Jimmy Carter photo

Interview with Jim Castelli of National Catholic News Service

August 09, 1976

Q. You've indicated recently in a couple of interviews that you thought your so-called religious problem was about over in terms of people being concerned about your religious beliefs. Can you explain why you feel that way?

Governor Carter. Well, in the first place, I believe that the so-called prejudice against me because I am a southerner and because I'm a Baptist was overestimated to begin with. You know, most people in this country, I think, have a remarkable absence of prejudice because of one's own religion.

We have seen this demonstrated very vividly in the South. Georgia, for instance, strongly voted for Al Smith. And in 1960, there was a great deal of prediction that John Kennedy could not carry Georgia, but we gave him a bigger margin of victory in our state than he got even in Massachusetts. And although there were a lot of similar predictions that I couldn't carry states outside the South, I had good—and I think almost remarkable—success there. So that's one reason that the innate prejudice of people against me because of my religion was overestimated to begin with.

The second thing is that because of my success in the primaries, people began to study the beliefs of Southern Baptists and they detected a very strong inclination to separate church and state on my part, as was expressed very clearly by John Kennedy when he met with the Houston Protestant ministers in 1960; and I think as they have known about what our religious beliefs were, their concerns were alleviated. The awareness that President Truman was also a Baptist tends to give people the sense that there's no conflict between our own beliefs and a proper performance as a possible President.

The third thing—and the last point I'd make—is that our public opinion polls have shown since the convention, on a nationwide basis, that I have strong support from all religious groups and that there is no prejudice against me because of my religion.

Q. A lot of concern has been not so much prejudice, as a question of what does Jimmy Carter as a Southern Baptist know about life in the inner city of New York or Boston. So to turn the question around a bit, what have you done in the primaries and recently to educate yourself about these cultural areas that you have not been so familiar with as you would have been in the South?

Governor Carter. To an almost unprecedented degree, I have campaigned throughout the country and have tried to present myself among groups in every part of the nation—not only as a candidate but in a learning process—to answer questions that are put to me in an open forum and to express my views to people who are different in background and experience from myself.

I have also lived all over the country. I've lived in San Francisco; I've lived in San Diego; I've lived in Maryland; and I've lived in Connecticut— twice—as well as in Georgia. So I've had a background of experience among different kinds of people and in different kinds of communities that have stood me in good stead as well.

We've deliberately tried to involve in our campaign knowledgeable people who represent aspects of American life that have not been part of my own experience.

Q. One of your aides said that you just met with Senator Eagleton—he would come in that category. And that you have been attempting to learn about life in St. Louis, for example, from him.

Governor Carter. Yes that was one of the things we discussed. As you probably know there was a referendum in Missouri about support for parochial schools, and this is a matter that I've had to address as the Governor of Georgia. We have a lot of parcohial schools in our own state. The most heavy concentration of them is in the Savannah region and I visited there often—as a matter of fact, all four years that I was governor, I went over and spent all day in the St. Patrick's Day celebrations and always went to Mass early in the morning.

I am familiar with the tremendous contribution that has been made in the educational processes of our country by people, particularly Catholics, who send their kids to private parochial schools because they want to combine religious education with secular education. We have faced this question as a state in Georgia. We passed a constitutional amendment and a law, which was passed during my own term of office, for the first time, allotting financial support to individual students who go to private colleges in Georgia. This was readily acceptable. So this is the kind of issue that I have had to face as a governor and, of course, as a candidate and now as a nominee. Senator Eagleton was very helpful to me in explaining the attitudes of his own people in St. Louis.

Q. One of the concerns is that the Supreme Court has several times backed state aid to students in private colleges but not to students in elementary and secondary schools.

Governor Carter. I know.

Q. And now the Democratic Platform talks about seeking constitutionally acceptable ways to do that. Do you favor that?

Governor Carter. Yes. I would have no objection to that. Obviously, I will have taken an oath before God to honor the laws of my country and I certainly would do it, but the inclination of my own—not just acceptance but active pursuit of aid for students who go to the private colleges—is an indication of my willingness. As long as the public money is not used for religious instruction, then I see no incompatibility there.

Q. You would approve of secular funding for secular subjects—if they were to be divided that way?

Governor Carter. Yes, obviously, if the laws and the interpretation of the Constitution would permit.

