James Earl “Jimmy” Carter (1924- ), was the 39th President of the United States and Baptist layperson. Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, the son of a peanut farmer and his wife, a nurse. Converted and baptized in his local Southern Baptist church at the age of eleven, after completing high school in 1942 he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Graduating in the first postwar Midshipman class in 1946 he served on a battleship and in the submarine fleet as an officer. In 1950 he was assigned to the navy’s new nuclear submarine program where he became a protégé of the rigorous Admiral Hyman Rickover.
In 1953 Carter’s father passed away and he resigned his commission to return to Georgia to run his family’s farm store and peanut warehouse. Carter turned out to be a capable businessman and greatly enlarged his holdings. During this time he was also an active participant in his local church, serving as a Sunday School teacher and deacon, while also playing an active role in the local community, serving on school, library, and hospital boards. An avid reader of not only the Bible but also moral theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Carter was a rather lonely white voice for civil rights in his area of Georgia when he decided to enter the political arena as a Democrat candidate for the state Senate in 1962.
Nonetheless, he managed to win two terms before losing a try for the governor’s seat in 1966. A meticulous planner and canny self-promoter, Carter ran again in 1970, styling himself as a populist battling entrenched interests. Victorious, he established a reputation as a mild reformer and notably appointed a number of African Americans to key positions in the state bureaucracy. Forbidden by law at the time to succeed himself as governor, Carter left office in 1975 amid the fallout of Watergate and the Vietnam War with a plan to position himself as the ultimate dark horse and Washington outsider for the 1976 presidential campaign. Part of his strategy hinged on a campaign autobiography rushed into print in late 1975, Why Not the Best? In its pages Carter not only touted his common man credentials and work as a reformer in Southern state politics, but frankly set forth his Christian convictions, his “born-again” experience, and his personal spiritual life. The book became a best-seller, largely on the back of quickening sales at Christian bookstores across the country as Carter’s candidacy as an unashamed born-again Christian began to attract more attention. Indeed, Carter’s Baptist beliefs and evangelical piety became a key component of the campaign as news commentators and national magazine articles attempted to come to grips with his “exotic” religious background.
Carter ended up surprising the establishment of the Democratic Party to win its nomination and hung on to a swiftly dwindling lead to nose out Republican incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 general election. As President, Carter inherited a dreadful economic stew of “stagflation” and unemployment along with a high-tide of Soviet expansionism inflaming local conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Hampered by his outsider status, he found legislative and bureaucratic relations a minefield. His relations with his evangelical constituency suffered as Carter adhered to his Baptist regard for the separation of church and state and refused to lift a ban on prayer in public schools or meddle with abortion amid a climate of increasing evangelical alarm at the practice. Despite his brokerage of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978, continued economic problems, the Iranian hostage crisis (itself followed by a gasoline shortage in the summer of 1979), and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served to drive home a growing national sentiment of Carter’s ineptitude as chief executive.
In the 1980 general election Carter was trounced by Republican Ronald Reagan who benefited from the fact that evangelical voters–many influenced by the emerging “Religious Right”–deserted the most outspoken evangelical in high public office since William Jennings Bryan. Following his presidency Carter’s Christian faith and commitment accounted for most of his activities, including efforts on behalf of conservation, peace, and his long-time involvement in building “sweat equity” homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity. He was also increasingly involved in disputes within his native Southern Baptist Convention, criticizing the “takeover” of the Convention by “fundamentalists.” In 2000 he officially severed his connections with the SBC and in 2006 backed the creation of the more “inclusive” New Baptist Covenant.
For further reading see Kenneth E. Morris, Jimmy Carter: American Moralist (Georgia, 1997).