That’s probably farther than most Baptists would go, but Carter has never been most Baptists. His evolution from born again Southern Baptist to radical advocate of peace, racial justice, gender equality, and marriage equality, has moved him far to the left of many Baptists. But he understands Jesus stands far to the left of many Baptists.
Carter’s presidency was a heady period for Baptists north and south. He regularly worshipped at Washington’s First Baptist Church and most Sundays he taught the adult Sunday school class. Many of my Baptist colleagues rushed to attend the class and returned with highly public anecdotes about their private conversations with the president. One story was that a Baptist executive who taught the class on alternate Sundays was called out of town at the last minute. He called the White House and told Carter, “Mr. President, I just can’t be there Sunday.” Carter replied, “That’s okay, I’ll teach the class. I know you’re busy.” The story is probably not apocryphal.
I met Carter once at the White House, along with several dozen religious magazine editors. We were there to hear the president’s defense of a proposed treaty to return ownership of the Panama Canal to Panama.
I came prepared with a copy of an American Baptist resolution that supported the treaty, and I insinuated myself into a huddle of rabbis, priests, ministers, and other editors who had gathered around Carter. The President had turned away from me to talk to Jim Wall, editor of the Christian Century, and I felt myself being pushed uncomfortably close to him. Bill Dudde, a Lutheran editor who stood behind me, tripped and pushed me against the President. I was could smell his hair spray and jumped back in alarm, expecting to be tackled by the Secret Service. Carter turned toward me and he was not smiling. I held up a copy of the American Baptist resolution and reduced my carefully rehearsed speech to six words: “Mr. President, American Baptists support you.” He turned away and said, “Thanks, I need all the help I can get.”
My subsequent encounters with Carter, when he was an ex-president, went much smoother. Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, invited me to a small reception for Carter during the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Los Angeles in 1985. Carter was gracious and witty and considerably more charismatic in person than he was on television.
Later, the Carter Center in Atlanta called a meeting of church health agencies to discuss health care issues and I went to represent American Baptists. Carter mingled with the bureaucrats for most of the meeting. I stood beside him in the food line and listened to him say to no one in particular that the Center had provided “a Mormon meal, because Mormons follow a diet that makes them the healthiest people in the nation.” My colleague Hugh Pickett of the American Baptist pension board, noticing the absence of red meat on the table, said loudly enough for Carter to hear him: “I’d rather live with Jesus than in Salt Lake City.”
Following the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Los Angeles in 1985, I wrote a column for The American Baptist magazine to praise Carter’s leadership, in and out of the White House. Naturally, I sent Carter a copy of the magazine. His reply was quick and efficient. He made a photocopy of my letter, and wrote his response on it. “Thanks,” he wrote in longhand, “both for the editorial & for sending it to me. Jimmy.”
I tend to disagree with historians who believe Carter’s presidency was lackluster and unsuccessful. He maintained high standards of morality and decency that most of his successors could not match.
And in the 33 years since he left the White House, Carter’s moral leadership, based on careful biblical exegesis, has been exceptional.
And if his conditions are met for leaving the Baptists to become a Roman Catholic, I would be inclined to follow him into the fold.