When former President Jimmy Carter celebrated his 96th birthday on Oct. 1, I paused to think about the life of this extraordinary man from Plains, Georgia. Plains had a tiny population of 600 people when Carter was born in 1924, and although his family ran a successful peanut farm, it's not likely that most folks from this rural area thought a future president was in their midst. Carter is now Plains' most famous resident, and his birthday was honored with a hometown parade. He and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, sat outside of their house, masked up, and waved to well-wishers expressing their love and admiration. Carter looked as jubilant as ever, truly grateful for nearly a century of life.
Carter has been blessed with much time to reflect on his presidential successes and failures in addition to his service as a humanitarian after he left politics. Many historians view Carter's one term in the White House as mostly a failure due to his approach to foreign policy. The Iranian crisis is usually at the forefront of this criticism, although Carter does receive credit for his negotiation of the Camp David Accords and improving our relations with China.
Another fierce critique of Carter is how he managed the economy. As a kid in the '80s, I recall unemployment being a lead news story when Carter was running for reelection. The economy wasn't great at this time, with high inflation rates and the unemployment rate hovering around 7% during Carter's last year in office. Yet, the national debt never topped $1 trillion during his tenure. The struggles of the economy under Carter resulted in a low final approval rating of 34%, but Carter's policies and decision making were never driven by public opinion.
Carter discussed how he sought the wisdom of God in governance in a joint Sunday School lesson he taught last summer at Maranatha Baptist Church with Andrew Young, his former United Nations ambassador. The scripture text for this lesson came from Proverbs 16:1-9, with an emphasis on verse 9, which says, "A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps." Young talked about how he and Carter always tried to do what was "morally right for the country," which led them to spiritual resolutions. "Between the two of us it always ended up spiritual," Young explained. "That means it wasn't political. Nobody in good politics would do some of the things that he did or told me to do if you were trying to get elected or reelected." Young then shared that one of the first things Carter asked him to do in his role as U.N. ambassador was to take a trip to Africa and ask leaders what they needed and expected from America and how the administration could assist them. The same approach was taken with European leaders. "It was not what the Democrats wanted to do or what the Republicans wanted to do," Young emphasized, "but what would God have us do as children of His and members of His kingdom."
Carter followed Young's presentation and asked the class how they would envision God's kingdom as interpreted by Jesus. Comprised of people from the South, Midwest and the visiting nations of Iran, China, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, the answers included love, sacrifice, forgiveness, mercy, empathy, fellowship and gratitude. Carter added peace and then said with a gracious smile, "Wouldn't it be nice if our country was the champion of all nations in promoting peace, so that all over the world people would say, if they had a war going on, or a threat, conflict, 'Why don't we go to Washington, because they know how to keep the peace'?" The room exploded into laughter at this comment, and Carter chucked as he intentionally avoided political posturing.
Reflecting on this lesson now, I am reminded of how Carter's moral stance always placed him at odds with Congress and even within his own party during his presidency. He was not liberal enough for many Democrats, but he never set his agenda around pleasing them. Carter had a godly vision for our country. He doesn't receive historical accolades for this, but at 96, this is the greatest part of his legacy.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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