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If you know anything about Jimmy Carter, this may be it: He never lost touch with his home in Plains, Georgia, and he never gravitated away from teaching his Baptist faith.
Until just recently, the former US president and Nobel Peace Prize winner could be found teaching Sunday school in Georgia.
What might be even more remarkable is that he maintained that grounding even when he was leading the free world, frequently popping up 16th Street to teach a couples’ Bible class in the balcony of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC. Carter intertwined a first-person, real-time account of world events with his thoughts on the scripture.
A week after celebrating the historic high point of his presidency – the 1978 Camp David Accords, which created a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt – Carter was telling his students, members of the First Baptist Church, about praying with then-prime minister of Israel Menachem Begin and then-president of Egypt Anwar Sadat.
“I think some of the most unpleasant moments of my life occurred during the last two weeks,” he told the class. “And of course, also some of the most pleasant.”
The photos of the three world leaders during their two-week negotiations at Camp David and signing of the agreement at the White House have followed Carter into the history books. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and Begin died in 1992, but the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is still in effect.
In today’s tightly controlled media environment, when the fences around the White House keep getting higher and the barricades farther away, it’s incredible to think that any parishioner could stand in the balcony of a church and interact with the US president.
He attended the church regularly, and his daughter Amy was baptized there – things I learned after hearing from Christi Harlan, a former reporter who has been a member since the ’90s. She showed me the plaque on the second-row pew where Carter would sit with his family, in view of a stained-glass window of George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist who, like Carter, was a peanut farmer.
Harlan also gave me CD copies of taped recordings of the couples Bible class that Carter sometimes led when he was president and which have been sitting in the church’s archive ever since.
This being a Bible class and the subject being peace in the Middle East, Carter talked about the importance of faith to the negotiations that brought a lasting truce between Israel and Egypt.
“I was meeting with two leaders who are deeply devout and religious men who spent a great portion of their time at Camp David in prayer,” said Carter, adding that they all agreed they “worship the same God.”
Sadat, Carter said, accepted that he and Begin were both descended from Abraham and were therefore brothers of a sort.
“That was one of the things that I believe gave us kind of a clear, unshakable purpose, because we all believe that God wanted us to work toward peace,” Carter said. “It was one of the few things on which we agreed, at first.”
While the fly-on-the-wall reports from Camp David are fascinating, these were primarily Bible classes. You get the sense that teaching was a sort of escape for Carter, who goes deep into the scripture. The week after the Camp David Accords, he focused on St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, when the apostle was imprisoned and facing death but still eager to advance the gospel.
In other Bible class lessons, there are often moments where the weight of Carter’s words were influenced by his day job – such as when he brought along Georgi Vins, a Baptist pastor from the Soviet Union who had recently been exiled from Siberia.
Despite the gesture, Carter insisted the class should not be about world affairs.
“I would particularly want you this morning not to think about the time of Ahab, not to think about even the Soviet Union – but to think about the United States, the Washington, DC, community, and preferably, my life and your life and our actions in the eyes of God,” Carter told the class.
His discussion about the murder of Naboth ultimately turned into a dissection of man’s law versus God’s law.
Citing the Vietnam War, Carter told the students that the US government, which he led at the time, must be accountable:
“American citizens have not only a right but a duty to constantly inquire into the righteousness of our nation’s actions. And that is not treason. And that is not in violation of God’s law.”
Most recent presidents have complained about the cloistered life in the White House and sought refuge in a private space.
Donald Trump invited world leaders to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida. George W. Bush went down to his remote ranch in Crawford, Texas, to clear brush.
Carter, on the other hand, joined the First Baptist Church.
When he prayed in those years, he tried to distance himself from the presidency, Carter told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 1996, noting that he intentionally joined a church outside the White House and went there almost as a physical separation of church and state.
“I worshipped as I would if I had not have been in public life at all,” Carter said.
But praying as president is different, he added – more frequent and “maybe on average, more heartfelt than any other time in my life, because I felt that the decisions I made were affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.”
The Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer told me that the distance presidents feel from the people they lead can be difficult.
“The challenge is that they become further and further removed from the people who elected them – seeing the country through the prism of advisors, reporters, and colleagues,” he said in an email.
But Carter’s insistence on staying grounded in a community was a key part of his appeal at a time when Americans’ faith in their government was shaken.
“Carter – in the aftermath of Watergate – was determined to lower the barriers between himself and the electorate,” Zelizer said.
In the “Fresh Air” interview, Carter talked more directly about his prayers as president. He wanted to keep the nation at peace and help spread peace to other nations, and end the Iran hostage crisis that lasted for more than a year – things that did eventually happen.
“I never prayed for popularity. I never prayed to be reelected, things of that kind,” he said.
“I think God always answers our prayers,” he told Gross. “Quite often God’s answer is no. We don’t get what we ask for.”