Thursday, October 10, 2019

Did Jimmy Carter Lose His Religion?

As was widely reported in the news media, on October 1 Jimmy Carter celebrated his 95th birthday, becoming the first U.S. President to reach that age. But has Jimmy lost his religion? In the last few months, I have repeatedly seen Facebook friends post the link to Carter’s article titled “Losing My Religion for Equality.” 
Jimmy’s Article
The linked-to piece with that title was, in fact, published on July 15, 2009, under Carter’s name by The Age, a daily newspaper that had been published in Melbourne, Australia, since 1854—and that article is still available online.
In April 2015, The Age reported that Jimmy’s article has been the highest rating story ever published on theage.com.au, having been viewed more than 1.9 million times—and it has been viewed many more times since then.
The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation even published Carter’s article on their website in April 2017, erroneously indicating that it was a newly published piece.
Carter’s article has been viewed so many times on the Internet this year that in July Snopes.com reported on its veracity. Snopes correctly explained that even though “the letter is often shared along with the claim that Carter renounced his faith,” that “isn’t the case.”
Snopes continues, “While Carter rejected the notion that women were subservient and severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC], he never turned his back on his own religion.” And he certainly didn’t lose his faith in God.
Accordingly, I think that surely the title of Jimmy’s article was written by the newspaper, not by him.
Jimmy’s Point
Back in 2000 Carter severed ties with the SBC—a matter that was widely reported (such as in the Oct. 21, 2000, article in the WaPo.) Nine years later in his article published in The Age, he said that severing those ties “was painful and difficult.”
In January 2008, I talked briefly with Jimmy at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta—and I gave him a copy of my recently published book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. As introduced in my 9/25 blog posting, the eighth chapter dealt with the issue that he wrote about in his 2009 article.
(I would like to think that that chapter in my book was of help to him.)
Thus, I fully agree with him and the main point he made in The Age article: “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.”
Carter later wrote a whole book about this matter: A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (2014). The third chapter of that important book is “The Bible and Gender Equality,” and he explains his disagreement with the SBC—as well as his ongoing Christian faith.
Jimmy’s Reputation
Among most of us moderate/progressive Christians, Jimmy Carter is held in high regard. And even if some of us may think that he was not a great President, almost everyone agrees that he is the best ex-President the country has ever had.
I have been somewhat amazed, though, at how he is still criticized by conservative evangelical Christians (among others on the right, I assume). I sometimes see “friends” of my Facebook friends saying very negative things about Jimmy.
The two most cited reasons for criticism of Carter are his position on LGBTQ rights and his position on Israel. For those reasons, and perhaps others, his reputation among the Religious Right is not good—but for most of the rest of us, it is stellar.
Five years ago I posted a blog article wishing Jimmy a happy 90th birthday, and I am very glad that I can wish him a (belated) Happy Birthday again now. 

11 comments:

  1. About an hour ago I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend Bob Leeper:

    "Leroy I can relate to his painful break away from the faith of his upbringing! He waited until old age to do it! I made that transition in my early-mid 20s! At any life stage it is not a pretty thing as friends shunning."

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Bob.

      Yes, leaving the faith that one has been brought in is painful at any age, but perhaps it was harder for you as a young man than it was for Carter, for he had a lot of people--and I was one among many--who were supportive of his break with conservative (fundamentalistic) religion.

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  2. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments and the link to Carter's original article. Although Carter may not have been the greatest of presidents, he is certainly one of the most decent and humble, if not the most decent and humble, man to ever serve in the White House. He stands in stark contrast to a few others, but I do not need to mention names. I have a deep respect for Jimmy Carter; he is a national treasure."

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    1. Thanks, Eric, and yes, I fully agree with you.

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  3. Just now received these comments from Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted in Springfield, Mo.:

    "Sadly a great number of people of 'faith' do not understand the difference between religious denominations and faith in God and his salvation given through Christ. We are hearing awful pronouncements from certain religious leaders from the far right who need to study the words and examples of Jesus' life before they claim any divine support for the current resident of the White House. Jimmy Carter stands for what is right based on the Bible. Without God's grace there is no hope or responsible perspective in life."

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  4. Thanks, Michael, for your comments. -- Properly understood, I think it is probably correct to say that Jimmy "lost" or gave up his Southern Baptist religion because of his Christian faith. I have long tried to make a distinction between religion and faith, and I think we see it here. For the general public, though, that distinction between faith and religion is hard to see. But, as you suggest, the religion of "certain religious leaders from the far right" seems to be quite removed from faith in Jesus Christ.

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  5. Your title for this blog drove me to dig out "Metaphors We Live By" (1980) with "Afterward" (2003) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I had been reading it off and on for some time, and you made me finish it. The point of the book is that natural language is poetry, not prose, and built of metaphors heaped on top of metaphors. "Lost His Religion" is a metaphor that invites us to explore what it might mean for Jimmy Carter. What would be surprising would be if this phrase were used literally. Which raises an interesting question, What is going on when people misread the phrase literally?

