Jimmy Carter photo

Interview with Leaders of "National Religious Broadcasters" and "World Religious News"

October 09, 1976

Q. Mr. Carter, Christians believe that a personal commitment to Jesus Christ has to be an integral part of their faith. In the light of that, can you tell us what Jesus Christ means to you, and to what extent you have dedicated your life to Him?

Governor Carter. The most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ. I was baptized and became a Christian when I was 11 yean old and have always been active in the church. I taught Sunday School when I was a midshipman at Annapolis at the age of 17 or 18 yean old, and conducted religious services on a submarine. When I retired from the Navy and went back home in 1953,1 taught Sunday School, became a deacon in the church, later became the Georgia Brotherhood Commissioner in our own association and have been an active witness.

I had my deepest and most personal turning to Christ about 10 years ago. 1966 or 1967, when I realized that in spite of the achievement within my church circle, as chairman of the board of deacons, superintendent of the Sunday School, and so forth, that there was an absence of a deep, constant personal relationship with Christ I went to some other states to witness among those who had no church affiliation. During the trips, I felt very personally present to the Holy Spirit and began to be able to testify for the first time with complete sincerity about what Christ meant to me. I found it easy to pray without a special extra effort; it became part erf my consciousness, and I felt a sense of peace and security that I had never felt before. I felt that Christ was a constant part of my daily life and recognized much more clearly my own failures, fallibilities, and sinfulness. I didn't feel embarrassed when I prayed about them. I was able to face them with a lot more relaxed and perhaps more courageous way without reticence. I felt that when I asked God for forgiveness that it was there. So, the personal relationship with my Savior really began to evolve in a forceful manner about 10 years ago, although I've been a Christian and baptized believer since I was 11 years old.

The intimacy with which I have accepted Christ in my own heart and the realization of the presence of the Holy Spirit, of my own need and how my need can be filled by Christ, the fact that I'm not better than other people but just have received the special blessing of God because He loves me through Jesus Christ; those personal realizations came much more forcefully to me later on in my life

Q. Many Presidents have testified that Bible reading and prayer have been essential to them in times of crises. Do you find this to be true in your experience?

Governor Carter. Yes, I pray many times during the day: when I'm approaching a new encounter with people or when someone asks me for a special thought or consideration, or when I hear about someone who is afflicted or-who is troubled, or when I've made a mistake and I want to avoid that mistake again, or when I'm faced with a responsibility that might affect others' lives. I pray as a routine thing many times during the day.

For a long time, I've had a habit of reading a chapter in the Bible every day. For a number of months I've read a chapter every night in Spanish just to review my Spanish language. I started at the beginning of this year with the first chapter of Matthew, and I've read it all the way through Revelations and back to the first chapter of Matthew again. I just finished last night the last chapter in the book of John, and I'll be starting in the first chapter of Acts tonight.

What I often do is to read the next chapter in English and this chapter in Spanish. It helps me refresh my mind about Spanish. I learned my Spanish originally in the Navy. It was a slightly different vocabulary than the one I use in my evening Bible readings.

It's been a help to me and became a part of my life. It's a very good way in the hectic world of politics to close the evening with a quiet prayer and reading the Bible.

I haven't missed a day this year. It's something to which I look forward during the day and my wife, by the way, does the same thing. I think she still reads the Bible in English. When we're together, we both read the Bible at the same time. This is something that is very important to me. It's a stabilizing effect on my life and it gives me a sense of having completed a day in a good way. When it occurs in a distant hotel room, or in a friend's house in California, or Maine, or sometimes in Hawaii, or last year in Japan, wherever I am, this experience is meaningful to close each day.

Q. How does your Christian commitment affect political decisions you have made and will make in the future?

Governor Carter. As a Baptist I believe very strongly in the principle of separation of church and state. As you know, the origin of our church in this country was associated with the founding of the State of Rhode Island. I think among the first 13 colonies, 11 of them had state churches. Roger Williams and others thought the church and the state ought to be separated. I believe very deeply in that.

As far as my decisions as a political leader, they are affected very heavily by my Christian beliefs. I spent more time on my knees as governor of Georgia than I had spent all the rest of my life put together because I felt the responsibility of many other people's lives. I cling to the principles of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Honesty, integrity, compassion, love, hope, charity, humility are integral parts of any person's life, no matter what his position in life may be. But when someone is elected and trusted by others to help determine one's own life quality, it puts an additional responsibility on the pastor or the schoolteacher or someone who has a public life. So, the Christian or the religious commitment is one that's especially useful tome.

