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Bob Abernethy’s interview with former president Jimmy Carter:
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Mr. President, it’s good to see you again.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Thank you. It’s nice seeing you again.
ABERNETHY: You’ve collected these meditations on Bible passages and lessons you’ve taught about them. What’s your approach to scripture? Do you believe it’s literally true, or is it open to individual interpretation?
President CARTER: Well, I wouldn’t want to open up the Pandora’s box too much about literal interpretation. I think the basic thrust of a scripture is ultimate and all-pervasively true. I believe, obviously, that Jesus is the son of God, that he was the promised Messiah. I believe that he was born of the Virgin Mary. Those tenets of my faith are very secure for me.
I don’t think that the universe was created in seven days, as we know them. I happen to be an engineer; I’m a scientist, and I don’t believe that stars ever fell on Earth. I think that within the bounds of human knowledge of science at the time the scriptures were written, they were the ultimate. But I don’t see now, and have never seen, any incompatibility between the truth as has been proven through scientific discoveries that the Earth was round and that the Earth is not the center of the universe — those kinds of things — and biblical scripture as I understand it. If one should go so far as to believe in the Big Bang theory, which is generally accepted now, I see that as completely compatible with God’s creation of the universe. So, I’m perfectly at ease with — you know, with the scriptures as I understand them and the scientific discoveries that have been proven.
ABERNETHY: You’ve taught the lessons in “Sources of Strength over a period of 20 years. These are your “best picks”?
President CARTER: Yeah.
ABERNETHY: Suppose you could choose a lesson right now, not only for your church in Plains, but for the whole country. What do you think it is we most need to hear?
President CARTER: Well, there’re a lot of them. One that comes to mind is, “Be ye kind, one to another, forgiving each other as God through His mercy has forgiven us.” I think that’s one that can ease tension and create a better society. Another one is Jesus’ admonition, “Judge not if you be not judged.” I don’t think that it’s helpful for our society for certain people in it who are lucky enough to be rich and powerful and secure and well-educated and well-fed to derogate the status in God’s eyes of people who are less fortunate than we are. I think this also is completely compatible with the teachings of Christ who, in his most vivid demonstrations of a proper conduct reached out to people, who today we would know as AIDS victims, who had been known as lepers; the prisons whom he visited, the sinners that were despised by others; the Samaritans, who would be the equivalent of minority groups. I think Jesus went out of His way to show that that was a proper conduct for a Christian. So, those are the kinds of scriptures that come to my mind when I think about ways that our sins — that our society could be improved.
ABERNETHY: How would you describe the condition of American society right now in this whole context? Are we — is it a normal time? Is it unusual in some ways?
President CARTER: I think it’s a predictable time. When I look at the standards of conduct that are acceptable and prevalent now, compared to when I was a child growing up during the Depression years, there’s a dramatic change — I think for the worst. Plus it’s — I never knew anyone in the community in which I lived who was divorced. I knew that people in Hollywood got divorced and violated the pledge in the eye — in the presence of God to love, honor and cherish each other for eternity between a husband and wife. That concerns me. I think that there’s no doubt that the prevalence of almost unrestricted television and motion pictures and the field of violence and sexual promiscuity are dramatic changes.
At the same time, I look at the way my children have evolved and my ten grandchildren. I think their basic values are just as good as mine were. And I have high hopes for the new generation of young people. I’ve taught as a professor now for 18 years at Emory University, and I see this. So, I don’t think that the moral quality of American citizens is lower than it was back then, despite the fact that society’s standards have deteriorated.
ABERNETHY: It seems to me that a lot of people, in spite of all the prosperity, still are uneasy and find something missing. And it seems to me that there’s a hunger for some more meaning in life than can be supplied by prosperity. Do you sense this?
