Whatever you think of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the odds are good that those views have now blended into some kind of appreciation for some of the work accomplished during his long and complex ex-presidency. Note the double use of the word "some" in that sentence.
However, even the most negative evaluations of his work usually show some respect for what Carter has done with a Bible in one hand and a hammer in the other, working on countless projects at home and abroad to help the least of these.
Carter's Baptist beliefs have, of course, continued to evolve, moving him to the doctrinal left on most moral and cultural issues. But there are still times when you can hear him arguing with himself on these matters. Soon after he left the White House, I interviewed him and watched him interact with a group of Lutheran young people meeting in Denver. He began crying as he described the frustrations he felt trying to place any kinds of legal limits on abortion in America, but he kept trying because he knew what science said about when life begins, as well as what his faith told him to do.
Like him or not, Carter is the man who made history by pulling millions of evangelical Protestants into the political arena, either to support him or to oppose him.
This brings me to the mainstream media coverage of Carter's press conference dealing with his current battle with cancer, including small melanoma cancers in his brain. Watch the video at the top of this post and then think about this Twitter comment by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post (who, of course, used to write for GetReligion):
In the first New York Times report on this event, this is all that readers were told about Carter's state of mind and soul.
“I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” Mr. Carter said. “I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”
Although Mr. Carter said he would be reducing his public schedule, he added that he still intended to teach Sunday school this weekend at Maranatha Baptist Church, the congregation in Plains, Ga., where he has long appeared.
In other words, Carter freely mentioned his faith, even if reporters did little to bring it up in the context of his looming battle with cancer and preparations for death.
Now, it is interesting that if you click that Times link -- here it is again -- you will now be taken to a different version of that earlier story. The new version includes a more prominent description of Carter's faith and its role in his life, as the politician who forced legions of journalists to wrestle with the meaning of the phrase "born again." Here is the top of that expanded report:
ATLANTA -- The 39th president of the United States walked into the crowded room on Thursday, slightly stooped at 90 years old, but nimble as a cat. He flashed the fleshy smile that once launched a thousand caricatures.
And then Jimmy Carter spoke, with the lilt of a South Georgia farmer and the pragmatic frankness of a seasoned executive, about the cancer that had been removed from his liver, but was more recently discovered in his brain. He spoke about the innovative treatment regimen to combat the melanoma, which he began a day earlier and planned to continue Thursday afternoon.
And he spoke about the born-again Christian beliefs that some viewed as a potential impediment during his 1976 candidacy -- but which were helping him now, he said, as he prepared for what was perhaps his life’s final contest.
“I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” Mr. Carter said, speaking before the news media here at the Carter Center, the nonprofit dedicated to global health and democracy that he co-founded in 1982. “I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”
I also appreciated this passage in the completed story, which placed Carter's faith and work in the context of his family:
It is unclear how long Mr. Carter may live. But his grandson Jason Carter, 40, said he hoped that the treatments would offer the former president more time to fish and watch his great-grandsons’ baseball games.
The younger Mr. Carter said Thursday’s announcement was typical of his grandfather’s penchant for being “completely honest and transparent,” and guided by “this deep and abiding faith, and courage, and analytical brain.”
“There’s no doubt that he’s confronting this chapter in that same vein,” said Mr. Carter, a Democrat who last year failed in his bid to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become governor of Georgia.
Carter does have a typically Southern way of talking about these matters. The best example of a complete quote from this press conference that demonstrates that, at least that I have seen so far, comes from a short report from the progressive Baptist News Global website:
Carter, 90, who announced Aug. 12 that recent liver surgery indicated he has cancer that has spread to other parts of his body, told reporters when he first heard the word cancer “I thought I just had a few weeks left.”
“But I was surprisingly at ease,” the 39th U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize winner reflected. “I’ve had a wonderful life. I have thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting, adventurous and gratifying existence. So I was surprisingly at ease, much more so than my wife was. Now I feel it’s in the hands of God, whom I worship, and I’ll be prepared for anything that comes.”
“I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had thousands of friends. I’ve had an exciting, adventurous, gratifying existence,” the 90-year-old Carter said Thursday at a news conference broadcast nationally from the Carter Center, his humanitarian organization in Atlanta.
Believe it or not, there were other reports that devoted little, if any, attention to the faith content of Carter's life and struggle with cancer. Take, for example, the story at The Washington Post, which said:
"I'm perfectly at ease with whatever comes," Carter said, at a news conference.
Oh, and he still plans to lead his Sunday school class.
I think there is more to this life-and-death story than that.