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Jimmy Carter most devout of presidents


In recent American history, most have considered Abraham Lincoln the most religious president. His theology was vague, but he clearly believed that he and his fellow Americans had a role in God's mysterious providence.

Lincoln's claim to that position, though, has been seriously challenged by former President Jimmy Carter's 1996 book Living Faith (Times Books).

Carter, the 39th U.S. president, reveals an intimate and intense relationship with Christ as his savior. He has embraced the full range of beliefs espoused by Southern Baptists while refusing to align himself with the agenda of the religious right.

Carter reveals that soon after he left the Navy he read books by Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Reinhold Neibuhr and Hans Küng. Carter is not a theologian. He restates the basic teachings of Christianity and explains without much analysis the basic concepts espoused by an evangelical Christian. He knows scripture; he uses it every Sunday when he teaches adults and children in his Baptist church. He describes himself as born-again and proclaims that "religious faith has always been at the core of my very existence."

I found myself enchanted by some of the truly lovely and indeed astonishing acclamations of faith in this assertion of religious beliefs, unprecedented in any highly placed U.S. political figure's career. The personal identification Jimmy Carter has with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit permeates this manifesto, reminiscent in places of The Imitation of Christ, the 15-century work of Thomas à Kempis.

Carter pays tribute to his late sister, Ruth, who was a successful evangelist, and to the faith of his parents, his wife and members of his congregation in Plains, Ga., where he has been a deacon for 30 years. Ruth helped heal his bruised faith when in 1966 he lost the governor's race in Georgia to racist Lester Maddox. Carter also speaks sadly of the divorces of two of his sons and laments that his grandchildren are not regular members of any church.

This loyal son of the Baptist tradition tells us that he prayed more as president than at any other time in his life. He preaches an orthodox Christianity; for him sin, eternal life, guilt, love of others and the presence of the Holy Spirit are basic and undisputed truths. Direct, personal kindness to our neighbors is very important to Carter; he brings this to his church in Plains. He takes pride in telling of his work with Habitat for Humanity.

Other recent presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush -- used the language of public piety that goes back in American history as far as George Washington. But no previous president has manifested the personal and intense adherence to Christianity that Carter expresses in Living Faith.

Jimmy Carter does not claim any special corner to his own religious beliefs. Indeed he tends to equate the Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist explanations of reality as essentially equal. No defender of sectarian differences, he is a Christian who accepts the Bible as the word of God and the person of Christ as the greatest grace God has given to all his sons and daughters.

Most Catholics will have to admire this book. Some will find the personal identification with Christ a bit alien to their own approach. Some may feel, however, that Carter's almost mystical closeness to Christ suggests a tradition Catholicism has obscured and the Catholic church should re-emphasize.

Carter's credo is interwoven with stories about his family, his activities since he left the White House in 1981 and recollections of his early years when he left the Navy, a move stressful to his wife, Rosalynn. Some readers will feel that these recollections divert attention from the story of his religious pilgrimage. But his faith is so oriented to people and actions that he probably could not discuss it except in the context of people and activities.

It seems unlikely that Carter, at age 70, will study and pray so that he can speak with authority as a professional theologian or as an official representative of the church. Indeed, such a role would not be in the Baptist tradition where each person is urged to interpret the Bible individually.

Some readers will wish that Carter had linked his faith directly to the decisions he made in the Oval Office. His failure or inability to do this will suggest to some that, ultimately, Carter's faith was too personal to be related to the complex social and moral problems a president has to face. It is even possible, ironically, that Carter's deep personal faith may have contributed to the widely held conviction that religious faith should be removed from decision-making in public life.

Questions about the relationship of Carter's faith to his presidency are beyond our ken at this time. But what is clear is that Jimmy Carter, a sincere and perhaps a bit naive believer in Jesus Christ, has proclaimed his faith in a most unusual fashion. His testament to grace is unlike any ever made by the nation's 42 presidents. For that alone and for many other reasons, Living Faith is a moving and memorable volume.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997