    Lakoff and Johnson state that the difference between liberals and conservatives is mostly due to a usually unconscious choice between what they call "conceptual metaphors." Liberals use the metaphor "nurturant parent" while conservatives use "strict father." (Page 250) Now follow that up with "Metaphorical thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious." (Page 272) These deep conceptual metaphors frame a whole list of disagreements between liberals and conservatives.

    I was happily lapping up the book for 23 chapters, as they confirmed my naive assumptions about metaphors, and then even extended them in specific ways I had not imagined. Then, in chapter 24 they unloaded on subjects like math, science and truth. I saw some of what they were saying, but still, felt that somehow this was going too far. I finally decided they were right, but not in the way I originally thought they were claiming. My theory is that as metaphorical creatures, capable of beautiful poetry and nuanced puns and jokes, we are by that very ability limited in our ability to say things precisely. Math, symbolic logic, science, and similar disciplines depend on seeking as literal a system as possible to record and read back ideas and discoveries. Indeed, these systems can even create important theoretical discoveries. Still, at the bottom of it all, we are metaphorical creatures. There is a reason science is dependent on double-blind experiments. Even then, funding sources show a statistically significant relationship to outcomes of experiments. This kind of technical literalism is not a problem, or an enemy, but rather a dazzling achievement of metaphysical creatures. Meanwhile, the current October 2019 issue of Scientific American is exploring "A Significant Problem" with statistical significance. We still have room to improve. And next month there might well be an article about white male chauvinist scientists. Paradigm shifts take a while.

    The literal proofs, equations, and reports of literal science show such power that it is easy to want to read everything literally (if we agree with it). That works just fine with a good cook book, follow the recipe and you should get close to the intended product. However, trying to read poetry as if it were prose is a recipe for disaster. Deep literalism must work harmoniously in both writing and reading. Trying to read normal language literally may result in anything from a missed implication to a total misreading. I am glad Jimmy Carter "Lost His Religion." He may have had a black eye when he reported for his recent Habitat for Humanity project, but he picked up his hammer and saw!

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    1. Craig, thanks for your lengthy and erudite comments. I especially enjoyed your last sentence.

      But I have questions about the title of Jimmy's article being metaphorical. I am still of the opinion that it was a title chosen by "The Age" as an attempt to pique interest--and readership.

      I have never done any in-depth study of metaphors and have not read the books you referred to. But the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says that a metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." If that is a correct definition, which I assume it is," I don't see how "lost his religion" is a metaphor. How is that a figure of speech?

      In the article, which I read carefully, Carter makes no reference close to suggesting that he lost his faith, although he does state clearly the reason why he chose to break ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. In that regard, I again write what I posted in my response to Michael Olmsted (see above):

      Properly understood, I think it is probably correct to say that Jimmy 'lost' or gave up his Southern Baptist religion because of his Christian faith. I have long tried to make a distinction between religion and faith, and I think we see it here. For the general public, though, that distinction between faith and religion is hard to see. But, as you suggest, the religion of 'certain religious leaders from the far right' seems to be quite removed from faith in Jesus Christ."

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    2. As with the "hammer and saw" reference I used at the end, I see the title as a play on different ways to use the word "religion." Losing the SBC in Plains, Georgia may seem like losing religion. Checking for a reference online, I discovered a song "Losing My Religion" which the related Wikipedia page says is a southern expression meaning "losing my temper" or "losing my civility." See this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Losing_My_Religion

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  6. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona shares these pertinent comments:

    "It comes as no surprise to me that fundamentalists would equate leaving the SBC and 'falling from grace.' There is no end to their arrogance. Most fundamentalists could not touch the hem of former President Carter's garment of genuineness and integrity."

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  7. Earlier this afternoon, Thinking Friend Frank Shope in New Mexico sent the following comments for posting:

    "I appreciate your reminder about Past President Carter, I should have followed his lead and left the SBC in 2000 but because of family and income I remained with the mission board far too long.

    "A few years ago I read 'The Problem from Hell" by Samantha Power.' Her work traces Genocide from 1914 to the failure of the U.S. to ratify the U.N. international law for convicting nations and individuals who commit genocide (it still remains unratified).

    "In her book Carter becomes a major focus. His inability to respond to the genocide of the Khmer Rough, getting a UN seat for North Vietnam after they put down the Khmer Rouge and the Iran Hostage situation left Carter with a sense of failure.

    "Much of Carter's post presidency has focused on moving from a form of religion to actively living out his faith in ways he can direct rather than being stone-walled by institutions.

    "I see Carter becoming Christian during the years following his presidency. May we all become Christian and respond and lose our religion!"

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