Through Strong Faith He Continues to Wage Peace, Build Hope and Share Up Close with President Jimmy Carter
There have been millions of influential people in America, thousands of leaders, and hundreds of celebrities, but only 44 men have been President of the United States. Only one of those presidents has ever received the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office. Jimmy Carter may have had humble beginnings coming from Plains, Georgia, but even after serving in the military, gaining wealth, and running the free world, President Carter exhibits a humility that is not only admirable, but lived out daily. His personal faith and commitment to peace around the world is unparalleled, but worth striving to replicate. The 39th president, professor, and avid Sunday School teacher shares lessons on prayer, gives advice to the youth, and reveals his thoughts on the nation’s many blessings.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Many students graduate from college and are still unclear about what they want to do with their life. They wonder about their purpose, their passion and what they are “called” to do. When did you know you wanted to run for president and at what point did you recognize that Commander-in-Chief was actually where God wanted you to be?
President Jimmy Carter: I didn’t even think about running for president until after I had been governor [of Georgia] for two years. After the 1972 convention in Miami when we lost that election, I decided that I would run for president. We had about five people that were part of a small group where we discussed plans. We made very meticulous plans on how we would deal with all 50 states. There were 31 states that had a political contest in them and we decided to enter all those contests.
I never did feel that I was anointed by God to be president. But, I have felt all through my life, when I had a tough decision to make, I [would] turn to God in prayer making sure the decision I made was the best I could ascertain, and was [also] compatible with God’s will. I don’t have any doubt that sometimes God says, “Yes” and sometimes God says, “No”, and sometimes God says, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I think God answers our prayers oftentimes by opening and closing doors. If we want to be an astronaut, or a medical doctor, or a surgeon, or something like that, if that’s what we desire, and that’s not our possibility, then we just have to come to alternative routes to satisfy.
RM: You’ve stated, “We tend not to notice how much we’ve come to accept.” Making decisions and staying firm to beliefs can be challenging without a strong support system to hold you accountable. Who was that group for you and how did you stay on top of your prayer life, studies, and just fellowship with other believers?
JC: I prayed more, and for a larger percentage of the day when I was in the White House, than during any other part of my life. I was faced with decisions that needed to be made that sometimes were very difficult and I wanted to be sure I made the right decision for the well-being of the people in my country. I had terrible challenges with war and peace and nuclear threats, and things of that kind when I was in the White House, and I asked God for guidance that I would make the right decisions. That was the most trying time in my life as well. I’ve always been able to consult closely with Rosalynn [Carter], who shares my faith. As a matter of fact for the last 35 years she and I always end the day by reading out loud to each other from the Bible. One night she reads, the next night I read. And the last 20 years or so we’ve read the Bible in Spanish so we can learn more Spanish. We go all the way through the Bible and then go back and read the Bible again. Right now we are in the book of Hebrews. We find different meanings to the verses depending on our lifestyle and when I go back and teach it (which is about 35 times a year). I usually spend time comparing modern day events – either headlines in the news media, or experiences Rosalynn and I have had at The Carter Center – with biblical teachings on how it applies to my life or how it applies to America’s life as a nation.
RM: Speaking of current events, America has been such a blessed country. Why do you think we’ve been saddled with so many issues, from housing and the banking crisis, to high unemployment and disasters; what are your thoughts from a faith standpoint on where the nation is at?
JC: We have a particular blessing from God in our country, as some people have particular blessings from God in a material way. But that doesn’t make us secure to anyone else, and I realize that. We have a bountiful nation; we have basic freedoms, harmonious neighbors, oceans on the east and west; we have everything you could ask for, but that really means we have a lot of obligations to share our blessings with other people. And we don’t do that adequately. One of the things the United States could do is be the champion of peace. We have not done that. I think we are looked upon by the rest of the world like the most bull-like nation on earth. We are one of the least likely to share our portion of wealth with deprived countries. We probably provide about one-forth as much, for instance, as Norway or Sweden, Austria or the Netherlands, Denmark or so forth would share. Sometimes I’d say we’re too at ease just enjoying our own blessings without accepting the responsibility that goes with a particular blessing. And when we say we’re suffering, we still have an average family income in this country of $55,000. When we finished doing the last election in Liberia, half the people in Liberia have less than a half a dollar a day. If you put it in perspective with the rest of the world, America really isn’t suffering in a material way.