I never had to tackle any conflict between my beliefs learned in church and reading the Bible compared to what I learned in the governor's office or in the laws of the state or country. This is, I think, compatible with the teachings of the Bible. Not too long ago, I taught a Sunday school lesson about how Paul and Peter reacted to the laws or government of that day. Their admonition was to obey the law and to obey the chosen rulers.

If there was a violation of God's laws by the civil law, to obey God's law is to be willing to accept the punishment administered by the civil law and to try to work to make sure the civil law was compatible with God's law.

Q. In the past, much has been discussed concerning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In the event you become the President of the United States, what proposals or plans would you have concerning this particular area?

Governor Carter. I don't favor the state, through the public schools, requiring a certain kind of prayer or worship. I believe that ought to be a decision made by the individual student. There ought not to be any prohibition against any self-initiated worship. But the requirement of conformity of worship is something that is contrary to my own beliefs.

Q. You have already stated your opposition to abortion on demand. What action do you propose to take to reduce the number of such abortions, especially those performed at governmental expense?

Governor Carter. Abortion in my opinion is wrong. I don't think the government ought to do anything to encourage it. We need a comprehensive, nationwide program to minimize the need for abortions, with sex education, family planning, better adoptive procedures, and an enhancement of moral standards. Abortion is patent evidence of a failure to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. It ought not to be used as a crutch to correct improper, unwarranted sex experiences.

I don't think the government ought to pay for abortions. This is a belief that I've had for a long time. Georgia happened to have had the law that was stricken down by the Supreme Court in a test case early in 1973 known as Doyle vs. Bolton, Bolton was Georgia's Attorney General. We had a very strict law against abortion in Georgia then. When that law was stricken down by the Supreme Court, we passed the most conservative law on abortion that the law would permit.

I don't favor the passage of a constitutional amendment on the abortion issue. To give states a local option right in abortion would mean that some states would have extremely liberal abortion laws. This would slowly tear down the moral standard against violating God's law and man's law. It would just mean that rich women would fly from one state to another and have abortions in an unrestrained way and the poor working woman would not be treated the same. I'll do everything I can as President under the Supreme Court ruling, whatever it might be, to minimize the need for abortions.

Q. You have already spoken of the subject of immorality in other interviews, What do you feel a Christian President can do to maintain high moral standards?

Governor Carter. I think the Biblical moral standards are compatible with the laws of our country. In most instances in a nation like ours, the original concepts of the law have been derived from our ancestors and they are compatible with the Ten Commandments and the interpretation of the Ten Commandments as expressed by Christ. This is something that a President can do, by a rigid insistence on adherence to the law and by one's own personal example. I think to the extent that a President or anyone else claims to be perfect and asks other people to emulate one's own holiness that's possibly counterproductive. I know that Christ teaches and the Bible teaches throughout that all of us are sinful, that we come short of the glory of God, that the wages of sin are death, that God loves us, that He sent His Son to be our Savior, if we believe in Christ we can have eternal life. Christ in many ways admonishes us against self-pride, against the condemnation of others, when we have within ourselves sinfulness as well. This is the kind of attitude that I would try to adopt as President.

Along with the belief in Christ comes an obligation to abide by God's laws, recognizing that we can't be perfect, but we ought to strive for perfection. One of the things that Paul Tillich says is that religion is a search for the truth and the relationship between God and man and man and fellow man. When we lose the inclination to search for a closer relationship with God, or better relationship with our fellow human beings, we lose a major portion of our religious commitment. That constant searching to be better as a nation, as a human being, as a political leader is part of my hope for the future.

Q. Many Christians are more interested in freedom to operate their religious and non-public schools without influence by and interference from governmental agencies than they are in subsidies. Are you concerned to safeguard this freedom?

Governor Carter. Yes; I am. Again, many denominations, certainly the Baptists, have always felt that we didn't want the government interfering in our religious worship or teaching in religious schools. Where colleges, for instance, do accept government financial aid for the secular courses then there must be a fairly sharp distinction between religious instruction and the teaching of mathematics, or physics, or medicine. That is a judgment for each individual institution to make.

When I was Governor of Georgia, I was active in initiating a scholarship program wherein we allotted to each student in the State of Georgia who went to college, $400 a year. That allocation of funds went to the college where the student attended, whether it was public or private. This helped greatly to strengthen the financial status of the church-affiliated colleges. I don't think there's any evidence at all that it ever was used as a mechanism to interfere in the autonomy or the independence of the colleges. This was a constitutional amendment that was cast in the State of Georgia.

I would certainly insist on no interference in the teaching of religious subjects in religious colleges. The college itself ought to be the one to judge how much federal money to take. When funds are made available to students for scholarships and loans or to help the financial structure of the college through research grants that should be done with a minimum of interference in the college itself.

