Former president Jimmy Carter is back in the news, this time because of his decision to forgo further medical treatment and live out his final days at home, under hospice care. Approaching his ninety-ninth birthday, he hopes to die as he has lived, with quiet dignity.
Generations who read about Carter only in history books may miss the drama of his meteoric rise to the presidency. He grew up in rural Georgia, in a home without indoor plumbing or electricity, and walked three miles to school and back. His family could have been scripted by Hollywood: his mother did a stint with the Peace Corps in India and his sister Ruth had some renown as a faith healer. And then there was Billy, who hung out at a gas station and served up juicy quotes (and beer) to the Yankee reporters. “I’ve got one sister who’s a motorcycle mama and another one who’s a faith healer. I’ve got a brother who claims he’s gonna be president of the United States—and people think I’m crazy?”
Ignored by the Democratic Party establishment, Jimmy Carter simply worked harder than any other candidate in early-primary states, knocking on doors and shaking hands with nearly every voter. Skeptics began taking Carter more seriously when they learned he had been a nuclear engineer as well as a peanut farmer, and had championed civil rights and equal rights for women as governor of the Southern state of Georgia.
In the wake of Watergate scandals, Americans responded to Carter’s winsome smile and his promise that he would never lie to them. Against all odds, in 1976 Carter ascended to the most powerful office in the world. The new president set out his agenda in his inaugural address: “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.” He began acting on those principles by rating countries for their human rights records and directing U.S. aid accordingly.
Carter frequently quoted the Bible in his speeches. He told the World Jewish Congress that his commitment to human rights had come from his study of the Hebrew prophets. During the campaign, he had weathered a storm caused by his admission to a Playboy magazine writer that “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust…I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Most Christians would have recognized the reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but secular journalists had no clue. Some of them viewed Carter’s “born again” talk as a crass appeal to Bible Belt voters. Starting with his first week in Washington, however, Carter taught Sunday School at a Baptist church, and by the time he left office, no journalist doubted the sincerity of his convictions.
Sometimes the president sounded sermonic as he lectured the nation about racism, energy waste, poverty, and unaffordable health care. In a cover story, Newsweek magazine declared the year of Carter’s election as “The Year of the Evangelical”—a title that now appears ironic in view of the movement’s turn away from the progressive politics that Carter embodied.
Jimmy Carter’s descent reversed his meteoric rise. Due to unrest in the Middle East, the price of oil doubled, and inflation climbed to a historic high of 14.6 percent. Worse, in 1979 Iranian revolutionaries broke into the U.S. embassy in Tehran, shouting “Death to America!” and seizing fifty-three hostages. Each night, network news programs prominently displayed the hostages’ total days of captivity, along with humiliating images of blindfolded Americans being prodded by the captors. When a daring rescue attempt by helicopter failed, Carter’s fate was sealed.
In his bid for a second term, a host of evangelical voters forsook Carter for a more right-wing brand of politics, and Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. Carter returned to Plains, Georgia, a broken man, scorned by fellow Democrats and named in some polls as the worst president ever. His family business, held in a blind trust during his term, had accumulated a million-dollar debt.
From that shaky platform, Carter began to rebuild. After writing a book to pay off debts, he established The Carter Center in Atlanta to foster programs he believed in. Due mainly to his emphasis on democracy and human rights, many developing nations looked to him as a great leader, and Carter responded with visionary projects. A team that he recruited began monitoring elections all over the world. His hands-on support of Habitat for Humanity brought publicity and funding to that fledgling organization. His foundation targeted diseases that plagued poor nations, nearly eliminating many, including guinea worm and river blindness.
Every weekend he was home, the former president faithfully taught Sunday School. Word got out, and soon tour buses began filling the parking lot at Maranatha Baptist Church. A congregation of 80 to 100 found themselves swamped by 300, 500, even 1000 visitors on Sundays. CNN donated some used cameras, and the Sunday School class accommodated overflow crowds with a video hookup in another room. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter graciously agreed to pose for pictures with any visitors—after the worship service. Thus the pastor faced the challenge of preaching to hundreds of visitors, many of whom would hear the Christian message for the first time, while not boring his regular congregation.