RM: Culture definitely affects society’s behavior. Obviously overgeneralizing a bit here, but it seems this generation tends to be more selfish, and there’s an obsession with fame, chasing wealth, and a sense of entitlement that reigns… what can you share when it comes to taking responsibility, humility and submitting to God and what he has for one’s life?
JC: Of course that should apply to every human being; a commitment to peace and justice, humility, service of others, forgiveness, compassion, and love – the characteristics that exemplify the life of Christ. I’ve just finished my 30th year as a college professor at Emery University and I see student body’s come and go and it’s a cycle effect. I don’t really believe that the young people today are any more selfish or self-centered then they were when I was in college. The outside pressures are different. I don’t believe our young people are any worse or better on average through the years.
RM: With your teaching on college campuses and in Sunday School, what advice would you give to the youth of America, or what presidential wisdom would you pass on to the current generation that you hope they would embrace?
JC: I’m the only president that ever quoted a high school teacher in his inaugural address. And I quoted the same high school teacher in my Nobel [Peace Prize] address. My favorite teacher in my life, an old maid school teacher named Miss Judy Coleman, said, “We must accommodate changing times, but cling to unchanging principles.” I think that encompasses as concisely as I can imagine, advice to young people. I think every generation has to accommodate changing times. Now with instant communications around the world, and with Twitter and Facebook and that sort of thing, we have to accommodate those changing times, but there are principles that don’t change. And that’s what I teach every Sunday in my Bible lessons, the principles that don’t change, and never will change; the basic moral values that should permeate the life of a human being, or the life of a family, or the life of a nation.
I quote a verse from 2 Corinthians [4:18], where the Corinthians asked Paul what are the things that are permanent in life? And he said, “The things you cannot see.” Which was a very strange and mysterious answer. But the things you cannot see also describes the moral life, or the life of Jesus Christ. You can’t see a commitment to peace or justice, or humility, service… but those are the most important things. I also believe every human being is given an adequate amount of intelligence, influence, and education to meet the demands of God. For instance, I use the example of a child with Down ’s syndrome. If you ever meet any person with Down’s they are the most loving and caring people that you could possibly imagine. Yet, they are looked upon as handicapped, but I think in the eyes of God they approach perfection.
Of course that should apply to every human being; a commitment to peace and justice, humility, service to others, forgiveness, compassion, and love – the characteristics that exemplify the life of Christ.
RM: Keeping your principles was something you were able to do quite well when it comes to faith and politics. You incorporated God on the campaign trail, included scripture in your inaugural address and address to Congress. You mentioned that you prayed more in office, but would you say your faith grew or suffered during your political career?
JC: It suffered during my political career. I was a state senator and I ran for governor in 1966 and my main opponent was a racist, named Lester Maddox. His fame came from his segregation commitment. I was very moderate or progressive on the race issue and I lost to him. He was elected by the legislature, not by the people – it’s a complicated subject. But I lost my religious faith. I just felt like God had let me down and that my political and religious careers were over. [My] sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, at that time was a very famous evangelist known all over the world. She wrote five books and she would speak to audiences of 25 to 50 thousand people in different countries. She heard about me and came down and tried to minister to my loss of faith. She pointed out that when a person has a serious setback of failure, disappointment, sorrow, or loss, then that [setback] should be a contribution to one’s own patience and self-assessment and could lead to greater faith, and greater expanded life. And she convinced me of that. So I started what you might say, my new religious life. I had given up on politics, but then it turned out in the next election that I was chosen to be governor and went on to be president. I’ve had ups and downs in my political and religious life.
RM: I love how you said, “When we pray without ceasing, we get help without interruption.” When have you felt prayer be the most effective in your life?