President CARTER: Yes, I do. I’ve taught, I estimate, 1,700 Bible lessons since I was 18 years old. And I selected these 52 lessons in this book — one for each week — in “Sources of Strength” to be most applicable to the problems and the challenges and the disappointments and the sorrows and the failures and the challenges that we face in life today, as derived from the Holy Scriptures, lessons that applied in the Old Testament, the Hebrew version of the Bible, or the New Testament, and how they apply today. And I think a basic premise that we need to ursue is we should cling to unchanging principles as taught in the Bible and other places, and still be able to accommodate changing times. And that requires character, it requires faith in one’s god, faith in one’s nation, faith in one’s parents. Faith in one’s self I think is quite often is lacking. And so I — I don’t think there’s any cause for concern that our society is going down the drain or that our young people are not as good as we were. But I think there is a probing right now, with the coming of a new millennium, among people, which I think is very advantageous to say, “Well, here’s the two thousandth birthday, in effect of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? Why have two billion people on earth accepted faith in Him as a basic commitment of life?” “Why was I created? What is my proper relationship to God?” “What is my proper relationship to my fellow human beings?” “How can I live a life that is a success — a success not measured by bank accounts or the beauty of one’s house or one’s name in the paper, but success as measured by the principles of God, that don’t change?” I think that’s the kind of question that is now being pursued increasingly by people as the millennium approaches.
ABERNETHY: You’ve seen a whole lot of the world, including a lot of poverty and disease. If the United States and other rich countries were to make it a priority, how much of those problems of hunger and poverty and disease do you think could be eliminated?
President CARTER: A great deal. And some countries have made this a priority. I just got back from a trip to England and to Norway and to The Netherlands, and also down to Mali in Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s all very disturbing to me as a former President that this nation with generous people in it has become by far the stingiest nation on earth. Every time an American gives a dollar to alleviate hunger or alleviate poverty or to promote freedom in an African nation, for instance — every time we give a dollar, a Norwegian gives $20. Every industrialized nation in the world is more generous than we are. And I’ve seen at first hand in our projects at the Carter Center in 35 African nations how eager the people in those countries are to improve themselves, how hardworking they are, how ambitious they are, how good their family values are if they’re given a chance.
ABERNETHY: Mr. President, we always used to think of ourselves as a generous people.
President CARTER: Yeah.
ABERNETHY: What happened? Why are we, as you say, so “stingy”?
President CARTER: Part of it, I think, is priorities established by the White House. When was in office, when President Ford was in office, when President Nixon was in office, when President Johnson was in office, [and] President Kennedy, this country was the most generous of all. We were very deeply concerned about people in the poverty-stricken nations — the “Third World”, so-called. There was another factor there, to be honest about it, that prevailed; and that was the competition with the Soviet Union. Because as we looked at Ethiopia, as we looked at Ghana, as we looked at Sierra Leone, as we looked at Guatemala and El Salvador in this hemisphere — we said, “If we don’t help those people and make friends out of them, then the Soviet Union will move in, and communism will take over.” Now, with the end of the Cold War, the United States has retrogressed dramatically away from giving assistance to those countries. And when we do have a very penurious bill passed in Congress, which the Congress has just passed — and President Clinton vetoed it because it was too stingy — a lot of our aid goes to special countries. We give hardly anything to some of the nations I’ve mentioned to you, but we give $10 million a day to Israel. And we are now going to increase that amount. But as far as giving money to the people in Liberia or Sierra Leone, we don’t do it.
ABERNETHY: Picking up again with President Carter, we were talking about United States aid to countries that are the poorest and that need it. In that connection, what do you think would be a realistic goal for this country?
President CARTER: Well, a goal that has been established by the United Nations and by the community of countries, including the United States, is seven tenths of one percent of our GNP for humanitarian assistance. The European nations in general give four tenths of one percent. Norway gives a full seven tenths of one percent. The United States gives one tenth — less than one tenth of one percent. So, we’re at the bottom, by far. And I would like to see us come up to the international standard of seven tenths of one percent, but that would require more than a sevenfold increase in our humanitarian assistance. This is something that Americans don’t understand. We think we give about 15 percent of our total budget to foreign aid projects. Obviously, we don’t. And it’s not just the Congress that’s ill-advised, because I know enough about politics to realize that if a member of Congress is running for reelection on a platform of increasing foreign aid, that he or she would probably be defeated. So, there’s a distrust, I think, a disconnect between what Americans would like to do in beneficence or generosity or sharing, on the one hand, and what we want to do in granting government funds — taxpayers’ funds–to foreign countries.
ABERNETHY: Right now, there are economic sanctions imposed against Iraq and Cuba.
President CARTER: Yes.
ABERNETHY: The goal is to punish those countries’ leaders, but very often it’s the ordinary people who are hurt the most. What do you make of those sanctions?
