Carter & Mohler

April 23, 2012

Last month, former President Jimmy Carter--who several years ago announced he was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention--sat down for an interview with Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The radio interview is a fascinating discussion about religion, politics, and the Bible. Considering Mohler has (inaccurately) attacked Carter in the past and Carter has criticized Southern Baptist leaders, the pleasant dialogue is particularly refreshing. Early in the program, Carter talked about his childhood and how he became a Sunday School teacher. He offers a particularly good point about his teaching style:

I generally use a uniform lesson series--the ones that are a standard in Baptist and other Protestant churches--and I try to extract my own experiences or from the interests of the day--what's on television or radio or in the New York Times and so forth--and so how does this ancient Scripture, say from Exodus or from Matthew or whatever, apply to what's happening to us that I can use as an illustration.
I have heard the audio of several of Carter's lessons and this is a good description of his teaching style. This is a good teaching style to use since we should--as Karl Barth suggested--read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. When I taught Sunday School on Acts 9 (conversion of Saul/Paul) yesterday, I started by talking about the passing of Chuck Colson the previous day since he was another figure with a dramatic conversion moment (see post here). Later in the interview, Carter espoused his personal theology, which is aligns quite closely with traditional, conservative Christianity. This may surprise some conservative critics of Carter, but would not if they had paid attention to him and his numerous previous remarks on faith and theology. Carter, after all, helped popularize the terms "born again" and "evangelical" (along with Colson) during the 1976 campaign and he garnered the support of many conservative evangelicals that year.

During the interview, Carter also talked about how he tried to balance his faith and his politics while president. Carter stated:
I prayed more and more devoutly and fervently when I was president than I did at any other time in my life because I felt the responsibility of really of a global Holocaust. It was during the time of the Cold War, and I knew that the Soviet Union had 30,000 or so nuclear weapons and so did we, by the way, and I knew that any misstep on my part that might lead President Brezhnev to launch an atomic attack on the United States would be devastating to me and to the United States and to Russia and to the entire world, so I really turned more to the principle that I worshiped the Prince of Peace. ... I refrained from mixing my faith with my official duties as president. Billy Graham, I heard he didn’t like it so I explained it to him. It was just because I believed in the strict separation of church and state. So I say the maintenance of peace, the implementation of justice and the separation of church and state were the things that permeated my thought while I was in the White House.
Carter's efforts to balance his strong religious beliefs and his constitutional beliefs is an issue I deal with in my book on confessional politics. During the interview, Carter noted the only issue where he struggled to reconcile his faith and his politics was abortion, which will surprise people who have not paid close enough attention to Carter to realize that he is pro-life. Carter explained:

I have one problem in my political service with my faith and that is concerning abortion. I have never believed that Jesus Christ would approve abortion and so I had to interpret my duties as president compatible with the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, but with my religious beliefs I did everything I possibly could to minimize a need for abortion by liberalizing adoption services and by starting a program--it's still in existence, by the way--called Women and Infant Children, WIC programs where, because one of the--the key reason for abortions around the world is when a pregnant mother doesn't think she and her baby will be cared for. So I did everything I could to minimize abortions because I don't believe that Jesus would approve of a liberal interpretation of that law.
Overall, the Mohler-Carter discussion is a good dialogue between two men who politically have differed on many points.