Q. Since we're talking about the Supreme Court and the Constitution, one of the concerns of a number of people—Catholics and others—about the abortion plank in the Democratic Platform opposing an amendment to overturn the court's decision is that many people feel that this is an effort to deny them their constitutional right to seek redress with the system, their right to attempt to amend the Constitution.

Governor Carter. Well, the wording of the Democratic Party plank was, I think, inappropriate and was not in accordance with my own desires. I did not know what the wording was. My statement on the abortion issue has been expressed often and, if you have time, I would like to repeat it. I think abortion is wrong and I think that government ought not ever do anything to encourage abortion.

Georgia had a very strict law on abortion prior to the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 which I favored. The Supreme Court struck down the Georgia law, that was a test case, which only permitted abortions when the mother s life was considered to be in danger, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape and the rape had been proven in court. And it only permitted abortions under that circumstance in the first trimester of the pregnancy. That was my preference.

After the Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia law could no longer be effective, then we passed the most strict interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling as the present law in Georgia. I think that the government—and it will under my administration—should do everything possible to minimize abortions under whatever ruling the court might have in effect at that particular time. We need a comprehensive nationwide program for sex education, for better adoptive procedures, for family planning, and this is something that I have pledged myself—ever since becoming a candidate—to pursue.

It would be inappropriate for any citizen to be deprived of a right to seek an amendment to the Constitution, and I think it's inappropriate for the Democratic Party to seek to obstruct a change in the Constitution. And, as you undoubtedly understand, the President himself has no role to play in the constitutional amendment process. If an amendment is proposed in the House or Senate and passed, it goes directly to the state legislatures for ratification. So my own position on abortion is much more conservative than the opinion expressed in the platform.

Q. Would it be fair to say that you're rejecting the platform plank in that sense?

Governor Carter. I just don't agree with the wording of the plank. The insinuation of the plank that opposition to citizen effort or legislative effort to amend the Constitution is inappropriate, is what I object to.

Q. You said just now that you were not involved with that, and you said at the press conference at which you announced Senator Mondale as your running mate, that neither yourself nor your staff—"so far as I know", I think you said------

Governor Carter. Yes.

Q. —were involved with that. One thing I found that both sides on the issue agree with, from the right-to-lifers and the U.S. Catholic Conference to the National Women's Political Caucus, was that Stu Eizenstat and Joe Duffey drafted that language as an attempted compromise between those who wanted silence and those who wanted a stronger pro-abortion position.

Governor Carter. I think Joe Duffy happens to be a Catholic, I'm not sure.

Q. I don't believe so.

Governor Carter. I didn't know that. He's not? Well, I didn't know. I wasn't sure. I was not familiar with that. As you know, if you have read my statements on the issue I never opposed the right of people to seek an amendment to the Constitution.

Q. In terms of minimizing the needs for abortion—two points—there's been some criticism that emphasis about family planning is in some ways a negative approach and that there should be more emphasis on the life support center approach and other strong social programs in support of women with problem pregnancies—would that he a route that you would follow?

Governor Carter. Yes, it is. I would do everything I could through moral persuasion and through my own actions as President, under the laws which I will be sworn to enforce, to minimize a need for abortion.

It's obvious to me that human life should be protected. It's obvious to me also that abortions are evidence of a failure to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and whatever one's own religious beliefs might be, that, I think, would be the case. I don't believe anyone would deliberately have sexual intercourse knowing that it was going to result in an unwanted pregnancy and ultimately, as a last resort, in an abortion. So, whatever I could do as President I would do. I have come out openly in opposition, throughout the campaign, against the use of federal money to finance abortions.

Q. Thai was my next question—dealing with that in Congress—under tvhat circumstances, if any, would you approve of the use of Medicaid funds, for example, for abortion?

Governor Carter. I would not approve of it at all. If the courts rule that it must be done, obviously I would have to comply as President to carry out the laws of our country, but I don't favor the use of federal money for abortions.

Q. And this—you would oppose the payment for abortions in national health insurance or any program of that kind?

Governor Carter. That's correct.

Q. One of the groups concerned about the abortion issue has been the Catholic hierarchy. Have you had any contacts with the hierarchy or any plans for any meetings?

