Jimmy Carter on the Role of Faith in Egypt/Israel Peace Talks, His Own Life (in and out of the White House)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States, founder of the Carter Center and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He has authored many books, the most recent being "Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President." In this wide-ranging interview, Raushenbush, the Huffington Post's Senior Religion Editor, spoke to President Carter by phone about the role faith played in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the time of his greatest alienation from God, faith in the White House and his personal daily devotional practice. This post originally appeared on HuffPo.
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In addition to being a Governor of Georgia and President of the United States, you are known as a Sunday School teacher. Are you comfortable with that identity?
I started teaching Sunday school when I was 18 at the Navel Academy Chapel. I led services when we were out at sea while I was in the navy; taught Sunday school 14 times when I was U.S. President at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. I just finished my 650th lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church, so you might say I have been a Sunday school teacher all my life.
Who were some of your most influential religious teachers?
Well, my father was the main one. He was a Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, and I started going to Sunday school when I was 3. He shaped my early knowledge of Jesus, and I was baptized as a Christian when I was 11 years old.
Later, Billy Graham was probably the closest one to me. I believed what my father taught me about the separation of church and state, so when I was President I never invited Billy Graham to have services in the White House because I didn't think that was appropriate. He was injured a little bit, until I explained it to him.
Among the theologians, I think Paul Tillich is probably the one I have read the most because he shaped my thoughts about the relation between religion and politics and the fact that religious faith was not incompatible with political service. I tried to apply my religious beliefs when I was governor and later president without being ostentatious about it.
But I don't claim to be knowledgeable about theology. Most of my knowledge comes out of my experience and the lessons in the Bible. Every Sunday I'm home I teach 45 minutes and we boiled them down to one page for the new book, "Through the Year with Jimmy Carter."
Your new book offers daily devotions. Can you tell me about how prayer or Scripture factors into your daily life?
Every night now for more than 35 years Rosalynn and I have read the same passage of the Bible, and when we are together she reads one night out loud and I read the next night out loud, and for the last 15 to 20 years we have read in Spanish just to practice our Spanish at the same time. So we end our day always, just before we go to bed, by reading the Bible out loud to each other. And when we are apart, like I will be in Egypt next week because of the election there, we will be reading the same scripture.
Part of the message of your new book is, in your words, to "live out your faith." How do you make the connection between devotional practice and living it out in the world?
Well, I don't want to claim that my whole life is based on my religious faith because I have shortcomings and sinfulness just like every other human being. I don't want to presume that to start with. I have always -- when I am under stress, temptation or sorrow -- I have a lot of reassurance in prayer. I have faith in God, and I have knowledge that when I have a large disappointment to turn to God. The most important disappointment in my life, when I was alienated from God, was in 1966 and when I ran for governor of Georgia and was defeated by a segregationist. I was let down. I was not a racist. I was committed to social progress and equality of black and white people, and God had let me down by permitting me to be defeated despite my best efforts.
My sister, who was a famous evangelist named Carter Stapleton, heard about my disillusionment with God. She came down and suggested that disappointments in my life should be used to strengthen my faith and cause me to look at different possibilities; I should look at it that God had answered my prayers by saying no. She quoted a verse from the book of James that setbacks give us patience, and patience leads to a more firm belief.
Was there a role for faith when you were brokering peace with Egypt and Israel?
There was. When I was elected President nobody asked me to negotiate between Israel and Egypt. It was not even a question raised in my campaign. But I felt that one of the reasons that I was elected President was to try to bring peace to the Holy Land. And I was blessed with two other deeply religious persons, in fact Menachem Begin was the first religious Prime Minister of Israel. The rest of them were quite secular in their attitudes, particularly Golda Meier, who laughed when I brought that up when I met with her when I was governor.
Anyway, Anwar Sadat was a deeply religious Muslim and Begin was a religious Jew and the first thing we did was to provide a common prayer to the world that we would have peace there. And Sadat brought it up quite often and wanted to build a shrine on Mount Sinai that would be used by all three faiths. We would have done that, but he was assassinated soon after I left office, and the idea was dropped. But we talked about our common worship of God quite frequently while we were negotiating the peace agreement.
Did you actually pray together?
No, we didn't have a chapel at Camp David but we used a little room and the Muslims used it on Friday, the Jews on Saturday and the Christians on Sunday. We were very assiduous in our worship.
What would you say to those people who say that religion divides?
I don't think there is any doubt about that. If you go back to the Crusades, and even before, there was division between Muslims and Christians struggling over the Holy Land -- and of course that is still a divisive element. But the potential for the great religions is to bring us together. All three religions have the same basic tenets of peace, caring for those in need or afflicted and caring for one another's visitors. But it is the radical approach to Christianity, Islam and now even Judaism, which causes the conflict. The basic premise of all three religions is the same.
How do we talk about morality, does it have to be talked about in the context of religion?
Well, basic moral values should permeate the consciousness of every human being. For me morality was important not just when involved in public life but in my previous life as a submarine officer, as a businessman, my life running the Carter Center, practice of law. Telling the truth, applying justice in the arena over which we have some control, promoting peace, harmony among human beings, using our resources in a benevolent way, forgiving those who may have harmed us, loving those who don't deserve to loved -- I think all of those elements of morality that characterize the life of Christ would apply to us whether we are religious or go to church or not.
How do you see the role of religion in politics?
I think there ought to be a strict separation or wall built between our religious faith and our practice of political authority in office. I don't think the President of the United States should extoll Christianity if he happens to be a Christian at the expense of Judaism, Islam or other faiths.
At the same time, we should apply the principles of our faith in our duties with secular affairs. We worship the Prince of Peace. I think we should keep our nation at peace. We should promote peace instead of war. We should seek to understand the viewpoints of others who might be different from us. I used to sit in the oval office on occasions during the cold war and I would turn a big globe that I had around and I would imagine myself as Brezhnev in Moscow and I would try to make darn sure that I didn't do anything that would cause a nuclear armed conflict. And I tried to do the same thing when I worked between Begin and Sadat to understand both of them. So, I think you can apply the principles of your faith in your service to the public, but you should use your political authority to extoll your own faith at the expense of others.