Q. If any alleged abuses by the FBI and the CIA are proven true what do you think should be done?

Governor Carter. We've had a terrible experience in this country in recent years with two Attorneys General convicted of serious crimes, felonies, and with allegations made against the CIA that they had indeed violated the laws of our country and interfered with the human privacy of American citizens which is contrary to the law. Directors of the FBI had been guilty of various improprieties, in some instances even crime had also been alleged. This is I think the particular responsibility of the President. I remember the sign that Harry Truman had on his desk, "The buck stops here." I intend to put that sign back on the desk if I am elected President.

Somewhere in this country there ought to be a person responsible for the proper administration of government. Now you can't tell who's responsible for what. I would guarantee to the American people first of all that my appointees to those positions of major responsibility were instructed to abide by the law rigidly. I would remove political interference from the administration of justice, of the tax laws, of our intelligence agencies and others, to make sure that they could perform in a professional way. If any of the top officials did violate the law, they would be brought to justice just like the average American citizen. We've had too much of a double standard in the application of justice. This is contrary to the laws of God and man: to have a poor person who commits a crime convicted and go to jail, to have a rich person who commits an even more serious crime go scot free. I'll make sure that doesn't happen when I'm President.

Q. Mr. Carter, do you think that world communism is a threat to freedom in this world today?

Governor Carter. Yes. There's no doubt about it In the Soviet Union for instance, we have about 5 million Baptists. I think it's the laigest single denomination. I've heard of many instances where those citizens have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs. I know that the Jews who want to leave Russia have been restrained from doing so. Their families have been divided and not allowed to be reconciled or brought together again in Eastern Europe. Many countries like Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Germany have been deprived of religious freedom both in the Catholic church hierachy and in the worship lives of the private citizens who are not so well known.

We've seen other countries, and our own for the last few years, affiliate itself with dictatorships contrary to the principles of democracy. We've seen foreign aid channeled to nations whose own system of government was completely contrary to our own. We're forgotten in many instances our own commitment to human rights, to freedom, equality of opportunity, liberty.

Our nation, in relationship with other countries, ought to be adhering on the international scene to the same kind of commitments of morality and justice and freedom as we espouse in our own Constitution. To the extent that we depart from those commitments on an international basis it hurts us here at home and vice versa. Religious freedom is obviously one of the most important aspects that we should try to protect.

I don't mean to say that I would go to war to overthrow a government different from ours, but whenever we have a voice to be expressed in international discussions or councils, when the President makes a visit or when the President makes a public statement that ought to be an integral part of his responsibility.

One specific example has occurred recently in the boycotts against American businesses who trade with Israel, or who happen to have American Jews as owners or directors of those companies. To me this blackmail of American businesses is contrary to the basic commitments of our own Bill of Rights. For the President to condone that kind of pressure on American citizens is one illustration of the kind of thing I would stop.

Q. Does the current state of crime and punishment in this nation call for any reform in the American judicial system? And if so, what would you recommend?

Governor Carter. Yes; it does. In the first place appointments of Supreme Court justices, of district judges, district attorneys and others ought to be strictly on the basis of merit and not as a result of a cheap political payoff for past support in a Presidential election. The same thing, by the way, ought to apply to diplomatic officials representing us in countries overseas.

Secondly, we need to reform our judicial system to expedite trials. We need to have better administrative officers. We also must have a means by which the guilty can be given a quick hearing and a sure (and I would even say a briefer) sentence. I think the certainty of punishment is a much more effective deterrent to crime than is an uncertain threat of much longer incarceration. We need to improve the quality of rehabilitation efforts in our prisons. We need to use a lot of voluntary assistance among churchgoers, pastors, and others in caring for those who are on probation or parole; So that a person who has violated the law who might very well be poor or destitute, or from a broken family, can feel, 'Tve got at least one strong, staunch friend in my life that can help me over a difficult position, try to get me a job, work with me, visit my family, and let me feel that I'm part of society and that I have a right to be here and a worthy place to spend my life."

Another thing that would be very important is for all of us in our society to back our police officers. Those who suffer most from crimes are the poor. Most crimes are committed in poor neighborhoods. A lot of effort is made by police officers to penetrate the consciousness of people whom they try to protect But when a TV announcer or a mayor, or a governor, or a President makes any comment that might tear down the respect of those citizens who are being protected for the police officers who are endangering their lives to protect them, it really hurts our system of justice in this country.

We ought to have adequate educational opportunities, and emphasis on better housing and a more effective welfare system that encourages work instead of dependence on people who are able to work. We also need to have a realization that the extremely high unemployment rate (maybe 40 percent of our young black people for example) is a major contributor to crime. It's not an excuse for crime, but it's a cause for crime. There needs to be much more heavy responsibility placed on the citizens within a ghetto area to help police keep down crime. This can be a great help to us.

