How Jimmy Carter integrated his evangelical Christian faith into his political work, despite mockery and misunderstanding (2023)

“I am a farmer, an engineer, a businessman, a planner, a scientist, a governor, and a Christian,” Jimmy Carter said while introducing himself to national political reporters when he announced his campaign to be the 39th president of the United States in December 1974.

As journalists and historians consider Carter’s legacy, this prelude to Carter’s campaign offers insight into how he wanted to be known and how he might like to be remembered.

After studying Carter’s presidential campaign, presidency and post-presidency for years, which included examining more than 25,000 archival documents, media sources, oral histories and interviews, I wrote “Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign.” Along the way, I had the opportunity to interview former President Carter in October 2014, when we discussed his life, his presidency and his legacy.

Based upon this experience, one observation is certain – Carter was a man of faith committed to a vision of the nation that aligned with his views of Jesus’ teachings.

A campaign cloaked in a message of love and justice

In the fall of 1975, after his initial announcement failed to elicit much national attention for his candidacy, the still relatively unknown Georgia governor published the campaign biography, “Why Not the Best?

Within the book, he told the story of his wholesome childhood on his family’s peanut farm in Archery, Georgia, and of achieving his childhood dream through his appointment to the Naval Academy in 1943.

He wrote of his dedication to his family as a loyal son, husband and father and his duty-bound career transition to manage his family-owned peanut farm, warehouse and store after his father Earl Carter’s premature death from pancreatic cancer in 1953. He also shared his lifelong commitment to community and public service.

Moreover, he offered himself as a public servant who could bridge the chasm between the American people and the government that had emerged after the revelations of presidential corruption amid Vietnam and Watergate.

“Our government can and must represent the best and the highest ideals of those of us who voluntarily submit to its authority. In our third century, we must meet these simple, but crucial standards,” he wrote in the campaign biography.

Though Carter cloaked his campaign in Jesus’ teachings about love and justice, most national reporters did not give Carter’s faith much attention until he became the Democratic Party’s front-runner in advance of the North Carolina primary in 1976.

‘Lust in my heart’

When national reporters finally turned their attention to his faith, what campaign director Hamilton Jordan referred to as Carter’s “weirdo factor,” the evangelical politician acknowledged that he had “spent more time on my knees in the four years I was governor … than I did in all the rest of my life.”

Carter continued to share his understanding of the gospel with journalists and their audiences in a plain-spoken manner, even though it was not always advantageous to his political fortunes. For instance, after continued probes about his faith that summer from Playboy Magazine correspondent Robert Scheer, Carter launched into a sermon on pride, lust and lying that would haunt him later.

“I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted … I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter, believing he was off the record, said in attempting to clarify his religious views. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Carter referred to Matthew 5:28, the biblical passage in which Jesus shares this interpretation of the Seventh Commandment, with the words: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

Uninterrupted, Carter continued his salty explanation of the verse: “Christ says don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”

“We have heard Jesus’ words all our lives ever since we were 3, 4 years old, and we knew what it meant,” Carter later explained to me. “But, obviously, the general public, when I said, ‘lust in my heart,’ that was a top headline, it looked like I was – like I spent my time trying to seduce other women. Rosa(lynn) knew that wasn’t true.”

Though Carter’s comments were “on solid theological ground,” according to many people of faith, up-and-coming leaders of the religious right, such as televangelist Jerry Falwell, castigated Carter. And, in the end, many folks agreed with well-regarded columnist Mary McGrory – the interview “should have been an off-the-record conversation with God, not one taped by Playboy.”

Crisis of confidence

Despite the erosion of support among the emerging religious right after the Playboy gaffe, Carter remained steadfast in his commitment to his Christian values and a faith-inspired vision for the nation that advanced human rights at home and abroad. He called it a “new beginning.”

Carter beseeched his American brethren to chart a new course during his inaugural address in January 1977: “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.”

Carter had achieved what Time magazine hailed as one of the most astonishing “political miracles” in the nation’s history because of his rapid ascension from a virtual unknown politician to the presidency. But many citizens, suffering from an emerging crisis of confidence in the American dream and faith in its institutions and leaders, had already begun to tune out Carter’s political sermons about the looming energy crisis, stagflation and international conflicts.

