You could say that former President Jimmy Carter has been on the cutting edge of progress for much of his life. This includes his stance on matters of church life and doctrine, as well. Some in the evangelical church are critical of his progressive stance, but Carter himself feels the church has made progress toward reconciling its differences with members of its own ranks.
When he thinks about nearing the end of his life and meeting God in heaven, Carter says, “I hope that God would say I’m a sincere evangelical measured in his own standards.”
Carter is no stranger to church or a life of faith. Growing up in Plains, Georgia, Carter’s father was an elder and Sunday school teacher at their local Baptist Church. In fact, Carter himself has taught Sunday school for much of his adult life.
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and enjoying a brief yet consequential career aboard naval submarines, Carter returned to his hometown to take over the family peanut farming operation after his father’s death in 1953. It was during this time in Georgia that Carter started getting involved in politics. He served on the Sumter County school board and was in favor of integrating schools. When he was elected governor of Georgia, Carter shocked everyone (including some who endorsed him) by declaring “the time of racial discrimination is over… No poor, rural, weak or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity for an education, a job or simple justice.”
In 1971 in Georgia, these words would have shocked many a white, Jesus-loving churchgoer. Then years later, when he was President of the United States, the emerging Moral Majority (led by Jerry Falwell) criticized his progressive leanings, calling him a “secular humanist.” Carter reminisces on this divisive time in the history of the church in his new book, Faith: A Journey for All.
If you know anything about Carter, you will appreciate the apt title of his book. Known for inclusion, ecumenism and trying to bridge divides both in his personal and political life, “A Journey for All” seems apropos.
What Makes Jimmy Carter’s Faith Controversial to Some in the Church?
Despite his ecumenism, though, Carter is willing to take a stand on certain matters. Several years ago, Carter broke his ever-loosening ties with the Southern Baptist Convention due to his views on women in leadership. In an interview with Maina Mwaura, Carter says he believes the misinterpretation of Scripture (which is sometimes done deliberately by men in charge) has led to a violation of equality between men and women.
I look at the writings of Paul…there’s no difference between a Jew and a Gentile in the eyes of God. There’s no difference between a slave and a master. There’s no difference between a man and a woman.
Granted, Carter sees this violation not just in the Christian church, but all over the world. “I think it’s the worst single greatest violation of human rights on earth now is the violation of equality between men and women,” he says.
When asked what churches can do to help women reach their potential, Carter says to let them serve in the same capacity that men are allowed to serve. He points to the example of his own church in Plains, which allows women to fill the roles of deacon and pastor. “If we exclude [Christian women] from serving God in an equal and respectable way, then we’re cutting back on the strength of Christianity as well as the strength of our governments,” Carter says.
“We still have a long way to go,” Carter admits, but it is clear he is hopeful.
Jimmy Carter’s Hope for the Future
He is also hopeful about another problem in the church, and that is bridging the divide between conservative and progressive Christians. Carter shared he was invited by Jerry Falwell Jr. to speak at Liberty University’s graduation ceremony this year. After being snubbed by his father, Carter was surprised yet appreciative of Falwell Jr.’s invitation.
This invitation makes Carter believe those on opposing sides of the church are learning to set aside the “extreme personal differences” that dominated the 1970s and ’80s. “We were at each other’s throats,” Carter recalls, when the two sides were trying to gain control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Carter says Christians do well to remember “we’re all saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.” And for those of us who consider ourselves evangelical, we should be busy “through our human actions and through our words” spreading the faith.
Watch the full interview with Former President Carter.