“Our lesson today is from the book of Revelation,” Jimmy Carter said. Flashing his trademark grin — which in this instance was tinged with an unmistakable hint of mischief — the former President of the United States added, “I thought that tied in quite well with the election this week.”
The comment sent a hearty and appreciative wave of laughter through the modest sanctuary of Plains, Georgia’s Maranatha Baptist Church, where Carter leads a Sunday school class roughly 40 weeks a year, as he has done since leaving the White House in 1981. On those Sundays, the regular congregation is supplemented by visitors, ranging in number from week to week from several dozen to several hundred. When the crowd exceeds the sanctuary’s capacity of about 300, the overflow goes to the adjacent fellowship hall, where the lesson is streamed on a closed-circuit television monitor. (Carter stops in to greet those in the overflow room before proceeding to the sanctuary.)
As Carter’s introduction of the lesson suggests, this particular Sunday, Nov. 13, happened to fall at the end of one of the most politically tumultuous weeks in the history of the nation. It seems reasonable to assume that this has something to do with the fact that the sanctuary was at capacity, including a number of people seated in folding chairs set alongside some of the wooden pews, and others — mostly regular church members, as far as I could tell — standing along the room’s back wall.
Along with my two children, I was in a pew about three-quarters of the way toward the back. I’d planned the weekend outing for us some time back, with no thought of the date relative to the Presidential election — and certainly, I must admit, with no thought that the election would turn out as it did, with one Donald J. Trump as our President-elect.
For me, in any case, the trip was highly personal, and its relation to politics purely tangential. Jimmy Carter has been a hero of mine since I was 14 years old. That was 1976, when the onetime Georgia governor came from relative obscurity to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. That summer and fall, I passed out Carter campaign literature on the streets of my hometown of Russellville, and sat up late on a long election night, thrilled to watch Carter claim a narrow victory over the sitting president, Gerald Ford.
Four years later, as a brand new freshman at Samford University, I spent most of my first semester volunteering at the Carter re-election campaign’s Birmingham office in Lakeview — then a considerably less-than-gentrified neighborhood — where it occupied a grungy suite at the corner of Seventh Avenue South and 32nd Street. My young spirit was well nigh crushed when Carter lost to Ronald Reagan; I remember being consoled by several of the political pros in the room at our short-lived “victory” celebration — and, despite those ministrations, as my old college friend, Bailey Marks, reminded me recently, I wasn’t in any better shape when I showed up at his dorm room late that night looking like the world had come to an end.
What drew me to Carter? More than anything at the time, I think it was his compelling personal story — from farm boy, to U.S. Naval officer helping to pioneer the development of nuclear submarines, to prosperous peanut farmer, to his entry into politics and his evolution into a proponent of racial integration and progressive policies, to his determination and near-miraculous success in attaining the highest office in the land. He captured my young imagination and was a formative influence on the social and political consciousness and viewpoint that has shaped my life and career. Quite simply, I owe Jimmy Carter a debt that I cannot repay.
Over the decades since his tenure as president ended — a time that spans my entire adulthood — Carter’s standing in my estimation has only increased. I admire his diplomatic and humanitarian work around the world; his association with Habitat for Humanity, pitching in to build houses for families who would not have them otherwise; his incredible partnership with his wife, Rosalynn, with whom he celebrated a 70th wedding anniversary this year; and, above all else, the high moral and ethical code that he models and exemplifies. Even on the rare occasions when I have disagreed with certain of his words or actions over the years, something he said in his 1971 inaugural address as governor of Georgia — quoting Julia Coleman, the Plains High School English teacher whom the former President credits as a formative influence in his own life — comes to my mind:
We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.
I was thinking about all of that on Sunday morning as I sat between my kids in the pew. I wondered, not for the first time, why it had taken me so long to make this trip, and then decided that it didn’t matter, because it meant so much to me now, at this moment in time, to share it with the two people who mean the most to me. I am a person of faith, idiosyncratic and unorthodox as it may be — and as inadequate as my practice of it most certainly is — and as we, along with the others who had made this journey, waited for Carter to enter the sanctuary, I found myself in an attitude of what can only be described as reverence.
