By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer turned president turned globe-trotting humanitarian, now has another line to add to his business card: Bible commentator. Last week Carter published a Lessons from Life Study Bible, with the subtitle Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter.
With many Democrats embracing the language of faith in recent years in an attempt to win back so-called values voters from the Republican column, Carter's intense faith life is a good reminder that hardly all Democrats are new to the pew.
Since he returned to Plains, Georgia, from Washington after losing his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter has taught Sunday school at the local Maranatha Baptist Church, “about 685 times so far,” he says.
His notes in the new study Bible pull from years of Sunday school lessons. “Like the disciples, we should not be proud, seek an ascendant position or argue about who’s the greatest among us,” he notes in reflecting on a passage from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus' followers are debating who among them is the greatest.
In a phone interview from his home in Plains, he said politics is one area in need of redemption, bemoaning the influx of vitriol and money into politics.
“I always referred to incumbent President Gerald Ford as ‘my distinguished opponent’ and that’s the way he referred to me. When I later ran against Gov. [Ronald] Reagan, it was the same thing, ‘my distinguished opponent,’” Carter said of his runs for president.
CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories
Carter’s 1976 bid for the White House was cast in the shadow of President Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. Carter was a seemingly squeaky clean and relatively unknown one-term governor, a Baptist churchgoer who became a darling of evangelical Christian voters.
On the campaign trail, Carter proudly advertised that he had been “born again.” Historian Randall Balmer dubbed him the “Redeemer President” in his book "God in the White House," largely crediting Carter with bringing the vocabulary of evangelicalism into national politics.
President Carter works in the Oval Office in February 1977.
But any notion Carter would govern as he taught Sunday school was dispelled when he took office. "I was taught to believe in the complete separation of church and state,” he said.
Carter says he's a disciple of President Jefferson, who famously wrote in a letter that the First Amendment established "a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Carter’s embrace of that idea did not always go over well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I got into some trouble for that because, for instance, I didn’t want Billy Graham, who was my friend, to come and have worship services inside the White House, as had been done in previous presidencies both Democrat and Republican,” he said.
Graham, Carter said, was not happy but later came to understand it.
Carter's presidential daily diaries, compiled by the White House staff to record the movement, conversations and meetings of the president, show Graham and Carter communicated often via telephone and over meals.
President Carter and President Bush pray with the Rev. Billy Graham in 2007.
Indeed, Carter said it was impossible to separate his Christian faith from his daily life in the White House.
Long before he worked out of the Oval Office, he and his wife Rosalynn developed the habit of reading a passage of scripture aloud every night: “She would take a turn one night and I would take the next.”
It was a practice they kept up in the White House and continue to this day, reading through the Bible and then starting again at the beginning. Carter said he and Rosalynn have recently been reading a Spanish translation of the Bible to keep up their language skills.
“I tried to put into my services as president the teachings of Christ,” he said. To Carter that meant policies that pushed for peace around the globe and cared for the needy.
“I was very careful to keep religious practice out of my decisions as president except for moral values,” he said.
In the White House, Carter still found time to quietly teach Sunday school on 14 occasions. He attended services at various churches, including worshipping at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
The Carter presidential diaries note Carter and his wife attending services in Washington at First Baptist Church. "The President and the First Lady attended the adult Sunday School class," reads an entry from December 18, 1977. "The class was conducted by the President."
A similar entry is written for March 4, 1979.
“I’ve taught Sunday school for almost my entire life, beginning when I was a Midshipman in the Navy at 18 years old,” Carter said.
The majority of those lessons were given at Maranatha Baptist Church, which now has around 30 members. When Carter teaches Sunday school there today, attendance can grow to 800 – passing the population total for the tiny town of Plains, home to 650 residents.
Carter walks through his family peanut farm in an undated campaign photo.
Busloads of tourists regularly pull into the parking lot for a chance to hear the former leader of the free world teach from Scripture. At times, visitors spill into an overflow room with a television monitor, subject to security sweeps by the Secret Service, Carter said.
