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Happy 90th

Happy 90th
I entered this world just in time to experience the last eight days of Jimmy Carter's presidency. I don't remember anything from it, but I'm pretty sure I had life pretty good back. People took care of my every need and everyone talked about my cuteness (of course). Over the years, however, I have grown to admire Carter. As a political junkie, I have had the thrill of meeting Carter on three occasions, and hearing him speak a couple of other times.

The first time I met Carter, he suddenly appeared through a door behind me at the Carter Center in Atlanta. As a co-chair of the Communications Committee for the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, I arrived in Atlanta for planning meetings. We met with Carter, the convener of the historic and impressive gathering. My first thought, after being surprised by his sudden presence, was how much shorter he stood than I expected. I managed to recover enough to shake hands and offer greetings. 

I met Carter again at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant the next year, and again at the Clarence Jordan Symposium a few years later. Both times he offered insightful remarks, as he also did during the Baptist Border Crossing (a regional New Baptist Covenant gathering) and remarks at James Madison University. His vision for peace and reconciliation makes him a much-needed religious and political voice. 

I am glad I had the opportunity at both the New Baptist Covenant and the Clarence Jordan Symposium to thank him for his tireless work. He has received much more substantial accolades (like something from Oslo), but I still think it's important to encourage those with courage to speak truth in an age of deception. 

Carter is clearly the U.S.'s greatest ex-president, something most Republicans even admit. However, he was also a better president than most people give him credit. He was at times a poor politician, unable to manage his own party (who often fought him as much as the Republicans) and unable to recognize what he needed to do to win reelection. However, his vision for who America should be trumps that of any other modern president. 

I recently read a new biography about Carter by Randall Balmer, a brilliant historian. Balmer's book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, is not only the best book I've read on Carter but also one of the best on religion and politics. In this important exploration of the rise, fall, and rise of Carter, Balmer offers a nuanced look at religion, politics, and race. He provides an honest look, noting Carter's flaws and mistakes. But, I can't imagine how anyone could walk away from the book without thinking more highly of Carter (even if one disagrees with some of his positions and decisions).

Balmer develops a couple of key narratives. First, he documents how Carter's fall came as religious and political leaders exploited issues of race. Sadly, the effort to divide Americans on racial lines worked, and the first president from the Deep South since before the Civil War found himself packing after one term. Although it's disturbing enough to see political leaders use racist rhetoric to gain office, it's particularly angering to see Christian leaders do the same. There are some white conservative Christians who would likely prefer their campaign efforts from the late 1970s and early 1980s not be so exposed.

Second, Balmer details Carter's unique moral vision for the U.S., which unfortunately hasn't been continued by those who followed Carter into the Oval Office. From building Middle East peace to working to reduce nukes to respecting the sovereignty of Latin American nations (especially seen with the transfer of the Panama Canal) to addressing environmental concerns to pursuing diplomacy over war (especially seen in the Iran hostage negotiations) to pushing human rights as a guiding principle, Carter sought to make our nation better. Fortunately, Carter didn't give up after losing reelection and has still advanced these goals through the Carter Center.

Today is Carter's 90th birthday. Two years ago, I joined the crowd at the Clarence Jordan Symposium in singing "happy birthday" to Carter. Today, I wish to again offer him a hearty "happy birthday!" Hopefully he'll be around for more years to keep pushing the work of redemption.

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