One day someone sent me a clipping from the New York Post, in which Jimmy Carter named me as his favorite modern writer. Later, I got a phone call from Rosalynn, who asked advice about which Bible she should give her grandchildren. “We have to meet them on our next trip South,” my wife said. And so we did.
On a hot summer day in 2002, we visited Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters had reserved two seats on the second row. Soldiers from twenty-one different countries, in training at nearby Fort Benning, showed up that Sunday morning. “Tell me, if you were back home, would you be in church today?” Janet asked a carload of Swedes and Romanians. The Swedish driver didn’t hesitate: “If Jimmy Carter was preaching, we would!”
Turn over the wooden offering plates at Maranatha Baptist, and you’ll see the carved initials “J.C.” Carter made them in his carpentry shop, just as he made the television cabinet in the Sunday School room. The pastor told me that every other month the ex-president took his turn cutting the grass outside the church while Rosalynn cleaned the bathrooms indoors.
Around town, I heard stories of how Carter wielded his power locally. When the head of Habitat for Humanity boasted about having eliminated all substandard housing in Sumter County, Carter telephoned to tell him about Josephine, who lived in a house with holes in its siding plugged with rags. When a young woman in the church entered adulthood with a face badly deformed from a genetic defect, Carter called the head of Emory Hospital in Atlanta and arranged for plastic surgery. During my visit, Carter gave me a tour of an experimental plot in his back yard—“These are Paulownia trees, the fastest growing trees in the world,” he said. He was hoping they might solve the global problem of deforestation.
Despite bouts with metastatic cancer, Carter continued the frenetic pace well into his nineties. He kept cranking out books, hammering nails for Habitat, and judging elections in young democracies. Meanwhile, Rosalynn championed the cause of childhood immunization. Together, they seemed the ideal small-town citizens, if you forget for a moment that they used to entertain royalty, and slept next to a briefcase with nuclear codes that could destroy the planet.
In time, historians re-evaluated Carter’s performance as president. He appointed more women and people of color to key positions than any predecessor. During his term, not a single American soldier was lost in combat (although eight died in the desert during the failed rescue attempt in Iran). Most significantly, he brokered a peace deal in the Middle East that led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee expressed regret that Carter’s award came long after the leaders of Israel and Egypt received theirs—twenty-four years after the historic Camp David Accords. Blessed are the peacemakers, no matter how long it takes to recognize them.
In a stunning reversal, Jimmy Carter now makes the list of most admired presidents, and if someone held a contest for best ex-president, he would win hands down. Now 98, he has lived longer than any U.S. president, and has had the longest and most productive post-presidency (42 years). Randall Balmer, who wrote a book about Carter and his faith, says, “My favorite quote about Carter comes from James Laney, the former president of Emory University: ‘Jimmy Carter is the only person in history for whom the presidency was a steppingstone.’”
While others have left the White House to enjoy golf or cash in on their celebrity status, the Carters devoted themselves to sacrificial service. The result brings to mind Jesus’ most-repeated statement in the Gospels: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Get some rest, President Carter. You’ve earned it.
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President Carter is my prime mentor and example of how to be and live retired with meaning, purpose, drive, and joy. Now that I am retired after 39 years of ministry, I am inspired by the spiritual and vocational examples of President and Mrs. Carter that one does not have to acquiesce to the traditional expections from within and without regarding age, agility, and ability.
Georgia? Can anything good come out of Georgia? Please let me tell you what a handful of Georgians have meant in my walk with Jesus.
Let’s start with the singing, and especially the songwriting of Pat Terry of Smyrna. The Pat Terry Group and others of the new genre of what would be known as Contemporary Christian Music. Pat’s songwriting was a great encouragement to this bitter and repentant young Vietnam veteran. It still is to this day.