The church’s answering machine recording begins with the times Carter will be teaching and suggests visitors arrive early, noting the doors open at 8:30 a.m. and that there are no reservations.
Carter’s presence on Sundays is a one-man economic engine for the tiny town. “It really is a huge impact,” said Ruth Sanders, director of the Plains Better Homes Committee, a local tourism office.
She said the seven-room Plains Historic Inn is booked months in advance and that its country diner is jammed. She also notes that Sunday school is the only time people are guaranteed a photo with the former president, who with his wife poses for a picture with everyone who asks after services.
“One of the main things I try to do is to connect the very ancient Scriptures with modern day life," he said. "Either experiences I’ve had or that I believe are things that are interesting to people who come to hear me teach.”
Christian publishing house Zondervan compiled the study Bible, which combines Carter’s teachings and notes with the New International Bible Study Bible.
The NIV translation is one of the best selling English translations of the Bible of all time. Verne Kenney, executive vice president for Zondervan, which published the Carter Bible, expects it to sell 250,000 copies over several years.
“We believe we can find some people we haven’t engaged with the product, with who has written the notes,” Kenney said.
Carter brings some serious credentials to those notes. He served just one term as Georgia governor and one term as president, but is working on his seventh decade as a Sunday school teacher.
Democrats trying to win back the values voters with their phony bible talk. I think CNN is part of the same phony hypocrisy. I can just imagine his study bible and how he contorts everything to fit his ridiculous philosophy.
Since Mr. Carter has been writing about faith, politics and integrity for over 30 years, It might actually be helpful for you to read one or two of them. It matters less that you agree than come to an understanding of the man.
No Joe. The republicans have been trying to stake a righteous claim to "values" or "family values".
The rest of us have values too. We may even share some with you. But we often don't agree on which are most important.
As someone said, it seems that the religious right believes live begins at conception and ends a birth. You worry a lot about killing an embryo, but don't have much concern about the death penalty, even when there is considerable evidence that some innocent people are being executed.
That "phony bible talk" is from the GOP and their O.T. bullsh@# hatelaws, coming to a state legislature near you, chump.
"... globe-trotting humanitarian..." you forgot anti-Semitic, CNN.
Mr. Carter may not be a Zionist, but that hardly makes him an anti-Semite.
President Carter and President Bush pray with the Rev. Billy Graham in 2007, I look at that picture and I see 3 delusional men, praying to an imaginery god that never existed. But I am hopeful that the rest of humanity is learning that we are here on this planet because of evolution. To think of the supernatural is just frightening, and its going to get us all killed. Within the grasps of a nuclear weapon an Islamic country will set the stage for the annilhaiton of our species. It will happen.
Keep pluggin it, it's not sticking...
The comments here show a lot about CNN's readership and the approach CNN takes to [creative] reporting. So many comments against and mocking religion, especially Christianity. I hope the editors of CNN see who they appeal to these days. Jimmy Carter? Lived though it. He was AWFUL. Yes he was the peanut farmer that grew up to President – and you SURE COULD TELL! Obama – the "community organizer" that a few years ago was a state senator and voted "present" most of the time. Cut from the same cloth – and you SURE CAN TELL!
I don't agree with Jimmy on religion, and I think he was very ineffective as a president.
But he certainly meant well. He just didn't have the skills to work with congress. Perhaps his ineffectivity may show a similarity with the wacko religious right today – namely an unwillingness to compromise to get things done.
People see what they want to see, including you. You think he "contorts everything to fit his ridiculous philosophy". What do you think Rick and Rush are doing?
Another free book review for a christian author by CNN.Why does this christian god have to restarted every Sunday ?
Carter may have been in over his head as a President, but he is a genuine citizen.
Please, please go away and keep quiet, Mr. Carter.
Prayer changes things .
Prayer changes nothing in reality. It only appeases the believers.
Are you an automaton? You show up with this same mantra over and over again. But that won't make it true.