JC: I think the prayer process not only gives us the feeling of – I wouldn’t say inferiority – but a matter of subjugation to God’s will. But if our prayers are not answered then we have an obligation to search for an alternative compatible with our influence and human characteristics to make the most of the remaining years of our life. That’s always been my basic belief. I’ve changed my mind quite often in my lifetime. When I was a child the only thing I wanted to do was go to Annapolis and be a naval officer because that was only one of the two free colleges in the United States during the Great Depression years when my family didn’t have any money. And that prayer was answered. When I got out of the Navy I wanted to be a successful businessman. I didn’t even think about running for office until I had been out of the Navy for eight years and I was pretty advanced in age. I ran for office to save the public school systems from the segregationist pressures. I changed my career plans often.
RM: I would think transitioning from presidency back to a normal life could be challenging, but it seemed to be not only effortless for you, but you’ve been incredibly successful too…opening The Carter Center, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, continuing to volunteer. What is the most fulfilling way for you to spend your time post-presidency?
JC: The Carter Center is a full-time job. We have programs in 73 nations in the world. Thirty-five of those are in Africa and we are constantly involved in all the elements concerning human rights. Eighty percent of The Carter Center budget is devoted to medical and the health field where we try to address hundreds of millions of people who suffer from diseases that we no longer [experience] in the rich world. That’s where most of our effort goes. We [also] help with elections. We deal with four or five of the most troubled and challenging elections in the world every year. I’ll be in Egypt all next week trying to help bring peace and democracy to Egypt. We’re the only organization that has been welcomed by leaders to witness there. We have a broad agenda and Rosalynn and I can basically go down the menu of things we actually want to do, or don’t want to do and we have enough authority and influence to choose the ones we think will be the most challenging, adventurous, unpredictable and gratifying. We are very fortunate.
I think every generation has to accommodate changing times….but there are principles that don’t change.
RM: It’s such a blessing to others that this is how you choose to spend your time. I’m curious about how you navigate between knowing your platform and the sphere of influence you have, and leveraging your name and talents to help showcase Jesus and his teachings to others, versus feeding your ego and enjoying the glory and accolades. It’s very human to revel in praise or take joy in having others know of our actions.
JC: What you say is very accurate. [Laughing] But, I have a natural restraint on me and that is by living in Plains, Georgia. We only have 635 people that live here. We have 11 churches for that 600+ people. We have a very tiny church and what our church has decided to do is have a special ministry, maybe not equal to anywhere else in the world, I don’t know, where we deal with visitors. And we have anywhere from 100 to 870 visitors [weekly] in our little church with 30 members. We welcome people that have never been to church before, and people of all different faiths. I try to point out the common things we share which are much more overwhelming than any differences between us. Being in a tiny town and being called, “Jimmy”, by all my fellow citizens, not “Mr. President”, and that sort of thing is kind of a reminder to me of not getting carried away with Nobel Peace Prizes and titles like President.
RM: You’ve mentioned your wife several times throughout the interview and I have to congratulate you on being married 65 years to Rosalynn. Your relationship is admirable especially knowing how confusing and challenging relationships can be and heartbreaking that so many end in divorce. How did you unwaveringly know that this is who God had as your partner in life? I had read that at first she said no to your [marriage] proposal, but then changed her mind! And why do you think it’s been able to withstand all this time?
JC: I can’t really say how we knew we were destined for each other. I had a sweetheart who was Miss Georgia Southwestern College in a distant town, and I had to go find another date before I went back to the Naval Academy [because] she had [to attend] a family reunion. I picked up Rosalynn on a blind date and we went to a movie. The next morning I got up and my mother was cooking breakfast and she asked, “Jimmy, what did you do last night?” I said, “Since Annelle was busy, I had a date.” She said, “Who with?” and I said, “Rosalynn Smith.” And she said, “What did you think of her?” and I said, “She’s the one I’m going to marry.” So I knew it after the first date, but it took Rosalynn a little longer to decide.
We share so much. We learn to give each other space and we don’t impose on each other. We have our own lives and careers that are different, but we cooperate whenever we possibly can. And as I mentioned, we end every day by reading the Bible to each other out loud. Our religious faith and our common commitments to The Carter Center and family, and trying not to go to bed angry with each other even though we have some differences,[makes our relationship work].
Editor’s note: If you’re looking for something to challenge and encourage your daily walk with Christ, check out President Carter’s most recent book titled, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President. It’s based on three decades of practical Bible teaching, compelling political and personal experiences, plus offers a refreshingly honest wisdom that is rooted in the word of God.