do that? Only you. And I would say there is no limit.”
Following the Sunday school class, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter stay for the church service and afterwards, seated side by side, they pose for photos as visitors are escorted through individually and in small groups.
“I thought it was inspiring,” said Ginger Gainer, who came to see Carter with two friends from San Diego. “It was clear that he is not your normal politician. It’s almost strange that he reached the point he did. In our society that sort of person would rarely make it to the top.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ellyn Wolfe, one of Gainer’s friends, “I half expected a Bible lesson, and I was delighted that there were larger questions. Why was I created? Why am I here? “I really like that he talked about the fact that we have freedom to choose as individuals and we decide what we want to be. He’s really living what he believes, and that’s really impressive when you compare it with what we have on the election platform.” She adds: “I loved that he started out talking about Bob Dylan. He’s not a man whose time has passed him by.”
“It was an amazing trip,” said Ruth Bogardus. “You can tell the man is just full of heart.” Visiting Plains was her idea after she watched a San Diego performance of Camp David, a play about the two-week meeting in 1978 at which Carter negotiated with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the first peace treaty in the modern Middle East, one which is still in place. The play is based on 13 Days in September, a book by Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker staff writer, and the peace accord is widely believed to be Carter’s major accomplishment as President.
Carter’s “perseverance his determination, his ability to listen, his refusal to quit when others lost hope – these qualities of his came into focus like a laser beam at Camp David,” Hendrick Hertzberg wrote in Character Above All, an anthology of essays about recent presidents. Hertzberg, a Carter speechwriter who later became editor of The New Republic, noted that “Carter’s style of leadership was and is more religious than political in nature. He was and is a moral leader more than a political leader. And I think this helps explain not only some of his successes as President but also some of his failures," as president Hertzberg wrote. What a lot of people never liked about Carter was “the self-righteousness, the assumption of moral superiority.”
We can’t live a perfect life … but each one of us can strive in our own way to live the kind of life of which we can be proud – a superb life … a wonderful life.”
Although Carter created a new U.S. Department of Energy, encouraged energy conservation to blunt the nation’s growing reliance on imported oil, and pushed through an historic treaty turning over control of the Panama Canal to Panama among other accomplishments, many historians rate him as a below-average President, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. “Integrity by itself doesn’t get much done for you,” Bullock said in an interview. A successful president, he said, “must lobby, cajole, and twist arms.” As an example, "after a dramatic speech in which Carter referred to the energy crisis as “the moral equivalent of war,” follow-up was weak and few tangible steps were taken to forge a new path, Bullock said. “It seemed he thought his role was to introduce the initiative and hope it would be adopted by Congress simply on the basis of its merits.”
Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote a biography of Carter published in 2010 and agreed that his presidency had weaknesses. “Through most of his Presidency, Carter was unable to nurture strong relations with congressional Democrats or core Democratic constituencies, as too often he was unwilling to engage in the kind of deal making and compromises that were expected from the White House,” Zelizer wrote in his book, “Jimmy Carter.” “Nor did he demonstrate a good feel for what steps were necessary to create programs that had strong political support.” Only after “he was relieved from the responsibilities that came from governance and being a party leader” was Carter able to “play on his strengths as a person willing to make difficult and politically unpopular choices” in pursuit of a cause, Zelizer wrote. He cited Carter’s criticism of the United States in a 2006 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” for “unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.” Carter also called the detention centers at Guantanamo a “terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation as a champion of human rights.”
“As we get farther away from his Presidency, historians are taking another look,”(at Carter) said Randall Balmer, chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth University. Balmer wrote “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” in 2014. Now, he said in an interview, “There has started to be a re-appraisal that makes him look a little different from what we first thought. He was sometimes portrayed as a patsy or a pushover. He was not. He could be quite determined.”
Carter’s post-presidential years may ultimately weigh more heavily with historians. Since leaving office, Hertzberg writes in his essay, “He hasn’t just talked about housing the homeless, he has built houses for them with his own hands and inspired and organized other to do likewise. He hasn’t just talked about comforting the afflicted, he has mounted a little known program through the Carter Center that is well on its way to eradicating Guinea worm disease, a painful, crippling parasite that has inflicted suffering on millions of Africans. He hasn’t just talked about extending democracy, he has put his reputation and sometimes his very life on the line in country after country, often with little or no publicity, to promote free elections and exposed rigged ones.”
Historians seem to agree that Carter’s unexpected election in 1976 was largely a reaction against the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Is it possible that the presidential campaign of 2016, featuring candidates of unprecedented unpopularity will clear the way for another “Jimmy Who?” That’s possible, believes Balmer, the religion professor. “I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, but it’s very possible that next time around we will look for somebody who wants to lift us all out of the mire and the tawdriness that we’re experiencing right now,” Ballmer said. “If we have a moral collapse in the White House, no matter who the next occupant might be, then I think we’d be back to asking prospective presidential candidates whether they have a moral compass.”
But running for any public office, particularly president, requires a commitment many are unwilling to make, said Bullock, the Georgia political scientist. “You have to want to become President…Hillary Clinton has been campaigning for years, if not all her life. You have to be willing to put aside everything else in order to run, and you and your family are going to make a lot of sacrifices.”
Ellyn Wolf, one of the San Diego visitors, believes, “a lot of people start out in politics with this attitude that is very positive, and that I’m going to make a difference and change things for the better. And then I think they get sucked into kind of a dark side of politics. Maybe after this election somebody like a Jimmy Carter will step in and say ‘I have strong values and they’re not going to leave me.’ I’m really hoping that the ugliness of this election will have an effect on whoever gets in office.”
In Plains, after church, the parking lot rapidly empties, many visitors heading home, others on their way to visit the Carter Boyhood Home, the service station where Carter’s brother, Billy, once worked, or to look for the 13 ½-acre field where Carter has said solar panels are being constructed to provide electricity for the 700 residents of Plains. Carter is not scheduled to teach the following Sunday, so only the regulars are expected, but he will be back every Sunday in November and December.
“I’m more impressed than ever by this man,” says Ellie Mayer, heading home to Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I wish I lived closer, because I would definitely come back,” says a man who gives his name only as David from Clearwater, Florida. “How could you not admire a man with his character?”
“A decent, untainted man,” Bob Dylan said about Carter in a 1978 interview. “I think his heart’s in the right place. He has a sense of who he is. I am his friend.”