Do you think that dogs, cats, cows, ants, bacteria, trees, grass, and bacteria should all be religious?
Or do you think that atheists are unhealty to all of those things?
Its (a subset of) the religious who are promoting continued growth in population through opposition to birth control. And that is one of the most serious risks to all living things.
Spewing your ignorance again I see.
President carter is a man of faith and of intellect. Say what you want about his politics, but he should finish his life proud of the man he made himself to be. So many negative comments about a very decent man. Maybe you do not believe in his politics, but I think if you judge a honorable and faithful man like Carter in a negative light you need more forgiveness and understanding in your life.
What about Carter's negative comments about others? What about Jimmy Carter being an anit-semite? What about Jimmy Carter ignoring a 300 year history of ex-presidents not slamming a current administration? I have very little respect for the man. I had to suffer through his mismanagement of the US.
Truthsayer – what about "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things" being an anti-atheist? Is anti-atheism less bad than anti-semitism?
BTW – call yourself what you want, but you are making up your own "truth".
As beings of humanism and the last totem upon the poles of biologic civilities, our desires to relate conversely in polite conversations and written augmentatives does little for the wholeness of Life itself in living an equality of co-existence. Whenever one destroys another biologic Life for one's own sustainability, a prayer to that Life one consumes should be said. Afterall, peanuts are a biologic Life-essence in the same way as are plant-based Life Formations. Such Life Forms are but one strut and animal based Life-Formations are yet another strut.
Good grief!! What're you smokin' in that pipe of yours? It sure ain't Sir Walter Raleigh.
hahahaha...thank you Confucious ;)
I admire Jimmy Carter very much, not as much for what he did in the White House as what he has done afterward. He's promoted peace and democracy around the world more than any single person of his time–including in the middle east. I'm surprised at the enmity shown by others who have commented here. It is possible to have a scientific mind and be a person of faith. I have experienced God in my life, especially through prayer. Those who say He doesn't answer prayer may not realize that there are at least THREE answers to prayer: "Yes", " No"–and "Not now".
Jimmy Carter is a hypocrite, neither a statesman or a man of God. Either one would have had him recognize
the Armenian Genocide as President. Instead, he played "weak politician". All he wants to do now is spin a false legacy to feed his wayward ego. We know better.
If ol' Jimmy had only had a jelly factory, he would have been complete.
Why do you turn your back to God? Look around...Everything is because of Him...Your heart is beating still as you read this because of Him...On top of all of that, He loved you so much that He gave His one and only Son to die for all sin once and for all. Jesus paid the price, Jesus took our place on the cross, He took our deserved punishment for sin...It's never to late to accept Him, to believe in Him and trust in Him...There must be a reason why you are against God...
Look around nothing is because of Him. There is no need for a creator.
So who created your creator? If it takes a god to make something from nothing, it takes a god to make a god.
the only worse and imcompetent president than this idiot is OBOMA!
Since you have chosen to use the word "idiot," I would invite you to compare your college transcripts to either of those of Obama's or Carter's.
This is a man with much dignity and love for God. You ar eto be commended President Carter for your faith. God bless you!
🍀 I don't respect Organized Religion but I DO respect Jimmy Carter.🌹
I sure wouldn't brag about that one. You must be naive beyond words.
God Lives!!! I hope Democrats will be as understanding of Mitt's faith as Jimmy Carter's.
At this point, Mr. Romney's faith seems to be less of an issue with Republican primary voters than whether or not he is genuine regarding the issues for which he claims to stand. I'm certain the Democrats will have those same questions, should he advance to the general election.
I'm a Democrat but Jimmy's beliefs make him an idiot.
I've read all of Carter's books. The HOUR BEFORE DAWN...is an awesome history of Ga. I listened on tape, more than once as Carter read it.
Mr. Carter is a wonderfully evocative writer and speaker.
prayer is a lot of BS!
Based on that comment, I will pray for you.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.