President CARTER: I know they’re tragic mistakes. And I know — I know personally how devastating the so-called sanctions are against the people that we’re trying to help. What we do is exalt the oppressive dictators. We exalt Saddam Hussein, we exalt Fidel Castro, in the minds of their own people, as heroes who are fighting the “oppressor in Washington.” And all of the human problems that are caused in economics and social problems that are caused by the dictators themselves are blamed on the United States of America, because they have control — Saddam and Castro has control of the television and the radio and the news media. In Iraq, for instance, our ill-advised, sustained sanctions on shipments of food and medicine and so forth have caused a quintupling of the infant mortality rate in the last seven years. And I think the best way to bring democracy and freedom to Cuba is to open up completely all travel opportunities for Americans to go to Cuba, and to lift the sanctions.
ABERNETHY: You met last month with a delegation for Iraq.
President CARTER: Yes.
ABERNETHY: What did you agree with them that you would do?
President CARTER: Well, there is an organization that Roselyn and I have established called The Friendship Force, and our little son Chip now works as vice president of that. It’s an exchange program that includes Iraq and Cuba, for instance. Billy Graham and I agreed — I contacted Billy Graham personally — that it would be a good thing to bypass Saddam Hussein and to go directly to the religious leaders of Iraq. So, we invited the head of the Christian community there, the patriarch of the Christian church, and the head of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim faiths to come to the United States. And I interceded and got visas for them. They met with Billy Graham, they met with me — came down to my home. And I arranged for CNN to have a long interview with them on CNN International just so they could describe not how to protect Saddam Hussein, but to stay out of politics and just say what is the effect of the U.S. sanctions on the children of Iraq. And then they went from here and met with the Archbishop of Canterbury and then went back home. What we are trying to do is to let the American people know just what you and I have already discussed, and that is that when we try to impose sanctions to hurt Saddam Hussein, we actually hurt the people who are already suffering under his despotic leadership, and we’re giving him excuses for his ill-advised oppression and blamed it on the United States in — among the Iraqi people.
ABERNETHY: But what was it, if anything, that you … agreed with those people from Iraq that you would do to try to —
President CARTER: Well, to continue to publicize what the problem is. And also, it may be that — that Billy Graham and I would write an op-ed piece together, which might have an effect — a former President and a great religious leader. Also, we’re talking about the possibility of my son and Billy Graham’s son Frank in going to Baghdad as highly publicized visitors who would certainly avoid the political aspect associated with Saddam Hussein, but who would give publicity to the plight of the people in Iraq who are suffering.
ABERNETHY: What do you — how do you see your role now? You’re a former President, and you perhaps have some special responsibilities to support the United States government. On the other hand, there are things that are U.S. government policy with which you clearly disagree.
President CARTER: Yes.
ABERNETHY: So — how do you work that out? How do you … speak out for the causes that you want to without seeming to be … “disloyal” is too strong, but you get the idea?
President CARTER: Well, this has been a problem that I think I’ve resolved — at least legally — in proper fashion. I never do go into a contentious or sensitive area of the world without first getting permission from the White House. I did this when President Reagan was in office, Bush and Clinton. Sometimes I have found myself very frustrated in wanting to so somewhere where I thought I could be helpful and not getting permission, in which case I don’t go.
At the same time, Roselyn and I have been to 115 nations since I left the White House. We concentrate our efforts in 65 of the poorest countries on earth, 35 of them in Africa. We go there. We know what is happening there. Every time I make a trip to one of those countries, I have always typed on the way home on my word processor a full trip report. The next day after I get home to Plains, I send a copy of my trip report with my comments on it to the White House and to the State Department, sometime to the United Nations; so that there’s no doubt in the President’s mind what I think and what I think would be advantageous.
And then we act with freedom, I would say, in arenas of the world in which the White House has very little interest. Sometimes we have full support from the White House. For instance, we have just spent a lot of time in Indonesia, trying to bring democracy and freedom to this fourth-largest nation in the world, and I think it’s been a very successful effort. If Indonesia becomes a democracy, it’ll be the third-largest democracy in the world. We were there in East Timor when the registration of voters took place. I’m on the way very shortly to Mozambique to help hold a — a democratic election there. We were in Nigeria to hold a democratic election in February and so forth. In those cases, just to complete my answer, we had support from the White House. So, there are times when I am critical of our policies, like in Cuba, and times when I fully support what the President is doing.
ABERNETHY: If you were President today and your double were out doing what you were — you are — doing, would you be a little cross about that?