Governor Carter. Yes, I have had contacts with them, both directly and indirectly, and hope to continue those discussions, not only on abortion, but other issues as well. It's part of the campaign effort itself and it's certainly part of the instruction, or the learning process, that is an important prerequisite to being a good President

Q. Can you be specific about any of those contacts?

Governor Carter. Well, I think it would be better for the leaders within the church to reveal these conversations. I don't think it's up to me to do it.

Q. You talked about the Baptist concern for separation of church and state—in general, what's your attitude toward churches' lobbying on issues like abortion, or hunger, or civil rights? And would you as President look to churches to support your policy?

Governor Carter. W$ll, you know the Baptist Church is very vocal in its stand on matters that we think involve a moral question, and I know that the Catholic Church has also been insistent on preserving its right to express its views publicly on matters of importance that involve morality, or that involve questions that are considered to be important to the members of the Church.

This is something that I think is a legitimate part of our electoral process and I would expect to pay very close attention to views expressed by religious denominations in this country.

Q. One of the church-st ate issues in some people's minds is prayer in the public schools. Do you have any position on that?

Governor Carter. Yes. I don't think that any person should be forced to pray at a certain time or pray in a certain fashion in the public schools. I think private prayer ought to be permitted but to require prayer—I don't approve. And I think that court rulings on that subject are proper.

Q. Can you give me one example of a way in which your religious convictions have shaped your political actions, and an example of an instance in which you set aside your own personal religious convictions in following up something?

Governor Carter. Well, even my own religious convictions on the abortion issue are in conflict with the laws that our nation must observe and, as I said, I favored the very strict abortion law that Georgia had originally. But after the Supreme Court ruled, as governor of the state, it was mandatory that I comply with the ruling. That is one instance where my own beliefs were in violation of, rather in conflict with, the laws of our country.

I try to utilize my own religious beliefs as a constant guide in making my decisions as a private or public citizen. We've had court reform to provide better equity in the court; we've initiated complete prison reform to give more compassionate attention to the needs of Georgia people; we've instituted treatment programs for alcoholics and drug addicts, for our mentally retarded children and all those I consider to be compatible with my own religious beliefs—that those who are poor, deprived, despised, unfortunate, illiterate, afflicted, who belong to a group against which there is discrimination, ought to be the prime responsibility of me as a powerful, influential public servant, and as a governor.

I think that if I try to ascribe that completely to religious convictions, that would probably be inappropriate. But my life has been shaped in the church. My deep commitment as a Christian, and my knowledge of the example of the life of Christ, and the observations of my own religious learning of the attitude of Christ toward other human beings has been obviously an example that I followed.

Q. Vice President Rockefeller said that one thing you are going to have to show during the campaign is how you reconcile your talk of love and compassion with your image as a kind of ruthless, hardball politician—

Governor Carter. Well, I don't acknowledge the ruthless or hardball characteristic. I have been victorious in some hard-fought campaigns, and I guess it would have been much more thoughtful had I let my opponents win, but I don't recall any evidence of ruthlessness that's even been claimed by Mr. Rockefeller.

Q. There have been other, more general charges—for example, when people have worn out their usefulness that you dispose of them, or that you've been known to hold a grudge.

Governor Carter. I am not perfect. Like all human beings, I am sinful and I certainly have made mistakes. But I think that if anyone would analyze the permanent status of my staff members, for instance, as contrasted with any other campaigns that I observed this year, we would compare favorably. Most of the people who are now working with me have been with me for a long time. The newcomers to my campaign like Pat Caddell more recently, and Bill VandenHeuval in New York and others, I think, would testify that there is no inclination on my part to discard people once their usefulness has been terminated. If someone did show me an inability of proper performance in an assigned position, or if someone should show me an incapability to serve the public well, or had some discovered moral defect that I thought would destroy the confidence of the people in my campaign or in the government, I would not hesitate to dispose of their services.

Q. Recently, Michael Novak, who's a Catholic columnist-author, criticized the fact that Pat Caddell's polling firm was selling information to the Saudi Arabian government—he saw a conflict of interest in that. He made the point that you see yourself as a moral man, and that people who have a very strong image of themselves as moral people can become convinced that anything they do is moral, that they're almost incapable of doing wrong. Do you see that as a problem?

