Even in these polarized times, I think Americans of all political and religious stripes would generally agree with this assessment of one prominent politician: Jimmy Carter, the first born-again Christian to occupy the Oval Office, has been a better ex-president than he was a president.
But two recent biographers want to revise our assessment of the Carter presidency — and if they’re right, it most likely has something to do with Carter’s faith.
In the occasional C-SPAN survey of presidential scholars, Jimmy Carter has actually been declining in reputation, from #22 at the start of the century to #26 earlier this year. But in the new issue of Washington Monthly, journalists Jonathan Alter and Kai Bird argue for “The Surprising Greatness” of America’s 39th president.
The C-SPAN system gives Carter far more credit for his pursuit of equal justice (#5) and his moral authority (#7, up seven spots after the four years of the Trump presidency) than his work on the international stage (#28). Alter and Bird, though, put those factors together to contend that his “human rights policy played a huge and largely uncredited role in the collapse of the Soviet Union—more so, perhaps, than any policies enacted by his successor Ronald Reagan” (in C-SPAN’s top ten on international relations). Alter, the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, goes so far as to argue that
The Carter administration prioritized human rights to an extent that no previous president had done, and this was an extraordinarily important thing. It helped lead to the end of the Cold War, as Larry Eagleburger acknowledged, as Colin Powell has acknowledged. When Václav Havel would give interviews, he would describe how important it was for the morale of dissidents to know that they had a friend as president of the United States. There are a lot of human rights organizations that arose, not just in the Soviet Union but in many other countries where when you talk to the people who started those organizations, they mention Carter.
“Human rights was a major achievement by Carter,” agrees Bird, whose own book is called The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter. “He put human rights, that principle, as a keystone of U.S. foreign policy, and none of his successors have been able to walk back from that or ignore it completely. They’ve talked about some of the hypocrisy and impracticality of the policy, but you can’t ignore it.”
That impracticality and hypocrisy (e.g., Carter’s foreign policy ended up being defined by the costs of America’s support for a brutal Iranian regime that tortured its own citizens) is substantial enough that I doubt “greatness” will ever describe Carter’s international legacy. But it’s undeniable that Jimmy Carter sought to restore human rights to the forefront of American foreign policy, following the duplicity and disillusionment of the Vietnam era and the unswerving pragmatism of the Kissinger years. And if it’s true that Ronald Reagan helped win the Cold War by exposing the moral rot of the Soviet system, his legacy on this count was marred by its own hypocrisies — and built on the work of a predecessor who not only supported Eastern Bloc dissidents like Havel but stood steadfastly against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But today my goal is not to revise our opinion of Jimmy Carter as a Cold Warrior or American leader. Instead, I want to try to fill in something missing from Alter and Bird’s interview. I’m sure they explore this in greater detail in their books, but at least in the Washington Monthly interview, neither directly suggests a connection between the faith of America’s first born-again president and his commitment to human rights.
Tellingly, two of Carter’s most important speeches on human rights were delivered at a Christian institution. In the last weeks of his 1976 campaign against Gerald Ford, Governor Carter came to the University of Notre Dame to assert that America needed to reclaim its moral leadership of the world. While acknowledging “the question of supporting human rights throughout the world… requires a balancing of tough realism on the one hand, and idealism on the other,” he did suggest that the Nixon and Ford presidencies had “been too pragmatic, too cynical. And as a consequence have ignored those moral values that have always distinguished the United States of America from other countries.” Alluding to the activism of the priest who led Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Carter concluded that Americans should not only continue to make domestic progress on civil rights but also let their commitment to human equality “be an undeviating guiding light for us abroad. The world looks for leadership. And when there is a vacuum of leadership, it is going to be filled somehow.”
Eight months later, President Carter returned to South Bend to give Notre Dame’s 1977 commencement address. At a ceremony where honorary degrees went to Paul Arns, Stephen Kim, and Donal Lamont — three Catholic bishops whose “fight for human freedoms,” he said, “[typified] all that is best in their countries and in our church” — America’s new president argued for the centrality of human rights in American foreign policy. “For too many years,” Carter lamented, American leaders had “been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence.”
In a world marked by decolonization, democratic revolutions, and human rights activism, Carter insisted that Americans
can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.
It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy–a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.
Since leaving office, Jimmy Carter has been more explicit in connecting Christianity to human rights — see, for example, his 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. (And for the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Carter Center brought together Christian scholars like Carter’s fellow Baptist David Gushee to compile a “scripturally annotated” version of that landmark document.) As president in 1977, Carter went no further than to call for an American foreign policy that would reflect “our belief that dignity and freedom are fundamental spiritual requirements.”
But in a 2011 article, presidential historian Gary Scott Smith argues that Carter’s foreign policy reflected his personal convictions as a progressive evangelical. While Smith detects the moderating influence of Reinhold Niebuhr (at least initially, “Carter insisted that God’s requirements for individuals were much higher than those for society”), he suggests that Carter ultimately broke with that Christian realist, deciding instead that “institutions could promote Christian causes and virtues. Carter concluded that the aims of individuals, denominations, and nations were remarkably similar: to advance ideals, promote peace, insure human rights, alleviate suffering, and translate love into justice.”
While Carter learned that “translating that commitment into consistent, effective action in countries around the world, however, was extremely difficult,” Smith points to two diplomatic successes that both “rested in large part on his commitment as a Christian to justice and peace.” Seeking to “apply the philosophy of repentance and reform” to the history of U.S. policy in Latin America, Carter lobbied successfully to restore Panamanian sovereignty over the Panama Canal — an issue on which he was opposed by Christian fundamentalists but had the support of Southern Baptist missionaries and other religious figures. (Click here for a more in-depth study of Christian debates over the Canal.) Second, Carter’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East started with him attending a prayer service at First Baptist Church in Washington and concluded a year later with the president brokering the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which culminated in a multi-religious call to prayer.
“Numerous scholars have criticized Carter’s faith-based approach to foreign policy as naïve, arrogant, impractical, and ineffective,” concedes Smith. But Carter also “demonstrated that in some situations passionate advocacy motivated by these principles can produce positive effects that would not have been deemed feasible on the basis of realpolitik alone.”