President CARTER: Perhaps, but I have an ability to share my feelings with the incumbent President, no matter whether the President’s Democratic or Republican. And I really haven’t departed from the policies that I established long before Reagan — and Bush and Clinton went into office. For instance, I had only been in office less than two months before I lifted all travel restraints to Cuba. And Castro and I established an interest section — a diplomatic post — in both Havana and Washington. So, I’m not, you know, looking back and changing my attitude towards —
ABERNETHY: Not changing your policy, but–
President CARTER: No.
ABERNETHY: …you might be doing something different than —
President CARTER: I disagree with what’s been done since then. And I don’t have any reluctance to let my disagreement be known as long as it’s public and– and, I hope, constructive in nature.
ABERNETHY: Mr. President, you work very hard and you have worked very hard for peace in the Middle East. On the eve of the millennium, how do you size up the prospects for that?
President CARTER: Well, I have to be an optimist. That’s one of the regions of the world that I think we could have helped that I have not been able to get permission from the White House, so I haven’t been to the Middle East in quite a while. I’ve been there three times since President Clinton’s been in office. I went over once with a Carter Center delegation to help hold the elections for the Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza; and I went back for Rabin’s funeral and for King Hussein’s funeral.
I think it’s been very healthy that Barak is now the prime minister. I think he has a positive attitude toward the peace process. I think that President Assad in Syria is ready to negotiate in good faith. I know him quite well. I’ve been there many times. I know the Palestinians perhaps as well as most anybody in this country does. I’ve dealt with them for long periods of time. So the possibilities are there. Whether they’ll be realized or not I don’t yet know. I go back to the time I spent at Camp David and the six months following that led up to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. I’m familiar with it — with the difficulties. It’s gonna be quite a hard problem to decide the ultimate and permanent status of Jerusalem. It’s going to be a difficult problem concerning the ending of Israeli settlements all over the West Bank and Gaza … and even the dismantling of some that have been established deliberately to prevent the Palestinians retaining all of it. It’s going to be quite difficult to deal with the question of the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland following the 1967 and even earlier 1948 wars. Those are the permanent settlement issues that have not yet even been addressed.
So, I don’t underestimate the problem. But I do see a possibility for the Israelis and the Palestinians to live side by side without violence; with an accommodation of each other; with access, at least free access to the holy places and Jerusalem for Muslims and other non- Christians. And for administration of the Palestinians of most of the areas in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s just gonna have to be a long, tedious, slow but, I think, ultimately successful negotiation. Excuse me.
ABERNETHY: I want to ask you some questions about domestic political life.
President CARTER: Okay. I’ll try.
ABERNETHY: What’s your assessment these days of the power of the religious right? Growing? Waning?
President CARTER: I think the strength of the religious right is now waning. It was practically nonexistent when I ran for President in 1976. It had grown substantially by 1980, when President Reagan ran against me, and there was a marriage, in effect, of the religious right and the Republican party, which still prevails. But I think the last few elections have shown that there’s a strict limit to the influence of the religious right to shape the outcome of the election. If they had been as powerful as we anticipated, then obviously Clinton would not have been elected or reelected. So, I think there’s a limit to it. And I think that the American people don’t particularly like the concept of a marriage of church and state, where the Republicans, in effect, are the Christian right and the Christian right is expected to vote the way the Republican party wants them to. So, I think that the threat of a powerful Christian right has been greater than the reality.
ABERNETHY: Some of the candidates for the presidential nominations have been speaking out unusually openly about their religious convictions. What do you make of that?
President CARTER: Well, I think it’s good. I think that they can do it and get away with it. When I first announced as an answer to a question when I was running for President that I was a born-again Christian, there was a great deal of consternation and furor about it. I think now it’s become kind of a routine thing.
ABERNETHY: Do you think that people generally — all of us — are more tolerant of religious language in politics?
President CARTER: Well, I think more understanding; because a lot of people who were not anti-Christian thought, when I said I was “born-again,” that I had some kind of special visions from God, and that I considered myself to be superior to other people on earth, and that I was going to create a Baptist dictatorship in the White House and things of that kind. Now I think they see that this is a routine part of a Christian’s life, to profess faith in Christ. So, I don’t — I think it’s maybe beneficial for candidates just to announce their faith. If they’re Jewish — and I hope that somebody we’ll have maybe Jewish citizens who become President — if it’s a born-again Christian, if it’s a Christian who’s a Catholic or a Protestant and expresses their faith — as John Kennedy did first — I think that’s perfectly all right.