How about Clarence Jordan of Talbotton? He was a remarkably courageous man who started Koinonia Farm in Americus in an attempt to help the poor, especially the black residents of Sumter county at a time when the local populace was filled with angry segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan. When Millard Fuller came to stay at Koinonia, he and Clarence decided on a plan to build decent housing for the local residents, using the Old Testament of not charging interest on loans for the housing. Fuller and his wife Linda would move on as missionaries to Zaire and found that this principle worked well over there. And so, Habitat For Humanity was formed and has helped countless people across the world. My visits to Koinonia would expose me to a compassionate, caring side of Christianity that I had not previously known even existed.
Philip Yancey, from Atlanta grew up with the kind of “Christians” that would be the same as those that tried to make Clarence Jordan give up. But he persevered, and with his typewriter became a fair minded thinker that that could give hope to many who had given up on the organized church. I’ve probably read nearly all of your books, Philip, but my favorite remains “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” which I have recommended to many.
Rock star / evangelist Mylon LeFevre, a child of the south who would eventually settle in Atlanta, would speak encouragement to young Christians about the need to go deeper with Jesus. His words at a Jesus Festival in the 1980s encouraged this “lone ranger” Christian to start fellowshipping, to see and be seen and to hear and be heard. I took his advice and have never regretted it.
And then of course is the smiling, joyful peanut farmer from Plains that would later become President of the United States. People sometimes forget that this man was blessed with great intelligence. His I.Q. ranks high amongst former Presidents. The U.S. Navy does not let dummies commandeer nuclear submarines. One of my prize possessions is a photograph of him and Rosalyn standing with my wife and me, similar to the one of you and Janet have, along with countless other who found this wonderful couple to be gracious and accommodating. Although I’m familiar with most of your great tribute to him, a quote from James Laney stands out: “Jimmy Carter is the only person in history for whom the presidency was a steppingstone.” Indeed!
This native Floridian tips his hat to you all. All of you have displayed a humble, compassionate form of Christianity that today’s Biblically illiterate so-called “Christian warriors” know nothing about, to their own detriment and the detriment of those around them.
Philip, I’m so sad to hear of your new struggles with Parkinson’s disease. Please know that myself and many others like me around the world are reaching out to our gracious God on your behalf. May he give you peace. Yours in Christ, Larry Tyner, Tampa Florida.
We have been slowly making our way to presidential libraries and I look forward to visiting his after reading your article. It’s both comforting and inspiring to see the challenges faced by our leaders during their service to our country in the context of God’s sovereignty and providence. Looking back at God’s faithfulness brings hope even in these days. And what a bright light we’ve had in former President Carter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences that continue to inspire.
I appreciate this reflection. The 1976 election took place during my sixth and seventh grade years. I was that kid who read TIME magazine in Middle School. I tracked with the issues of the day. The 70’s brought their own particular set of challenges. I remember the hope of his inauguration. I must admit, I grew disillusioned during his term and I welcomed the results of 1980. Looking back-he was dealt a hard hand of cards. He played them as faithfully as he could. He had the Reagan Challenge (and RR had challenged Ford before that). Mr. Carter also had a challenge from Ted Kennedy and the Left. I have a mix of reflections on his term. However, I have immense respect for the way he rebuilt his life. I attended his SS school class twice. The Carters were very gracious. When it came time for the pictures, Mrs. Carter put her arm around my daughter (an “older” eight at the time). I think it correct that for Mr. Carter the Presidency was a stepping stone. He has sought to live his life and faith with integrity and honor. Also, I firmly believe that the Lord works through a variety of people and perspectives. Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.
Thank you so much for this article, Philip. I sent it to my 18-year-old grandson, interested in politics and social justice. Your article tells of that rare thing, a leader of integrity and humility; how wonderful to have his story to share with Joshua.
