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Reflections on Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter


The near universal reaction to the naming of former President Carter as a Nobel Laureate was jubilation. At last this religious and dedicated ex-president was being recognized for his extraordinary achievements and aspirations.

Jimmy Carter’s new status as a truly global figure will prompt a re-evaluation of his role as a tireless devotee of international human rights and as the most religious president in U.S. history.

In the Democratic primaries of 1976 I worked hard for the late Congressman Mo Udall. In the turbulent early months of 1976 the peanut farmer from Georgia did not win much recognition from liberals in the Northeast. His victory over President Gerald Ford did little to increase the expectations of mainstream Democrats.

But Carter’s remarkable record on civil rights and human rights may now be appreciated much more fully.

Carter helped Congress to approve the Equal Rights Amendment as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That meant that two-thirds of both houses sent the amendment to the states for ratification. This could never have happened without the political power of the Carter White House. When Congress extended the 7-year period of ratification by another 30 months, the persuasion of the Carter administration was essential. If Carter had been reelected, his administration might well have raised the ratification states from 35 to the necessary 38.

When Carter proposed that Congress support a constitutional amendment to give the District of Columbia full representation in Congress there were howls of ridicule. This would mean, in essence, that two black Democrats would be added to the U.S. Senate. But the moral power of the Carter White House persuaded two-thirds of both houses to send the measure to the states. This proposal could possibly have been ratified by the necessary 38 states if Carter had been reelected.

The achievements of the Carter White House in the area of human rights will forever make Carter’s four years one of the great eras in American history. In 1975 President Ford reluctantly signed a bill that made the implementation of human rights a part of America’s policy. Carter took human rights and made them the soul of U.S. foreign policy. Despite all of the limitations in the execution of that policy since 1980, the exaltation of human rights has become a permanent and powerful part of America’s relationships to the world.

Carter’s books since he left the White House -- especially those on religion -- constitute a remarkable contribution. One of the books on faith reads almost like the Imitation of Christ. Carter is a man with a deep sense of the personal presence of God in his life. He is a devout Evangelical. It is the person of Christ that is central rather than the church or the Eucharist.

Of all of my meetings with Carter in his White House years, the one I recall the most is a conversation at a Christmas dinner for the Congress held on Dec. 14, 1980. Carter had been defeated by Ronald Reagan, and I was leaving Congress after 10 years because the pope changed canon law. President Carter, standing next to Mrs. Carter, reached out to me in the receiving line and said, “Father, God wants us both to do something different, and it will be more important.”

The Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Carter has made that prediction come true.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law School. His e-mail address is drinan@law.George town.edu

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002