ABERNETHY: Most of us have conflicting opinions about Presidents and religion, I think. On the one hand, we want a candidate who acknowledges God.
President CARTER: Sure.
ABERNETHY: On the other hand, we want a President who can be very tough. Is there a conflict there?
President CARTER: Well, it depends on what “tough” is.
ABERNETHY: “Tough” is?
President CARTER: I think Jesus was tough, and if you look at forceful, courageous, determined and effective, I think Jesus was very strong in combating prejudice and alleviating suffering. So, “tough” doesn’t bother me. But I think there’s an element of the Christian faith that quite often is not pursued adequately, and that is the fact that we worship the Prince of Peace. I was a submariner. My career was in the Navy. I created a very strong defense, which I was not hesitant to use in carrying out my diplomatic goals. But I went through four years without ever having a bullet or a missile fired. We never dropped a bomb on anybody. And when we had a troubled arena in the world, we tried through diplomacy, and through the realization by our adversaries that we were strong, to maintain peace. So, I think for somebody to be for peace, for human rights, for the alleviation of suffering is not signs of weakness. And those are, in my opinion, completely compatible with the Christian faith.
ABERNETHY: But is there a danger, do you think, that a President who is too religious — if there’s such a thing — could make decisions that would not be in the national interest?
President CARTER: Well, I think there is a danger. If a President should assume that his own religious faith was superior and was “the right one” and that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and the next step is anyone who disagreed was both wrong and inferior — and you could go to extremes and say anyone who disagreed is wrong, inferior and subhuman — then a President’s oath of office, which encompasses the treatment of all Americans the same under the Constitution, regardless of religious faith, or whether they have any religious faith at all, would be violated. And that kind of what I would consider to be extremism in one’s faith — no matter how devout a person might be — can be extended on an international basis by, in effect, condemning a nation that happened not to be Christian and saying that all Jewish nations — particularly Israel — or all Muslim nations, or all Hindu nations were not to be treated equally, but to be persecuted and even abused because they don’t share my personal faith, if I was an extreme religious believer, could be devastating in its impact.
ABERNETHY: Do you see that danger now?
President CARTER: To some degree. But I think there’re enough checks and balances in our country to prevent it, because we — with our heterogeneous society and with the basic principles of separation of church and state established in the Constitution of the United States, I don’t think it can go far enough to create the kind of, well, problem that I just outlined as an ultimate case.
ABERNETHY: Did you make any decisions as President because of your religious faith that you might not have made if you had not been a religious man?
President CARTER: Well, that’s a hard question to answer, because my religious faith is just like breathing for me, and it’s hard for me to imagine if I didn’t have any religious faith. But I would guess — and I believe — that the basic principles of the Constitution of the United States and its societal structure would be adequate to constrain my actions as President. I don’t see any incompatibility between my religious faith and the basic laws and constitutional provisions of my country. I think that my religious faith did give me more of a of a commitment to human rights around the world, to civil rights at home, to the peaceful resolution of challenges, to the avoidance of conflict if it would bring destruction or death on other people. And so I think that there’s no doubt that my faith did affect my decisions, but I don’t think that they distorted my decisions away from the basic principles of our Constitution and laws.
ABERNETHY: Were you as restrained as you were in the Iran hostage crisis because of your religious faith?
President CARTER: I think the answer to that question is yes. I prayed more when I was President than any other four years of my life. I prayed more during the year that the hostages were held than any other year that I was in office — that I would have the patience to accomplish the goals that I established at the very beginning. I had two goals. One was to preserve the integrity of my nation and not do anything to embarrass my country. And the second one was to bring every hostage home safe and free. And I asked God to help me with those commitments.
I could have launched a very popular military strike on Iran. I could have destroyed Iran — and in the process killed thousands of innocent Iranians, which would also have resulted maybe the assassination or killing of American hostages. I had advice to do that. I decided not to. And I felt — I guess I felt that God would answer my prayer. Well, I never did embarrass my nation or violate its principles. Every hostage came home faith — safe and free. So, my prayer was answered. God answered my prayer later than I wanted. If my prayer had been answered a week before the election of 1980, I would have been a two-term President. But I understand that God answers prayers in different ways. Sometimes He answers “yes,” sometimes He answers “no.” And sometimes He answer answers late, and sometimes He answers, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had I not had religious faith, I would not have been so patient.
