The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

By David L. Holmes | Go to book overview

James Earl Carter Jr.
1924– PRESIDENT FROM 1977 TO 1981

When James Earl (“Jimmy”) Carter was elected president, a largely secular press corps spent substantial time pondering the meaning of such terms as “evangelical” and “Southern Baptist.” At one of his early press conferences, Carter declared that if reporters wanted to know what a Baptist believed, they needed only to read the New Testament. Being a Southern Baptist was a major part of the thirty-eighth president’s identity—so much so that the Secret Service referred to him as “the Deacon” in their communications. But Jimmy Carter was a different kind of Christian and a different kind of Southern Baptist. To a certain extent, the combination made him both a different kind of president and a different kind of former president.

Unlike most of his predecessors in the presidency, Carter did not adhere to a standard, middle-of-the-road form of Protestantism. Instead, he was a Protestant of the evangelical school. Evangelical Christians view the Bible as the supreme authority for faith and conduct, emphasize a born-again conversion experience (and not simply baptism) as the entrance to Christianity, and believe that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not only possible for humans but also essential to their salvation.

For Carter, religion was public. Newspaper readers and television watchers knew that he attended church regularly. The American public also knew, and generally viewed as remarkable, that he taught Sunday school both in Plains and when he could in Washington. Carter spoke frankly, frequently, and with little urging about his personal faith.

Born in 1924, Jimmy—the name he preferred and that he insisted appear on ballots—was the oldest of four children of Earl and Lillian Carter. His father, a prosperous peanut farmer and shrewd businessman, owned a peanutshelling business, a large warehouse for farmers, and hundreds of acres of farmland. The Carter farm is actually in Archery, a tiny town two miles from

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