The last thing I'll mention very briefly. Public officials, the President, die Vice President, Members of Congress, Attorneys General, federal judges, the head of the CIA, the head of the FBI and otherwise, ought to set a standard that is absolutely exemplary. We ought to be like Caesar's wife. We ought to be free of any criticism or allegation. We ought to be open about mistakes that we make, not try to hide from the public what is done. It's erroneous. In that way, mistakes can be more quickly corrected. But the distinctions in the system of justice have been embarrassing to us. We've seen very serious crimes forgiven or ignored. We've seen white collar crimes almost accepted as a normal part of our societal life.

The President has condoned corporate bribery of officials overseas and has said you can go ahead and bribe. But when you do, you have to make a secret report to the Secretary of Commerce who then won't reveal the fact that you've committed bribery. This is the kind of thing that tears down respect for law. All these factors that I've just described would be helpful in giving us a much more sure sense that we have simple justice prevailing in our nation.

Q. Some political observers feel that for the first time in over a decade religion has become an issue in a Presidential campaign. Some of your critics say you should have kept strictly on the political issues. Would you do the same thing all over again, speak the same way you have spoken?

Governor Carter. I think so. From the very beginning of my campaign, particularly in the southern states, an almost inevitable question when the audience had access to me was: What is your religious faith? I always answered the questions very frankly. There was only a moment's hesitation a couple of years ago, and I finally decided I'd just tell the truth.

Later, there was an article written in New York magazine by Richard Reeves who pointed out that the country was looking for some spiritual commitment and that one of the reasons that I had been successful in my early primary campaigns was because some people looked on me as a realization of their spiritual hopes. I never claimed that myself, but Reeves wrote the article. It became a very interesting effort then on the part of every political writer to assess my political beliefs. After I started going back home with a large entourage of newspeople, I still taught my Sunday school lesson, I still went to church, and they began to see that it was such a very important part of my life that this perhaps increased their attention to it.

I've been criticized for giving an interview to Playboy magazine. I think that it was the proper thing to do. I know that many other people have been interviewed by this magazine which has a readership different from the ones who read the church bulletins. Albert Schweitzer, Arnold Toynbee, Walter Cronkite, William Buckley, Governor Jerry Brown, and many other people have been interviewed by Playboy. I don't want to make excuses for myself, but I do feel that it might even be part of Christ's commission. He said, "Go throughout the world and witness." There are many people who read Playboy magazine who may not ever go to church and may not know what Christians believe. I think that I would be much more stringent in assessing the language that was used, but anyone who reads the whole interview wouldn't be offended by it.

I think it was an opportunity to witness. I have a free and open relationship with the press of all kinds as part of my political nature and attitude. The agreement with Playboy was that they were to submit the text to me for approval. It was quite an extensive interview. Toward the end of the interview (actually when the interview was over, and the reporter was standing at the front door) he said, "How can you go into the White House as a Christian without condemning all those who have a different religious belief from you? Do you consider yourself to be perfect? How can you forgive or work with or understand those who are not perfect?" I pointed out to him that I don't consider myself perfect. I described to him some of the teachings of Christ, particularly using the Sennon on the Mount and the admonitions that we ought not to consider ourselves above reproach. We are sinful. We have standards that even exceed the Old Testament interpretation of the Ten Commandments. That was the way that particular part of the interview originated.

Q. Mr. Carter, when your life is over, for what do you want to be remembered?

Governor Carter. I would like to have my frequent prayer answered that God let my life be meaningful in the enhancement of His Kingdom and that my life might be meaningful in the enhancement of the lives of my fellow human beings. That I might help translate the natural love that exists in this world and do simple justice through government. I believe that the almost accidental choice of politics as part of my life's career will have been a very gratifying part of realizing that prayer. I've never asked God to let me win an election or to let me have success in politics. I've just said "Lord, let my actions be meaningful to you and let my life that you've given me not be wasted. Let it be of benefit to your Kingdom and to my fellow human beings." If I had that prayer answered, I think I would be very gratified.

NOTE: Conducting the recorded question session were Rev. Jimmy Waters, pastor of Mabel White Baptist Church of Macon, Ga., chaplain of the Georgia State Police, and a member of the National Religious Broadcasters Board; Dr. Ben Armstrong, a United Presbyterian clergyman and executive secretary of NRB; Brandt Gustavson, vice president of Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, III., head of the Moody Radio Network and Moody Monthly, a Protestant publication, and vice president of NRB; and Ken Gaydos, of the World Religious News staff. Released for national distribution October 14, 1976.

Jimmy Carter, Interview with Leaders of "National Religious Broadcasters" and "World Religious News" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347566