ABERNETHY: I want to ask you about trying to convert people of other faiths. Southern Baptists have been in the news recently with their efforts to convert Jews and Hindus and others. Where do you come out on this? Should Christians try to convert everybody else?
President CARTER: Well, I think there’s a mandate from Christ Himself for Christians to go into Judea and Samaria and through other nations to spread The Word of Christianity. And I try to do that, as a matter of fact. I have done it. I’ve restricted my own evangelical efforts to those who don’t have any faith. I’ve never tried to target a devout Muslim or a devout Jew or a devout Hindu and say, “Your religion is wrong. Adopt mine as a superior religion”– although I obviously think that Christianity is the religion that God mandates. And this can be done in a very contentious and counterproductive fashion. If you have time, let me give you one example. In the year that I was elected President. from our little, tiny church in Plains, there was another family, uh [of?] farmers, named Jerome Etheridge and his wife Joanne. And he was not a — not even a Sunday school teacher, but he felt the call to be a missionary. He went to Togo eventually, after learning French. He’d never spoken any foreign language before. He was not, and is still not, eloquent at all. He makes a very fumbling and ineffective speech. When he got to Togo, he assessed the area around where he was assigned. In an 80-mile radius there was only five religious congregations — two Catholic and three Muslim. Jerome decided that he would do other things in the name of Christ. He began — he got a North Carolina Baptist to give him a well-drilling outfit. He drilled 130 wells. He dug fish ponds. He built a bridge across a great river. And Jerome will leave Togo this year. He’ll leave behind him 80 churches with 5,000 Christians, because he actually did things for other people in the name of Christ. To me, that is the proper way to exhibit our faith — and not just to try to convert people who have another, established faith in the same God to worship differently.
ABERNETHY: But there is a question — a fundamental question here — that I really want to get at a little more. You believe in the truth of Christianity.
President CARTER: Yes.
ABERNETHY: A Jew believes in the truth of Judaism.
President CARTER: Yes.
ABERNETHY: A Muslim believes in the truth of Islam. How do you learn to respect the truth of another religion and at the same time remain committed to the truth of your own?
President CARTER: Well, I don’t find any difficulty in doing that. I think I learned a lot at Camp David, where Begin, Sadat and I spent the first three day together. They were so incompatible, they spent the next ten days carefully kept apart. And one of the things that we did agree on is that we worshipped the same God. And that was a tie that binds us. And we worship a God of peace and a God of forgiveness and a God of accommodation. Sadat was the main spokesman for this premise, and he made it plain that all Muslims who followed the Quran must revere Christ as a prophet, and on the same basis as Moses or Abraham and others. And so I feel at ease with this proposition, and I’ve — I’m pleased when I hear about Jewish conversions to Christianity. I don’t have any doubt in my own mind that Christ is the Son of God, that Christ is the expected Messiah. At the same time, I don’t feel that it is proper for me as a Christian to be judge — judgmental. Jesus said, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Why do you look at a fly speck in your brother’s eye when you’ve got a two-by-four in your own? And Paul taught that all people are equal at the foot of the cross. So, I think God is the one to judge whether a person is lost through eternity or saved by a particular profession of faith.
But a lot of the things that I do now since I’ve left politics is done in the name of Christ. And I think this is the way to spread the Gospel about Christ, not to have a preachment to condemnation of others or singling out of those who already have a deep faith in the same God.
ABERNETHY: On our program, we had begun doing a little segment from time to time on what we call “belief in practice.” We think people are interested in how others go about the daily business of trying to orient themselves to God. Can I — can I ask you a little bit about that? We’ve just finished.
President CARTER: Sure.
ABERNETHY: What do you do each day? What is your daily practice as far as religion is concerned?
President CARTER: Well, I establish my priorities for my life’s work, which encompasses days, obviously, as well as weeks and months I think compatible with my Christian faith. My — I teach Sunday school every Sunday. My wife and I read the Bible aloud every night. We never fail. We both speak a little Spanish, so at this time we’re going’ through the New Testament in Spanish. Last night, I read a chapter aloud to Roselyn. Tonight, she’ll read the next chapter to me aloud in Spanish. So, that is kind of the more formal experience that I have in religion. I pray often for guidance. I do things around Plains for my church, so I don’t know if that’s your question or not, but I don’t feel that my religious faith is ostentatious or condemnatory toward others who don’t share it.
