That Jimmy Carter flashback

cover largeI have had a number of readers ask me for my reaction to the recent remarks by former President Jimmy Carter in which he addressed both his party’s dogmatic stance in favor of abortion and its growing estrangement from traditional religious believers.

The remarks are not all that surprising, if you know Carter’s history as a moderate or progressive Southern Baptist. It is also not surprising that the remarks made headlines in The Washington Times. I was somewhat surprised — given the recent MSM interest in the Democratic Party’s efforts to rally the religious left — that few other media outlets picked up the story. A follow story produced by the Associated Press did run in many newspapers and broadcast websites.

Times reporter Ralph Z. Hallow placed Carter’s remarks in the context of behind-the-scenes debates among Democrats over the wisdom of filibustering the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court, largely because they fear he may be opposed to abortion. Carter proclaimed:

“I never have felt that any abortion should be committed — I think each abortion is the result of a series of errors,” he told reporters over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, while across town Senate Democrats deliberated whether to filibuster the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. because he may share President Bush and Mr. Carter’s abhorrence of abortion.

“These things impact other issues on which [Mr. Bush] and I basically agree,” the Georgia Democrat said. “I’ve never been convinced, if you let me inject my Christianity into it, that Jesus Christ would approve abortion.”

I have interviewed Carter on this topic and his compromise stance essentially boiled down to this: Abortion is a church-state issue. While clear on his own beliefs, he maintained that the state had to stay out of an issue that, for so many, pivoted on religious questions. Thus, he said government money would not be used to fund or to oppose abortion. This infuriated conservatives, but also created rage in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Those who said Carter’s recent remarks were “astonishing” have not paid attention to what the man has — for better or for worse — said through the years. I once saw him, facing an audience of Lutheran teens in the mid-1980s, begin crying when asked to describe his toughest moment as president. He said it was when he made the political decision that he would not be able to do more to actively oppose abortion.

The most provocative passage in Hallow’s report came at the end:

Mr. Carter said his party lost the 2004 presidential elections and lost House and Senate seats because Democratic leaders failed “to demonstrate a compatibility with the deeply religious people in this country. I think that absence hurt a lot.”

Democrats must “let the deeply religious people and the moderates on social issues like abortion feel that the Democratic party cares about them and understands them,” he said, adding that many Democrats, like him, “have some concern about, say, late-term abortions, where you kill a baby as it’s emerging from its mother’s womb.”

I am surprised that the Democrats for Life website did not do more with this quote.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • RightDemocrat

    I agree with Jimmy Carter that Democrats need to adopt a more mainstream position on the abortion issue. A lot of Christians who disagree with the Republican positions on economic issues have been voting GOP because of the rigid pro-abortion stance of the Democratic Party. It is time that Democrats wake up and recognize that you cannot win elections by appealing to the liberal fringe on social issues.

  • Avram

    The Washington Times. Hey, there’s another religious ghost that doesn’t get talked about much in the press.

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  • Bartholomew

    This is more or less the stance of most European politicians who have religious or ethical problems with abortion – Tony Blair comes to mind.

  • Stephen A.

    “The Washington Times..”

    So what, Avram? It’s actually pretty much common knowledge who owns the Times.

    Who owns the Washington Post? What about the New York Times?

    You just don’t want to go there. And neither does anyone else. It’s irrelevent.

    But I can see this article really upset you, so I think you’re lashing out at the messenger a bit.

  • holmegm

    >I was somewhat surprised — given the recent MSM
    >interest in the Democratic Party’s efforts to rally
    >the religious left — that few other media outlets
    >picked up the story.

    You were? That they didn’t want to run “Prominent Democrat Icon Denounces Abortion”? I wasn’t surprised … for hours it was hard to find it in anything but the Wash Times and a Catholic publication.

    USA Today headline: “Breaking tradition, Carter rips Bush’s policies” (because he says anti-war stuff too, blah blah …)

  • Brigid

    Thank you, tmatt, for being the only sane voice in Christianity regarding President Carter’s views on abortion. Thanks for your specfic “Lutheran teens” story.

    Carter is saying all this within the context of a book tour. AND, in the same chapter of said book where he discusses abortion, he also discusses another powder keg issue: the death penalty.

    Get the book. It’s not filled with anything new (for those of us who have followed Pres. Carter for years) but it might help those of you who are new to this great man.

    Gosh, didn’t he get the Nobel Peace Prize?

  • Avram

    But I can see this article really upset you, so I think you’re lashing out at the messenger a bit.

    Stephen, don’t try to read my mind. You’re bad at it.

  • Stephen A.

    Avram, No mind-reading was needed. What other purpose could you have for slyly bringing up the ownership of a newspaper than to smear it for reporting this? You’re often rather transparent in your motives.

  • Avram

    Stephen, I’m always happy to smear Rev Moon and the Washington Times, and I figure this forum is appropriate for talking about a fringe religious figure who owns a large news outlet. But you’re wrong about my motives — I’m not upset about Carter’s statement, or the reporting of it.

  • tmatt


    You’ll notice that I anticipated Avram’s point, to some degree, in my original post. I noted:

    “It is also not surprising that the remarks made headlines in The Washington Times.”

    But the remarks were newsworthy. The issue is not why the WT reported them. It is interesting that others did not.

  • CatholicSphere

    Could it serve as a “wake up call” to the Democratic Party? I like the fact that Jimmy gets it (and has gotten it).

    What I find interesting about what you mentioned as one of President Carter’s tougest moments was that he said “it was when he made the political decision that he would not be able to do more to actively oppose abortion.” Did it mean that he decided not to do more, or that he knew he couldn’t do more?

  • Dale R. Evans

    Is it possible Carter’s was the initial salvo from moderate Democrats seeking to forge a new Democratic consensus? Whether or not, such a new consensus makes sense. The Democratic Party lost the Catholic vote over abortion, even though Catholics were also the cornerstone of the union movement. A softening of their position on abortion, and perhaps blaming the desire for abortion on the stress generated by global economics and the empowerment of corporate America, might win back the Catholics.

  • Avram

    Dale, from the polls I’ve seen, Catholics have about the same opinions on abortion as the American public in general. If you limit it to Catholics who go to church several times a month, then the numbers change.