Jimmy Carter's mission in life Religion: Former president brings his 'Living Faith,' decades of lessons from his Sunday school lectures, to Baltimore.

November 21, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Jimmy Carter, the former president, peacemaker, free-lance diplomat and globe-trotting humanitarian, is promoting a more humble pursuit these days.

He's just a simple Sunday school teacher.

On Sunday mornings when he is home in Plains, Ga., you'll find him at the tiny Maranatha Baptist Church teaching a lesson on a scripture passage to anyone who wants to come and listen.

And they come -- from neighboring counties, from states across the country, from foreign countries. Few are Baptists and not all are Christian. Last Sunday, there was a group of Jews who came to hear a Christian layman teach the word of God. There was also a Muslim family and a Hindu family.

"Some come out of curiosity to hear a politician teaching the Bible and some just want to meet a former president," Carter says. "A lot of folks when they leave the church tell me, 'This is the first time I've ever been in a church in my life.' "

Carter stopped in Baltimore yesterday to promote and sign his 12th book, "Seasons of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith," a compilation of his Sunday school lessons.

Now 73, Carter has been teaching Sunday school ever since he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy and was asked to give a class to the children of officers stationed there. While he was president, he occasionally would lead an unannounced class at First Baptist Church in Washington.

He estimates he's given more than 1,600 Sunday school lessons, and kept the outlines to most of them. Of those, Carter chose 52 lessons that he has compiled into the book, a sequel to last year's spiritual autobiography, "A Living Faith."

Although his presidency received mixed reviews, Carter was always recognized as a devout Christian with deeply held moral principles. His sincerity sometimes backfired, as in the famous interview in the November 1976 Playboy magazine in which Carter admitted to having committed "lust in my heart."

Since losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, Carter has remained an active player on the international scene. He frequently monitors elections in nascent democracies and has led peacekeeping missions to Haiti, North and South Korea and Bosnia.

Domestically, Carter has had a highly visible association with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian service organization that builds housing for the poor.

But no matter where he travels, he eventually comes back to Plains and his Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist. Each lesson starts with a passage from Scripture that Carter expounds on with homespun wisdom, relating the Biblical truth to situations in everyday life.

To prepare, he said, he gets up early Sunday and outlines his lesson. He gives his wife, Rosalynn, who attends his classes, a copy of his outline. She can be a tough critic, Carter says.

"Quite often after I teach, she'll say, 'You dwelt too much on that subject,' or, 'I don't agree with how you interpret that Scripture,' " he says, flashing his trademark grin.

Although Carter describes himself as a traditional Baptist -- "I teach a fairly orthodox Baptist theology" -- he doesn't share in some of the conservative theology that many Baptists hold.

"I disagree with some of the more conservative fundamentalists on a few things," he says. "I believe in total separation of church and state for instance, and I believe that women should have an equal role to play in the church."

In the book, he notes that his daughter, Amy, as well as many other Christians, have withdrawn from the church because of the subservient role it grants women.

"As far as Amy's participation in an organized church, it has been adversely affected by the theology of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, who condemn the equal role of women in the church and who are even attempting to exclude any church from membership that has a woman deacon or certainly a woman pastor," he says.

Carter turns to his life and to his family for examples of how they struggle with Biblical values. In a section on the importance of forgiveness, he writes of the difficulty he had forgiving a journalist -- unnamed in the book, but who at the time was reported to be George Will -- who helped Reagan prepare for a debate with Carter during the 1980 campaign. Carter's briefing book for the debate was taken by a Reagan supporter who worked in the White House and was used in preparing his opponent. Carter said he seethed with resentment for years afterward, and finally decided to make amends while he was preparing a Sunday school lesson on forgiveness.

Carter also tells of his mother, Lillian Carter, and her service to the poor, both in Plains and when she joined the Peace Corps at age 68 and went to India. He recalled that his mother, a registered nurse, would often treat the black families who were their neighbors for free, which could have raised eyebrows in the segregated South.

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