Jimmy Carter photo

Interview with Ralph Blodgett, Assistant Editor of "These Times" for "Liberty" Magazine

September 01, 1976

Q. Sir, you have been reported, at least in Time, May 31, as feeling that the central issue in this year's election is not merely economics, or jobs, or détente, or politics, but the feeling that this country has lost its moral and spiritual underpinnings, its sense of purpose and direction. Would you care to amplify on that?

Governor Carter. Yes, I think the government has. The American people still have a deep hunger to see, as I said in my speech back there, to see the precious things restored that are very important to them. They want three basic things. One is that they want a government that is able and competent to deliver the services that they need. Second, they want a government that is sensitive to what the people's desires are, that understands people. Third, they want a government that is honest. And the modem societal structure is much more loose than when I was a child. When I was a child, the family unit was always there. If I got in trouble or had a difficult question, my mother and father were always there. Nowadays that's not the case, and every person needs something that doesn't change. Obviously a deep religious faith serves that need. But, in addition to that, in a secular world there ought to be a government whose ethics, morals, whose standards of excellence, whose standard of greatness are a source of inspiration and also reassurance. In the aftermath of Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Watergate, and CIA revelations, our people feel that that stability that has always been in our lives—a deep sense that my government is great— my government's pure—my government's decent—my government's honest—that assurance has been lost.

Q. This seems to have appeal to the man on the street, we used to call him the grassroots man who is really unsatisfied with the morality of the past administration. In fact, there was a survey taken by Time magazine about the religious concept where they said 50 percent of the people don't feel one way or the other about it but that 32 percent said that this is a real asset to your campaign and only 8 percent thought it was a detriment or worried about it. How do you feel about this 32 percent—as an asset?

Governor Carter. Well, I would feel better just to know that a person had deep spiritual convictions regardless of his particular faith. I know the reassurance I get from my own religion, and it helps me to take a more objective viewpoint and a calmer approach to crises. I have a great deal of peace with myself and with other people because of my religious convictions. I think that sort of personal attitude—environment—within which I live helps me to do a better job in dealing with the transient and quite often controversial decisions that have to be made in political life, or in business life, or in a family life. I think that has been an asset in some areas. There have been some parts of the country where my widely published deeply religious convictions were not a political help, but they have been few.

Q. You alluded to the Bible now and then. Christ made a statement one time, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." How would you as President relate this to your personal religious conviction and to politics and, shall we say, maybe to the laws of the land? How would you tie these two together?

Governor Carter. Well, as a Baptist, one of the tenets of our faith is the complete separation of church and state. I'm not a newcomer to politics. I've been a Christian. I've been on the school board during the tough integration years; I've been a state senator two terms; I've been a governor 4 years. I've never seen any incompatibility between those two parts of my life. I've never let my religious convictions orient my decisions on a political matter and never have tried to use the strength of my political office to force my religious convictions on somebody else. But as you also know, Baptists believe that worship or the religious aspects of a person's life are personal interrelationships which are between that person and God. We don't ascribe to our church any authority over our lives and, of course, each individual of that church is autonomous. We don't believe that the Southern Baptist Convention should have any sort of authority over an individual church. So there will be no problem in my life as President in keeping separate religion and government.

Q. What do you feel is the basic responsibility of a state under God?

Governor Carter. Well, we have had from the very beginning of our nation a dependence upon religious faith as part of our political framework—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, our laws, our coins, "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God, Indivisible"—and this, I think, caused us, in moments of strife, moments of uncertainty, moments of crisis, to look for a higher authority than man's laws far the proper relationship between people in our nation and also between our nation and other nations. And these are ethical principles that are common to many religions: compassion, brotherhood, love, truth, honesty, decency. Those kinds of things are always tenets of religious faith to which our nation can go back in the kind of times I described earlier.

Q. I'm quite sure myself how you stand on this, but how do you stand i on the First Amendment regulation regarding complete separation of church I and state ... you know, Congress shall make no law, etc.?

Governor Carter. Well, I would be a strong defender of that amendment, and would also interpret it very strictly.

Q. Parochial schools, another area, would you as President favor federal or state tax moneys for parochial schools, or religious institutions, and how would you feel such action fits into this concept of separation of church and state?

Governor Carter. Well, obviously that's an area that's been the subject of lawsuits that are still going on, and I would have to abide by the decisions of the federal courts. The general premise and one with which I agree, is that there should not be federal money going into any sort of religious institution for instruction in religious matters. This is a subject that's well understood, I think, and generally accepted by our people. There have been tests of this principle even when very strong religious schools were not able to continue because of economic problems. But when faced with that choice, of I actually closing a school, and sending their children back to public schools or giving public funds to the schools, the courts have ruled that federal money should not go to the schools.