Moreover, in the coming years, they would become indignant toward the man who had condemned the corruption of his predecessors and promised to never tell a lie on the campaign trail, yet remained loyal to one of his oldest advisers, the Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance, who was accused of unethical banking practices.

Long-lasting commitment to public service

In the end, Carter stood accused of failing to live up to his campaign promises from the vantage point of many American citizens amid domestic crises and foreign conflicts.

Amid news coverage of these events and his dwindling public support, Carter lost his reelection campaign, and his administration was hailed by many journalists, political insiders and average Americans alike as a “failed presidency.”

Nevertheless, Carter remained committed to his religious convictions. “I have spoken many times of love, but love must be aggressively translated into simple justice,” he invoked his audience when he accepted the Democratic nomination in July 1976.

For the remainder of his life, he attempted to model the translation of Jesus’ love into action through his life of public service. His post-presidential commitments involved The Carter Center’s initiatives of fighting disease and seeking international peace and his private efforts of building homes for Habitat for Humanity and teaching Sunday school.

In the end, Carter will leave this world with only one acknowledged regret: “I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them and I would have been re-elected,” he said referring to the April 1980 military rescue attempt of the 53 U.S. hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries.

In Carter’s final days, his words from his presidential farewell address, which remain true today, are worth remembering:

“The battle for human rights – at home and abroad – is far from over. … If we are to serve as a beacon for human rights, we must continue to perfect here at home the rights and values which we espouse around the world: A decent education for our children, adequate medical care for all Americans, an end to discrimination against minorities and women, a job for all those able to work, and freedom from injustice and religious intolerance.”


What were Jimmy Carter's political beliefs? ›

He then manifested his opposition to racial segregation, supported the growing civil rights movement, and became an activist within the Democratic Party. He served in the Georgia State Senate from 1963 to 1967 and was elected governor of Georgia in 1970.

What did Jimmy Carter promised during his campaign? ›

The Carter campaign used various television advertisements to promise to restore integrity and trust in government after Watergate.

What are some of Carter's major accomplishments? ›

Jimmy Carter served as the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for work to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.

What were Carter's views on human rights? ›

He intended to infuse a new morality in American diplomacy, one grounded in the pursuit of human rights. Carter made this cause explicit in his January 20, 1977, inaugural address: “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.

What are three major events that occurred during the Carter administration? ›

  • March 16 - Senate ratifies first Panama Treaty.
  • September 4 - Camp David Summit begins.
  • September 17 - Camp David Accords signed.
  • October 13 - Civil Service Reform Act Signed.
  • October 15 - Congress passes first energy package.
  • December 15 - Announces normalization of relations with People's Republic of China.

Why did Jimmy Carter win the election? ›

Ford dominated the Western states. Despite the American political climate being predominantly conservative-leaning in the years prior to the election, Carter was able to achieve victory largely off of the backlash of the Watergate scandal that still was deeply hurting Republican candidates.

What were Carter's greatest foreign policy success and his greatest failure Why? ›

He promoted and helped form a peace agreement by which Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist in exchange for the return of land in the Sinai Peninsula. However, Carter struggled at diminishing tensions among the Middle East nations and failed to maintain peaceful relations with the Soviet Union.

Which of the following foreign policy goals was not accomplished during President Carter's administration? ›

Answer: The foreign-policy goal not accomplished during President Carter's Administration is bringing actions against Afghanistan.

What was Jimmy Carter's main goal? ›

Carter took office during a period of "stagflation," as the economy experienced a combination of high inflation and slow economic growth. His budgetary policies centered on taming inflation by reducing deficits and government spending.

How has Jimmy Carter contributed to the advancement of human rights? ›

With his wife Rosalynn, President Carter founded the Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982. Through his nonprofit, nonpartisan Center, he creates and oversees programs that prevent disease, advance human rights and economic development, resolve conflicts and promote democratic principles around the world.

