Jimmy Carter: my hero and my inspiration

From one born-again Baptist to another

I was 25 years old, just married, a youth pastor and budding lawyer when I heard that Jimmy Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election by Reagan. I burst into tears at the news and my young wife was surprised at my emotion.

Jimmy Carter was my hero and my inspiration. As an Australian Baptist I felt we were not just a minority but an irrelevance. We had a secret language called the language of Zion, belonged to a small tribe that eschewed the world and functioned in society as an odd cultural backwater and invisible community. And here was one of my tribe, in my lifetime, who had become President of the USA and unambiguously talked about his born-again faith. The confidence that Jimmy Carter gave me to own my tradition here in Australia and connect it to the great issues of our time was enormous.

Here was a born-again Baptist who made his presidential signature pivoting to human rights in US foreign policy and fighting racism.

And Jimmy taught me the breadth of the Gospel. I had not connected my evangelical faith much beyond personal moral issues, but here was a born-again Baptist who made his presidential signature pivoting to human rights in US foreign policy and fighting racism. Negotiating the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and speaking up for Palestinians. Ensuring behind the scenes that white rule was ended in 1979 in Rhodesia. As a fiscal conservative, he tried to address the need for limits in the energy crisis in what was dubbed his ‘American malaise speech’.

For this, he was mocked by Reagan who believed America was exceptional and had no limits. Reagan stood for white Christian nationalism, US hegemony and dominance in military expansion and ignoring human rights, but Carter had an internationalist vision of the Gospel and a less messianic vision of the US’s role. He believed that the image of God in all humans conferred dignity and equality. In 2000 Carter cut his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention over its stance on women in leadership, saying, “I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God and that women should play an absolutely equal role in service of Christ in the Church.”

Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn

Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visit children suffering from schistosomiasis during a 2007 trip to Nigeria. The Carter Center

In the Baptist church of my childhood, women could neither be deacons nor ministers, but things were gradually changing. And here was Jimmy Carter as President championing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for legal rights of women and being opposed on ERA by the conservative Republican Reagan who was supported by many Christians. President Carter appointed far more women to his administration than any president before him.

The Moral Majority had turned on Jimmy as not “a true Christian” for supporting the ERA. Instead, they supported the non-church-attending Ronald Reagan who reasserted US military strength, supported the apartheid South African regime and promised to ban abortion. Another even more famous Baptist minister, Billy Graham, refused to join the Moral Majority and support Reagan as he saw it as a manipulation by the secular right of religious conservatives. But the die was cast and without that Moral Majority support, Jimmy Carter lost in 1980. Then the religious culture wars began in earnest, with the Gospel being reduced to a narrow band of moral issues and yoked to US Christian nationalism.

Jimmy Carter was able to say, “I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus” and I am pro-women, blacks and human rights.

My tears came from an intuitive sense that US evangelical Christians had renounced their own 19th-century tradition. I had devoured the writings of Charles Finney in my teenage years. He was the Billy Graham of the 1830s, and had trained the first runaway slaves and the first women to be ministers of the Gospel in his Oberlin College seminary. “Neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” – he preached the Gospel in such a way that tens of thousands came to Christ and did not fall away in later years. He questioned whether slave owners should receive communion, preached an anti-slavery message and was active in the underground railway. Jimmy Carter stood in that tradition and was able to say, “I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus” and I am pro-women, blacks and human rights. And unlike Finney, he could exercise executive power.

Of course, the real offence Jimmy caused for white Christians was over race. In the US naval college after the Second World War, he befriended the only black midshipman and was known by his colleagues as a “Goddamn n** lover.” In his own words, he recalled that his family in Georgia was “completely surrounded by African-American children, with whom I played and worked in the fields and hunted and fished in the woods. And I got to know, eventually and slowly, the difference between a privileged group and the ones around us who were not permitted to vote, or to serve on a jury, or to go to a decent school.”

Jimmy continued, “I think this, more than anything else, has shaped my life – partially because of the guilt I still feel in not having recognised that disparity between us early on. I took it for granted that if the Supreme Court and the Congress and the American Bar Association and the universities and the Churches said it was OK for white people to be superior, that was OK with God. And I think that that experience has been the most overwhelming factor in shaping my life.”

Today he would be accused of promoting critical race theory!

For Jimmy Carter, there was neither black nor white in the American church.

Jimmy Carter was pro-life and opposed to abortion on demand, but would not overturn Roe v Wade. It is forgotten now that it was Catholics, not evangelicals who led the fight on abortion, and even Billy Graham and also Carter’s own Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s that saw abortion as a woman’s right in limited circumstances. The switch to Reagan, though dressed up as being mostly related to his opposition to abortion (and he delivered very little on that front once President), was arguably more motivated by race. It was during Carter’s presidency that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sought to enforce anti-discrimination laws at all-white Christian schools.

Many evangelicals had defied the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs Board of education ruling, which declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional. So the IRS refused to grant tax-exempt status to these schools practicing racial discrimination. Evangelical leaders blamed Carter, but the Moral Majority knew it could not campaign on such overt racism and opposition to integration, so it disguised its real animus and switched its political message to opposing abortion. This became its rallying cry to attack Carter who was dropped by his own tribe for Ronald Reagan – their new political messiah.


Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter greets a Nepalese boy in Kathmandu in 2013.

Jimmy Carter greets a Nepalese boy in Kathmandu in 2013. The Carter Center

As Galatians with its magnificent teaching on justification by faith addressed the Apostle Peter withdrawing from eating at Antioch with Gentiles, Jimmy Carter challenged the segregated American church. For Paul, it was neither a Jewish nor Gentile church; for Jimmy Carter, there was neither a black nor white one. Sunday morning at 11.00 am is still considered the most segregated hour of the US week.

Thank you, Jimmy, for being so faithful and even teaching Sunday school class at the local Baptist church throughout your presidency.

In 2002 I was President of the Baptist Union of Australia and attended a Baptist World Alliance meeting in Havana, Cuba. Whilst we were there news came through that Jimmy Carter had won the Nobel Peace Prize. I moved a motion congratulating our fellow Baptist on the world’s highest honour. The motion was opposed by the Southern Baptist delegation unless it included an amendment to also equally congratulate George W. Bush on his invasion of Iraq. George W. is a Methodist – not to mention the minor point that no weapons of mass destruction ever existed there and a disaster unfolded that later produced ISIS.

In these moments, seeds were sown for Baptists and evangelicals who later supported their new political messiah, Donald Trump. In Havana, I felt again the grief I had experienced as a young Baptist in 1980.

Thank you, Jimmy, for being so faithful and even teaching Sunday school class at the local Baptist church throughout your presidency. Thank you for being so courageous and for being my inspiration for a Gospel big enough for the whole world.

Tim Costello AO a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). A well-known social justice advocate, Tim is a Baptist minister, former CEO of World Vision Australia and current Executive Director of Micah Australia.