Thank you Mr. Yancey. I once heard President Carter speak after his days in the White House. His love for humanity and work with Habitat for Humanity touched my heart. I so appreciate this deeper look into who he was, and is. Very meaningful!
Good to hear such a catchy testimony of a great leader. Thank you Philip for inspiring us with your gift of writing, you have, indeed changed my perspectives over so many issues in this contemporary day, I always look upto your writings; they are a source of encouragement and motivation to me.
Thank you for your moving tribute to a man I have admired and emulated. We took our son to see Jimmy teach at the church in Plains when he was 14. Afterwards, when we were able to have our picture taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn, Jimmy said to our son “Young man come and stand next to me”. What a warm hearted, generous man. I will treasure that picture the rest of my days. What an inspiration he was.
Thank you Philip, for writing this timely tribute. I recall Jimmy Carter being President, but living in Australia, US home news, especially in days gone by, was not prolific. I thank God that in these troublesome, end times, we are shown wonderful examples of Christians being true to Jesus. God bless you, especially during your difficult times.
And I pray Jimmy Carter will be called home soon with the quiet dignity he yearns for.
Thank you for the lovely and heartfelt tribute to former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn. They were never corrupted by power and untouched by scandals. He and Rosalyn shined brightly after the presidency, accomplishing much more as simple, ordinary and humble citizens. I truly admire and respected them.
Thank you for this piece on President Carter. He was and is a good man who shows us all how to live out the gospel. I pray he and Rosalyn find peace and rest in the days ahead. They are truly an inspiration to us all.
My family and I feel that your book will set the record straight . . .
Pres. Carter is and was a great President and a wonderful man. (From news reports: He possibly would have had a better chance at retaining the presidency if Iran had not decided to hold the American hostages till after the election…when they had an agreement with Carter to release them while Carter was still President…Some political ploy… ).
We receive news from the Carter Center thru e-mails and are impressed with their fine work ….
God bless,President and Mrs Carter forever !
Thank you Philip for this post. President Carter has always, and will always be among the greatest of US Presidents. In 1980, election night my husband and i went to go vote after work. When we got to the sign in table we noticed that the address they had for us was incorrect. We were young and didn’t keep up on voter registration. A few months earlier we had moved a block, from one rental to another. Nope, had to go get the address changed. We drove to that office. Filled out the change of address. They gave us proof. Drove back to go vote. On the way we listen to President Carter give his concession speech. We drove on, got to the voting site, got in the voting booth, and voted for Jimmy Carter. One of the best decisions we ever made. God has blessed this country with the Carters. May He continue to bless them now.
Just a beautiful inspirational tribute to a true servant of God. Thank you, Phillip, for this incredible piece of writing. President Carter and Rosalynn are leaving a legacy for all of us to emulate. Matthew 25…If you’ve done it for the least of these, you’ve done it for Me.” Too many Christians forget this chapter, but thank God President Carter and Rosalynn didn’t!
Jimmy Carter put feet on the quote
“Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.”
Thank you for this article. My admiration of the Carters has continued to grow throughout the years since his presidency.
You are also my favorite Christian writer and I am praying for your health.
I lead a women’s Bible study in Georgia. Jimmy Carter’s name comes up in discussions as someone who has served with humility throughout a long life. Most of the members of the group are ‘older’ and widowed. They see him as an inspiration. I am sharing your blog with them. Also, Philip, we have been influenced by your books and tireless work to ‘get the Word out.’ Thank you for your vision and reminders of the wonderful, varied ways God touches our lives, even in politics! I pray for a peacemaker to rise again.
I just finished reposting this article to Facebook. It makes me smile that Jimmy Carter named you as his favorite modern writer. When I read that sentence I thought, “Well, of course! That makes all the sense.” Spirit calling to Spirit.
Thank you for this honoring of my favorite modern president.
Mowing the lawn and cleaning the toilets. A recipe for success.