Q. That's good. As Governor of Georgia, you have established, I think, a very good record for minority group (garbled) conditions for prison inmates, mental hospital patients, the mentally retarded. How about the future, ? when you become President, for religious minorities and their religious convictions, for example, the Amish and Mennonites on education, Jehovah's Witnesses, on shall we say, blood transfusions. Seventh-day Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, free love, the Jews, a number of areas like this?

Governor Carter. I would certainly try to honor the religious beliefs of those groups. The only time when there might be a difficulty is if the welfare or the freedom of our people were involved. And that would be an extremely rare occasion. And, as you know, that would undoubtedly go to the courts to interpret I would do everything I could, as I did as Georgia's governor, to honor the religious beliefs of other people.

Q. One step further, would you as President strive to improve the plight of the Jews and, shall we say, of the Christians under persecution in Communist countries? How would your view that the establishment of Israel, for example, is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, affect your dealings with the Mideast? That's really two questions, let's stay with the first one for a minute. Communist countries.

Governor Carter. Well, it's not the best approach for the Congress of our country to pass a law that applies to another country. I think that puts the other country on the defensive, and I think it makes it even more difficult to negotiate through normal diplomatic channels to encourage or induce the Communist countries to provide more freedom for their residents. I think we ought to keep as a major purpose in dealing with the Soviet Union, for instance, to free [garbled] migration of Jewish citizens, who want to go to Israel or other countries. That ought to be pursued in all of our dealings with the Soviet Union, whenever it's appropriate, and I would keep it constantly before me as President in those negotiations. As far as Israel is concerned, I think the finest humanitarian act ever performed by the whole community of nations was the establishment of the State of Israel, and I recognize that the only major dependable ally that Israel has is our own country. I think that a basic cornerstone of our foreign policy should be preservation of the nation of Israel, its right to exist, and its right to exist in peace. And as a Christian, who's visited extensively through Israel, I think that, yes, it was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy to have Israel established as a nation. Now, that doesn't mean that I would mistreat the Arabs. I would continue to encourage trade, friendship, better understanding between ourselves and the Arab countries. But I would let this commitment to the right of Israel to exist, and to exist in peace, be well known and not have it be an indeterminant and shaky thing.

It would be an unequivocal commitment of our country, well understood by the rest of the world.

Q. Some 40 evangelistic groups, among them the Mennonites and the Seventh-day Adventists and others, have religious scruples against joining labor unions. Would you support a conscience clause that would extend an exemption to all employees having such religious scruples?

Governor Carter. I did not know about that problem. I never have heard about it before. I never have seen any publicity on it. If it is indeed a part of their religious convictions that is serious to them, I think it ought to be treated in the same category as the problem of conscientious objectors. I don't know how to answer the question, not being familiar with the arguments on both sides, not being familiar with the circumstances. I don't know of anything the government has done to resolve it. Well, I just can't answer that question any better than I have.

Q. You mentioned several times, and in fact just today in several campaign speeches about the energy crisis that we are currently facing. You've talked about coal and other things. In a Christianity Today article on May 7, the editor, Lynn Fell, called for a complete closure of all businesses, including gasoline stations, restaurants, shopping centers, and factories on Sundays as an economic social, and energy-saving measure. He feels the only way to accomplish this is by legislative fiat through the duly elected officials of the people. How would you react to such legislation?

Governor Carter. I would not favor it No, I don't want to get into that right now.

Q. Would you concur with the "Baptist Manifesto on Religious Liberty issued by the Religious Liberty Committee of the Virginia Baptist General Association that states, "Christians should need no support from the state in observing with reverence, with thanksgiving, and public gathering for worship and Bible study on the first day of the week'' Would you concur with that manifesto?

Governor Carter. Let me ask you a question. I'm not familiar with that manifesto. Does that mean that they object to the nation declaring Thanksgiving as a national holiday?

Q. I think that in this case they're talking about the first day of the week. Using the first day of the week, they state that they should need no support of the state to keep Sunday as any kind of a special day of reverence or public gatherings, or even if they want to call it Thanksgiving; they say that there's no need for the state to support this concept.

Governor Carter. Well, I've had to answer that question as Governor of Georgia. In general, I've not been in favor of so-called blue laws in Georgia. I have favored the prohibition against the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday, and I don't know if there's any logical way to rationalize that, but I personally see no objection to referendums among the people to decide when to close down and when not to. What I have favored is this: Employees ought to have at least 1 day a week when they can get off and not work. But I wouldn't have any objection to that manifesto, I don't believe.

Q. And just one other question on that same topic. If a bill were placed on your desk as President, passed by the House and by the Senate, to close down all industry and businesses, or even part of one of those two, on Sunday, would you as President veto it, or sign it, and why?

Governor Carter. I can't imagine that occurring in our country. I would probably veto it.

Q. You have stated recently that, if elected President, that you would probably join the nearest Baptist Church and go there every Sunday, I believe is the way you put it. Does this mean that you would discontinue all religious services in the White House, or at least the Sunday services?