What was considered as one of President Carter's greatest foreign policy accomplishment? ›

The Camp David Accords, initialed on September 17, 1978 and formally signed in Washington on March 26, 1979, were the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Carter administration, and supporters hoped it would revive his struggling presidency.

What was significant about Carter's inaugural speech? ›

Carter's inaugural address was 1,228 words long. In it, he spoke of bringing "a new spirit among us all", and urged Americans to "reject the prospect of failure or mediocrity".

Does Carter's use forced labor? ›

Carter's does not tolerate worker abuse or endangerment. At a minimum, all of our suppliers must comply with these practices: The use of child labor or forced labor is strictly prohibited.

What issue seriously hurt Carter's? ›

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took approximately seventy Americans captive. This terrorist act triggered the most profound crisis of the Carter presidency and began a personal ordeal for Jimmy Carter and the American people that lasted 444 days.

What were 2 big economic issues that Carter faced? ›

The massive inflation and oil price shocks of the 1970's damaged Jimmy Carter's presidency.

What did Carter do to help the economy? ›

The economy was in a recession when Carter came to Washington. Immediately upon taking office, he declared that his primary domestic goal was to create jobs for the unemployed. At his request, Congress passed an Economic Stimulus Appropriations Act to create jobs and help the economy.

What economic problems did Carter face? ›

Double-digit inflation, slow national growth, high unemployment, a decline in the rate of growth of output per worker, and serious international economic challenges from Japan and Germany remained just a few of the problems the thirty-ninth president faced upon entry into the White House.

What was President Carter's most serious foreign policy problem? ›

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought a significant change in Carter's foreign policy and ended the period of detente that had begun in the mid-1960s.

Was Carter's foreign policy effective? ›

Initially, the diplomatic initiatives of President Carter and Secretary Vance were quite successful. In 1978, the Administration completed the process begun during the Nixon Administration and normalized relations with mainland China.

Why did Reagan win the election? ›

He was praised by supporters for running a campaign of upbeat optimism. Aided by the Iran hostage crisis and a worsening economy at home marked by high unemployment and inflation, Reagan won the election in a massive landslide.

What was Carter's most significant accomplishment in foreign policy quizlet? ›

Carter's greatest achievement in foreign policy came in the region that also saw his greatest setback. He helped negotiate a historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, but he failed to win the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian radicals.

What was President Carter's greatest achievement quizlet? ›

The Camp David Accords were the peace accords signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to finally end the Israeli-Egyptian disputes. The achievement by Carter is considered his greatest achievement in office.

What was President Carter's greatest foreign policy achievement quizlet? ›

Carter's greatest foreign policy success was in arranging a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

What foreign policy issue is President Carter addressing? ›

Carter Doctrine, foreign policy initiative of the United States, introduced by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in his 1980 State of the Union address, that returned the country to its traditional strategy of containment of the Soviet Union.

What are the four goals presidents hope to achieve in making foreign policy? ›

Protect the United States and Americans; Advance democracy, human rights, and other global interests; Promote international understanding of American values and policies; and. Support U.S. diplomats, government officials, and all other personnel at home and abroad who make these goals a reality.

What did President Carter's first economic plan proposed? ›

President Carter's first major policy initiative in 1977 was a two-year, $31.6-billion package of tax cuts and job-creation programs aimed at stimulating the sagging economy. Carter's handling of the proposals proved characteristic.

Which was President Carter's major achievement for world peace during his administration? ›

The Camp David Accords are often considered the most significant foreign policy achievement of Carter's administration. Tension in the Middle East had continued unabated since the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt.

Was Jimmy Carter considered liberal? ›

He was thus much more conservative than the dominant liberal wing of the party could accept. British historian Iwan Morgan argues: Carter traced his political values to early twentieth-century southern progressivism with its concern for economy and efficiency in government and compassion for the poor.

Which topic was central to President Carter's foreign policy beliefs? ›

Upon taking office, Carter reoriented U.S. foreign policy towards a new emphasis on human rights, democratic values, nuclear non-proliferation, and global poverty.

What is the Carter Doctrine and what prompted its issuance? ›

The Carter Doctrine was a policy proclaimed by President of the United States Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980, which stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf.


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