Few people revealed so clearly the disconnect between America’s most cherished values and the Gospel than Carter. Already in his inaugural speech he talked about the need for limits and that more is not always better. He began to lose political ground already then, including among evangelicals. As Carter noted in his autobiography, “Americans were not accustomed to limits.” So when in 1980 R. Reagan came along with his “shining city on a hill” sense of limitless possibilities and Manifest Destiny, evangelicals thought they were hearing the Gospel. But only Carter really allied with the Jesus of the Gospel. Too many Christians missed that.
Thank you for the behind the scenes peak into lives and culture. It’s refreshing to read of a president who didn’t forget how to serve and care for others. I echo an earlier comment, I find myself encouraged and smiling when I read your articles.
Crazy to think that he was the president when I was born! 😅Carter may have been as good a one-term president as any in memory. He won and lost graciously. He took responsibility for failure and didn’t use tragedy as an opportunity to sneer at his critics. He made decisions in ‘80 that maybe were errant and cost him politically, but he owned up to his decisions, and didn’t sulk when he lost the presidency. I pray he can be at peace in his final days and at death.
Thank you for this inspirational article about a president who lived out his convictions and continued to faithfully serve his God throughout his life without looking for recognition from men. You ended your blog with the verse that kept running through my mind as I read your tribute.
Well done, Philip! You’ve written a beautiful testimony to the life and legacy of an exemplary man, a good and faithful servant. None could have written it better. Thank you.
A great tribute to a great man.H
In trying to think about the Servant king in preparation for Holy week this is a wonderful reflection. Would you mind if i shared it in my weekly blog for our church.
I would of course acknowledge and attribute it all to you philip and just like President Carter you are one of my favourite writers. Your memoir is a great gift to the world as are all your writings. thankyou
Of course, you’re welcome to use this!
There is no doubt in my mind that President Carter was elected “for such a time as this”. I was a very young woman when he was elected. I didn’t always agree with what he did from a political point of view, but in the light of eternity, I believe his presidency was used by GOD, greatly. The years after his presidency were truly inspiring. He would not have had the influence he did without serving as President. Thank you, President Carter, for your faithful service, in and out of the Whitehouse. You have given us an example we can aspire to as followers of CHRIST. GOD bless you and Miss Rosalyn. Thank you, Mr. Yancey for honoring him.
Beautiful, insightful, and meaningful.
Jimmy Carter and his wife are true servants of God-Servant Leaders. My husband and I just went to Atlanta for a Hispanic church planting conference. I wanted to visit his library/museum and garden, but it was closed that day. I was able to walk around the garden and think about his humility and contributions. I hope to see them In heaven. My husband and I planted a church in Littleton, CO 35 years ago (Deer Creek Church). We clean the church 2 days a week to help with our finances:) My husband retired as the senior pastor in December, but we are still cleaning!
I heard Jimmy Carter speak at the 2005 Baptist World Congrees in Birmingham, UK. If my memory seves me well, he was the only speaker to take on the Southern Baptists, who had boycotted the event, over their attitude to women in ministry. He was most impressive. A great man!
As always I ended my reading with a smile on my face😉
I’ve been a fan of Jimmy Carter since I read many of his books. You hit the nail on the head in highlighting his faith, integrity, and humility. Thank you for shining a light on a man who decidedly deserves it, but would never ask for it.
Wonderful review of the life of a Kingdom thinker. Thank you.
Dear Philip and Janet
Philip, your books have meant so much to us here in South Africa. My special book of yours is ‘In the likeness of God”.
I am so concerned for you and have added you and Janet to my daily Prayer Shield. God bless you both.
Thank you for writing so eloquently about Jesus Christ who showed Himself in the lives of both the Carter’s. May we all take their example and allow Him to do the same in us.
This was wonderful, brother. Thanks for this and so many other beautiful pieces.
Thank you for taking the time to write this. It was so helpful to me to read and encouraging to my heart about the “long race”, not always discouraged by the “short races”. Thank you. Blessings and Shalom in the truest sense.