And then, there he was. Visitors are informed that Carter does not wish people to stand or clap when he enters, as he views that as inappropriate for church. He does not stand on the raised platform, behind the pulpit, but on the floor. At 92, clad in dark slacks and shirt and a white-checked brown blazer, sporting an impressive turquoise bolo tie, he would not sit for the ensuing 45 minutes. He paced, speaking without notes, stopping occasionally to reflect for a moment in silence, stepping behind the podium set to one side two or three times to read from the scripture that accompanied the lesson.
As is his custom, Carter began by asking people to yell out where they had come from to attend the service. I counted 22 states, plus Washington, DC — the couple next to us; when he heard that, Carter grinned and quipped, “I lived there for a while” — along with one woman from Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (“I know Newcastle upon Tyne,” Carter replied. “I once gave a speech there, to about 30,000 people.”)
Before getting into the lesson itself — following his joke about the book of Revelation and the events of the week — the former president offered some thoughts about the election.
Noting that the outcome was shaped by “the politics of inequity” as articulated by both campaigns, Carter opined that Trump had won “fairly and squarely.” He revealed that he had called both Trump and Hillary Clinton the day after the election; smilingly referencing his own record as a presidential candidate, he said, “Of course, I’m highly qualified to make both phone calls.”
“I called Donald Trump first, and I told him to call on me if he needs me or the Carter Center,” said Carter, adding that, “Our family did not vote for Mr. Trump, but we’ll support him in every way we can. I hope everyone else will, too.”
The lesson from Revelation was not of Carter’s choosing — like most churches, the lessons come from a lectionary, or book of pre-selected lesson plans and accompanying Bible verses. He acknowledged the “strange, apocalyptic” language and tone of the book and pointed out that it was written at a time when the Christian church was “struggling for its very existence, when it was a small and minority cult.”
But, Carter continued, Revelation also speaks of the time after the apocalypse, when the “heavenly multitude” is assembled in the world beyond. It speaks of the love that binds people to one another, even in times of greatest trial. Without making another reference to our present-day situation in post-election America, he seemed to be using the text both to diagnose what ails us, and to offer a prescription for curing it.
A few choice excerpts:
“The origin of all religions is the vision of a perfect life. That leads to the next thought, which is, What am I going to do about it? That’s a sobering thought. … What is your responsibility in bringing that about?”
“There’s a big chasm between what we actually do with our lives and striving to bring about the perfection of the world. … God gave us life, and he also gave us — wisely or not, I don’t know — the freedom to make our own decisions.”
“Loving one another is the essence of Christianity — and of the other religions as well. You’re supposed to love God, and love other people as you love yourself. Jesus loved people who were unlovable, people who didn’t love him back, and he consistently demonstrated his love to those who were outcast and in need.”
“It’s not easy to love somebody who doesn’t love you back. You don’t get any credit for it. But that’s what makes it pure.”
“What can I do to help? That’s a very difficult question to answer. … Jesus set the example for each of us to follow — if we want to. We have to decide that individually. But it’s really pretty simple. There’s no tricks to it.”
This last was the end of the lesson, Carter’s final words to the class. He left the sanctuary, returning a few minutes later with Mrs. Carter to take a seat for the church service with everyone else. Those who stay for the service are allowed afterward to have their photo taken with the Carters, who are seated in chairs placed down front.
Due to the crowd, there’s no time for conversation, and handshaking is not allowed for reason of both time and hygiene — their life in politics aside, the Carters are elderly and at increased risk of illness that comes with shaking a multitude of hands — and so I didn’t get to tell Jimmy Carter what he has meant to me, my country, and the world. But as my children and I stood next to the Carters, the five of us smiling for the camera, I surely thought about it.
Stepping away after the photo, our eyes met, and I said, simply, “Thank you for your service.”
“Thank you for coming,” he said.