ABERNETHY: Do you have –for instance, some practice that you do first thing in the morning– prayer or meditation?
President CARTER: Not really. We read the Bible at night instead of early in the morning. I — get up quite early by myself. I make my living writing books, and I — when I’m at home in Plains, I’m up every morning at five o’clock. Between then and let’s say 8:30, when I call my secretary in Atlanta, I have 3 hours of freedom to think and to meditate and to write. And then I — it’s in the evening when Roselyn and I share a discussion about the Bible and actually read aloud to each other.
ABERNETHY: Some people try to keep prayer going all the time. Do you pray often during the day?
President CARTER: I do. I pray often during the day. And I teach in my Sunday school classes every Sunday that people should pray constantly. But I can’t say that I do that. But I think as we get the habit of praying, there is a subconscious, at least, realization that we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit; that our standards of life should be those espoused and demonstrated by Christ, with a realization that when we make mistakes we can be forgiven by a loving God. Those are the things that permeate my consciousness almost in a subliminal way.
ABERNETHY: I want to ask you just quickly about the charitable chores.
President CARTER: All right.
ABERNETHY: There’s a debate under way, as you know, about the proper relationship between government, government money and religion-based, church-based social-service ministries. Where do you come out on that? Can a church doing social service properly take money from the government without risking its independence? Can taxpayers support a program that’s run by a church that has a clearly religion — religious component? Where do you come out?
President CARTER: I come out, I guess, on what would be considered the more conservative interpretation. I’m — I’m concerned about that. I’m one of the leaders in Habitat for Humanity, which is not a church. A basic policy of ours is not to accept government money to pay for building houses. And I espouse that philosophy. I’ve just gotten back from England and Norway and — and The Netherlands, where taxpayers’ money can — a certain portion of it is set aside to support the churches. I had supper the other night with the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And there’s a certain desiccation or drying up of the country churches and town churches all over England and Norway and Sweden and Finland, where I visited. I think a part of that is because the church congregation depends on tax money to finance the operation of the church. So, I really have adopted this from a fervent belief in my father that derived from my father that there ought to be a total separation of church and state. So, I don’t espouse and don’t approve of government grants to churches to carry out the ministry of Christ, which should be a direct responsibility of their members, who profess to be Christians.
ABERNETHY: Some of these organizations have developed, for instance, treating drug addiction — have developed programs that work far better than anybody else’s programs. Why not let them do it?
President CARTER: I’m in favor of them doing it.
ABERNETHY: With government aid.
President CARTER: Why don’t they do it with the church congregation’s contributions? And not only of money, but of — of time and of reaching out to the people whom they probably don’t even know? I mean I’ve seen too many times — and I’ve been part of it — the self-satisfaction of a homogeneous church congregation who feels very self-satisfied when we go to religious services every Sunday, and we dress in our nice clothes, and we sit next to people with clothes just like ours all of whom are affluent and self-satisfied and self-reliant and safe and well-educated. And we don’t even know the people that live a half a mile away, who might not have any of the advantages that we have. I think one of the reasons that the churches that you mention have been successful in reaching out to the drug addict, or the alcoholic, or the — or the poverty-stricken person is because they do it on their own volition. And it’s the best way to break down the barrier that exists between us rich folks and the people in need. And that is what Jesus demonstrated. And I think that that should be done through the generosity, uh, of the free congregation gifts to such a program — and not say, “Let the Congress stand back and say, ‘Okay. The U.S. government, give us so much money. We will spend it for these unfortunate people.'” I just feel very strongly about that.
ABERNETHY: And I have a personal question. When you were President, a lot of us felt we got to know Amy. How’s she doing?
President CARTER: Amy is doing just great. She has finished her graduate work in art history at Tulane University. She’s married a fine, young man whom — of whom we are very — for whom we are very grateful. Amy’s just had her first baby who’s now almost three months old — a wonderful child, already obviously well above average, very handsome and one of the treasures of our life. He’s our tenth grandchild. So, I would say in every way we’re very proud of Amy. A lot of people can’t realize that the nine-year-old Amy that went into the White House is now an established housewife and accomplished artist and a mother. But you can see that I’m very proud of Amy.
ABERNETHY: Mr. President, many thanks.
President CARTER: It’s been a pleasure.