I have always admired Jimmy Carter and cannot understand why so many people prefer a divisive leader. Also I have something in common with Jimmy Carter, Philip Yancey is my favourite writer too.
What a rare difference maker in the world for Christ, given politics as his initial platform. We don’t see that too often. His eternal home awaits him.
What a beautiful tribute to a truly great and remarkable man. He used the office he was given not to seek gain for himself but for the forgotten people of this world who only have the means to say Thank you.
…only by the grace of God.
Thank you so much for this. Once again very moving blog about a man of God, misunderstood by many but whose heart was known by his Maker.
Years ago, I suggested to our mutual friend Harold Smith at CT that the magazine should do an extended profile on Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency and be ready for a tribute-like obituary upon his passing. They have not done it, but now you as a longtime CT journalist have! I’m so grateful for these reflections on Carter’s rise, his fall (largely though not exclusively at the hands of ‘evangelical voters’ in 1980) and his rising again. A beautiful piece!
Thank you for this look back– a cup of cold water in thirsty days. Mr. Carter’s mention of being born again was one of many goads to open the Bible and see what all the fuss was about.
Wonderful blog that reminds us of the opportunity to serve and the privilege to lead by example. I’m sure God will greet Jimmy Carter with, “well done you good and faithful servant.”
As a South African, I have always had enormous respect for Jimmy Carter. He was president at the time I became a Christian, finished high school and was at university. We were struggling against apartheid and his stand for human rights meant a lot. Many years later we helped in some house builds for Habitat for Humanity and my respect increased, knowing that this man could have been living a life of ease and wealth, but chose instead to continue serving. I pray that his final days will be peaceful and easy. I know that at the end Jesus will say “welcome my good and faithful servant, who has run the race so well.”
Thank you for this wonderful tribute to President Carter and Rosalynn. What an honor that he was quoted as saying you were his favorite modern writer, sought your advice, and that you and your wife were later able to visit them in Plains. I had the opportunity to attend President Carter’s Sunday school class at Maranatha on June 11, 2017, arriving in the parking lot at 5:15 a.m. to ensure getting a seat in the sanctuary, and being there to hear him teach was such a surreal and powerful experience. I treasure the photo we had made with President Carter and Rosalynn after the service as well as photos I took of the offering plates crafted by the former President. What humility, integrity, and kindness.
When Jimmy Carter came to Brazil exactly 45 years ago (March 29, 1978), he and his wife visited the Cemetery of the Americans, in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, in the interior of São Paulo, where Rosalynn Carter’s uncle is buried. Santa Bárbara and Americana are cities founded by former Confederate soldiers and their families who emigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. American emigration to Brazil was important to consolidate Baptist and Methodist missions to the country.
Excellent. Thank you
Thank you for reminding us of his true legacy. Truly inspiring and noteworthy.
Great article! Well deserved. The only Democratic president I ever voted for.
Mad me cry. Thanks for the tribute to a great man. I fear we will never see another former president like him.
This is a wonderful reflection on an amazing man. I am always richly blessed by Phillip’s gift of viewing the world through God’s lens. The very first presidential election I ever voted in was in 1976, I was just 19 years old, I voted for Mr. Carter. It was the only time I have voted for a Democrat. After reading this piece I am grateful that I was able to see him through the truth of his life, a life lived to honor God. Thank you Mr. Carter (and Mrs. Carter too). Thank you Mr. Yancey for using your gifts to bless so many people. Well done!!
A beautiful reflection on a life well lived!
Thank you for this
Thank You so much for honouring Jimmy Carter and helping to let others know of the way in which he has embodied the Christlikeness of compassion, integrity, service and humility… Oh how I wish ‘evangelicals’ the world over reflected and respected his legacy and not the traits and emphasis that has now become associated in the mind of so many when the label ‘evangelical’ is applied or claimed. Thanks Jimmy, Thanks Philip..