Like so many I have had a mixture of feelings and responses to President Jimmy Carter over the years. It seems to me that most critics, left and right, have freely attributed to him the label of “poor president” or “political failure.” I wonder what history, long after his death, will actually say. Many thought that Harry Truman was a failure until after his death. Maybe Carter’s legacy will meet a similar fate but I have my doubts. If a president is known for his legislative accomplishments then Carter will always be seen as mediocre at best. Among conservatives he is loathed and even seen as the definition of failure and disappointment. (This was true at least until we elected President Barack Obama, who is now classed as lower than Jimmy Carter ever was by the same critics.)
It is ironic, perhaps, that Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president I actually met in person. (It was brief and not memorable.) I have been to most of the presidential libraries and museums and read a great deal of American history. Presidents fascinate me thus Jimmy Carter truly fascinates me. Who is/was he? What did he do? Why is he seen as such a failure? What did he do that was memorable, if anything? Why did he make some of the decisions he did and what are his personal Christian beliefs. And then, why does he live the way he does right up to age 90?
I heard an interview with President Carter a few months ago on NPR. Carter was promoting his new memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015). Shortly after this interview I went to my local library and got on a waiting list to read the book. Now that I’ve finished it I am profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to read this fine book. I will share a few reasons:
- President Carter is a very smart man, something that he is rarely given credit for at all. He understood international relations quite superbly and was a true champion of human rights (and religious freedom), the latter a cherished doctrine from mid-twentieth century. He was called “inconsistent” and “hypocritical” by some. I find his grasp of international issues, especially regarding the Middle East, to be superb and thus satisfying to my way of thinking about these complicated issues.
- President Carter is humble and willing to allow the reader to see into his soul and his process of decision-making without simply painting a rosy-picture that makes him look great. He admits some of his mistakes but like all of us he does so with caveats.
- President Carter loves his wife and family and is a man at peace with God and people. He still engages in some political issues, especially those touching upon civil rights and foreign policy. But he is best known for his good work on fair elections, serving the poor and building Habitat Homes. His work via the Carter Center is impressive to me as well. My visit there was most rewarding. Some have called him our best “former president.” I think this label fits but it is quite often a backhanded compliment.
- Jimmy Carter is a truly decent man who struggled with aspects of politics because he was never a cut-throat politician. He was too personally decent. Put simply, I like him for all of this and would love to talk to him in person. As I read this book I felt like I did sit down and talk with him. By the way, most readers know that Carter defeated President Gerald R. Ford. Did you know that the two of them became good friends in the years afterward. This is a marvelous story.
- Jimmy Carter’s faith is deep and real. Say what you will but only a completely unfair critic would question his love for Christ and the gospel. Multitudes still flock to hear him teach the Bible and he is said to be a superb teacher. I understand this his views on issues vary from those of some conservative folks but he is a serious and earnest Christian and a knowledgeable Bible teacher. No other president in American history comes close.
- The most moving part of the book is seen in a story that occurred when Carter had lost his first election for governor of Georgia. He was emotionally drained and spiritually despondent. His sister, a charismatic evangelist, told him to go on a Southern Baptist mission to Pennsylvania that summer. He did and his faith was restored by witnessing to people door-to-door. The next summer he went to Massachusetts. As he saw people come to know Christ he was moved very deeply. In this context he tells the story of a Cuban-born Baptist minister who he was paired up with in leading people to Christ. I will not tell you more except to say that this story so perfectly captures the thesis of my next book, Our Love Is Too Small, that I included it in the final two pages. (Carter would love my book, or so I think.) I love his spirit and his clear, deep love for Christ, both of which are revealed so profoundly in this memoir. He is loving, wise and non-judgmental in the best way. This does not mean that he does not criticize conservative Christians at some weak points.
- People sometimes wonder if Jimmy Carter, while he was president, ever shared his personal faith with world leaders and told them the good news. The answer is yes and the stories he shares are truly interesting. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.
You may have despised this man as president. You may think he did a lot to hurt America. I do not agree. But I want to leave that aside for the moment. I tell you simply that here is a good man who loves God and who sought the kingdom in every part of his long life. I pray for him now as he battles with cancer. May God bless President Jimmy Carter, our brother in Jesus Christ. He did a lot of good for Christ and his kingdom. He will finally answer to God, not to you and me. But then this is true for us all.