Governor Carter. Well, I would not have special services within the White House for different denominations. I'm a Baptist. I would like to have my worship be routine. I would like to have it be unpublicized. I would like to participate in a regular church congregation. When I became Governor of Georgia, I joined the nearest Baptist Church to the governor's mansion in Georgia, the first Sunday I was in Atlanta. I taught Sunday school. I became a deacon. I was a member of the congregation. And after 2 or 3 weeks, it was no longer a publicly noticed event. That's what I would prefer to have as President. I wouldn't want to make a promise that I would never have religious services at the White House. If there should become a problem in going to the public services in the Baptist Church, and, if there were members of my staff or families that wanted to have worship in the White House with me, I would do that just as I would in my own home in Plains, Georgia, on occasion. There might be other times when I would feel the need for a prayer breakfast or some other prayer event, and I would reserve the right to have it. But as a routine matter, my worship would be in the nearest church of my denomination.

Q. One of the key newsmen on the plane earlier today told me that in Oregon you attended church, Udall attended church, and Brown attended church, but the other two men were the only ones, as I got the impression, to call on the newsmen and make a splash about it, and you took this low profile which you have just mentioned. How do you feel about that?

Governor Carter. Well, I've always done that. As a matter of fact, earlier in the campaign, I very carefully avoided any news participation in my worship services. Lately, as you know, it has gotten almost impossible to do it. But the news people who travel with me know that I don't want any news coverage when I go to church—it's something that is private with me, and this was the case in Oregon. I attended a Baptist Church with my wife and little girl, and we did not make any public announcement about it.

Q. You have stated that personally and morally you are against abortion. How would you as President attempt to modify the abortion by demand that is available in America today?

Governor Carter. Under the Supreme Court ruling which no President can change, I would do everything I could to minimize the need for abortion as I did as Governor of Georgia. I would favor, for instance, a nationwide program established by law, adequately financed, for sex education, for family planning, for access to contraceptives by those who believe in their use and tor better adoptive procedures.

Q. Could I ask a sideline question? Where do you feel life begins—at what point, I should say? Do you have any personal feelings on that?

Governor Carter. I hate to have any abortions at all. I don't want to get on the subject of trying to define the initiation of life. You know, this has been a matter of debate for 100 years, and 50 years from now it still is going to be.

Q. What do you feel is the most crucial issue between church and state that is facing America today?

Governor Carter. It is hard to know exactly what that question means. Obviously, the most crucial issue is to implement within government, within the state, within politics, the same quality of ethics and morality that we try to maintain in religion. And to show that there is no incompatibility between the two. There need not be any interference with the church in the state or the state in the church. But I see no reason to set a different standard. I think that that correlation in our national life is the greatest challenge and also the greatest opportunity.

Q. How do you feel about taxation, be it governmental, or state, on church properties, church physical structures and subsidiary facilities—like publishing houses, church institutions?

Governor Carter. I would favor the taxation of church property other than the church building itself.

Q. What do you feel is the way your church religious life will help you become a better President?

Governor Carter. Within the life of a religious person there is a constant consciousness of the standards set for us. I am a Christian. I learn about the life of Christ. I try to pattern my own life, unsuccessfully, after His life. I've learned from the descriptions of the Bible, different occurrences in ancient times that are similar to those that we face today. I learn from those experiences, I study the Bible—I read a chapter from the Bible every night without exception—and that gives me a constant inclination to study. In addition, I have a feeling of personal assurance of peace and equanimity about crises and challenges that would be a basis for calmness in the face of adversity or in the face of national crises. I also recognize the responsibility on me to demonstrate as a public figure the professions of my own religion, and this I think would elevate my own standards that I would try to maintain for myself.

Q. You have said "I would not be a timid President." As President how would you act on this in the realm of morality in Washington, D.C., as we have seen it in the past?

Governor Carter. One of the main things that could be done, I would always remember the admonitions of Christ on humility and absence of pride, a prohibition against judging other people. I would try not to consider myself better than others. At the same time I would like to see more openness in government, an absence of secrecy, an accountability of public officials for their performance, absence of unnecessary influence on any public official that might be detrimental to the best interest of those who don't have strength or power or social prominence or political authority. I would like more emphasis on government's role in enhancing the quality of life and the lives of those who are most dependent on government for correction of some defect or the overcoming of a deprivation. I would also try to make appointments of officials on the basis of merit and not as a political payoff. I would try to tell the American people the truth. Those are the kinds of things that might be brought back to our government which have been there in administrations past, and they would all be associated I think with morality which can obviously be completely independent of religion.

Q. Why are the other candidates so afraid to get into religion—kind of take a hands-off position until very recently?

Governor Carter. I can't answer that question.

NOTE: The APP used September 1 as the date for this document. The original source stated that this appeared in the "September 1976" issue.

Jimmy Carter, Interview with Ralph Blodgett, Assistant Editor of "These Times" for "Liberty" Magazine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347677