Governor Carter. You know that completely violates all of the teachings of Christ, to become proud and self-satisfied and to be critical of, or judges of, one's fellow human beings. If there is one thought that permeated the teachings of Christ about man's own weakness and sinfulness, it was self-pride and self-satisfaction, a feeling of superiority and a feeling of strength in the absence of God's guidance.

If I should be guilty of that accusation—and Mike Novak doesn't know anything about me—but if I should be guilty of that accusation, then I would be in that respect sinful in the eyes of God. I think that my own attitude, my own demeanor, my own constant searching for better answers to questions, is a matter of public record, and I didn't read the article. The only article I've read that was critical was by William Safire, former staff member of Nixon. I didn't know that Novak had said the same thing. But I hope I don't have that attitude.

Q. Novak's point was that if that same sort of apparent conflict of interest had appeared in a Nixon aide, the press would have been all over it, and it would have become a major scandal. And that that sort of things happening with a Carter aide seems to be ignored, almost as though there were a double standard involved.

Governor Carter. Well, the fact that Novak wrote about it shows that it hasn't been completely ignored. There have been articles about it in the Washington Post, and I think there have been two articles about it in The New York Times. I know that Safire has written two articles about it. I've talked to Caddell about his other clients. He had his corporate and foreign clients long before he was retained by me to do the political analysis, and I think he has been open and above board about that relationship with Saudi Arabia. Before he took on Saudi Arabia as one of his routine clients, he went and checked with several of the leaders in the Jewish community in this country to see if they saw any evidence of conflict. He's made, or offered to make available, to at least the one critical columnist, William Safire, answers to the kinds of questions that were asked to show that there was no conflict, and I don't detect any conflict myself. I see nothing wrong with a foreign country knowing the attitude of the American people toward that country. I think that it probably would result in an enhancement of peaceful relationship among the nations of the world. And I'm sure that other countries have commissioned pollsters in this nation to get that kind of result I'm sure those pollsters, on occasion, have had political clients, and the conflict is one that I have an inability to detect.

Q. Concerning foreign nations, you have spoken out a number of times in terms of American aid and support for the developing nations. There was a lot of talk; Senator Mansfield said today in effect, "Jimmy Carter is turning to some of the same old faces and may not really be able to give us a new foreign policy" Are you concerned about that? Do you anticipate a strong push toward aiding the developing nations as a new push in foreign policy?

Governor Carter. Well, that would not be the only thing I would want to discuss. The first hope is that I might re-cement the strong and continuing relationships that have in the past existed between ourselves and our natural allies and friends, including the European nations, Japan and nations in this hemisphere.

Secondly, that we might continue to pursue a better understanding with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. And as a corollary to those, we might have a more individualized relationship with mutual respect. I'm searching for common interests with individual developing nations of the world.

In the past, almost by default, we have permitted—even encouraged— those nations to turn to the Soviet Union, for instance, or to Cuba, for their friendship simply because we have not paid adequate attention to their needs. So the cumulative change in foreign policy would be encompassed in those three principles. I have made speeches on that subject—I'm going to make two or three additional speeches between now and the general election. One would be on world food supplies and how they might be maintained and distributed in a more equitable way. Another one would be the relationships which ought to exist between ourselves and our potential enemies in the Soviet Union and China. The third speech that I've already begun to prepare is to spell in more definitive terms our relationships with the nations in the southern hemisphere who would be primarily the developing nations. But no other candidate, so far as I know, has made comprehensive speeches on foreign affairs.

I've already completed four of them: one general in nature; one on nuclear weapons, nuclear power, the testing of nuclear peaceful devices, the control of atomic wastes; one on the Middle East; and one on the relationships with the Allies and friends in Europe and in Japan. I think this series of seven or eight, or perhaps more speeches on foreign affairs collectively will express my views very clearly.

Q. One last question. There's a poster, which you may or may not have seen—a likeness of yourself, a sort of "Jimmy Carter as Jesus", And the slogan at the bottom says, "J, C, Can Save America", How do you react to something like that?

Governor Carter. With abhorrence. I was embarrassed. The first time I saw the thing was a photograph in either Time or Newsweek magazine. I deplore it very much. I think it borders on the sacrilegious.

Jimmy Carter, Interview with Jim Castelli of National Catholic News Service Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347635