Everyone should have their heroes. I may be 47, but I’m not too old to have my hero. Jimmy Carter is my hero.
I hate to admit I admire Jimmy Carter as much as I do. For one thing he is a passionate Christian and I am not. I am not sure exactly what I am, but I am not a Christian. While I like individuals who happen to be Christian, as a class I am not fond of Christians. But then there’s Jimmy. And after analyzing my feelings about the man I realize I like him because he is a Christian.
A contradiction? Not at all. I admire Christians who can actually act Christ-like. When I think my disenfranchisement with Christianity, aside from all the silly mysticism of much of it, my number one gripe is that most Christians seem to be more spiritually aligned with Satan than with Jesus. But then there’s Jimmy Carter. Here’s a man who epitomizes what Christianity should be but so rarely is. Certainly he is not alone. Perhaps I note so few of them because they so quietly do their work. But from my perspective true Christians are a rare breed. And I believe that Jimmy Carter is near or at the top of the list of people who epitomize the Jesus I found from reading the Bible.
I often wonder how many of those people who purport to be Christians have actually bothered to read Jesus’s words. Here in Virginia you can’t walk two feet without bumping into purported Christians. Unfortunately we’re talking about the Jerry Falwell type of Christian. These folks have no qualms about amassing large sums of money even though Jesus disdained wealth. These Christians seems to be obsessed over the evils of gays and sodomy even though Jesus hung out with Samaritans and prostitutes and stayed away from the rabbis at the temple. These Christians are people who every day feel free to condemn me and people like me for my lifestyle but seem to have wholly missed Jesus’s words saying only those without sin should cast the first stone.
Then there is Jimmy Carter. Humble. Decent. Not the proselytizing type. Not the sort of man to give you a lecture for your behavior. He is a man much more concerned about living the example of Jesus through deeds than through words. Here is a man who if he followed the Ronald Reagan model for ex-presidents might have grabbed speaking fees for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at a pop. Instead he went home after a bitter defeat, licked his wounds, built the required presidential library and went to work. Most of us know that he started Habitat for Humanity, which creates affordable housing across the nation. Many of us also know he has worked tirelessly to bring democratic government to nations that never knew it. If you look around the world today and wonder why there are more democratic nations than there were in 1980, don’t think Reagan or Bush had much to do with it. Thank instead Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter who monitored countless elections. Thank also Jimmy and Rosalyn for all their work vital work in world sustainable development.
People often say that Jimmy Carter was a terrible president. The truth is that Carter was too good to be our president. We say we want a man of peace and high character as our president. But in fact we prefer the macho cowboy as president, not the 98-pound weakling. We even prefer adulterers like Bill Clinton to weenie men like Jimmy Carter who confess lust in their hearts but don’t do anything about it. We saw Jimmy Carter as almost effeminate: a wimp. Here was a guy who agonized for weeks before sending American forces into combat in an unsuccessful attempt to free our hostages from Iran’s custody. We all know W would not be such a wimp. He’d send in the Marines! Send out the strike fighters! He’d show those wacky Persians who’s the boss! Yes, we require a real man (or perhaps someday a real woman) as our president. We don’t want someone who realizes what a hollow thing our sexual stereotypes are and instead is content to be an honest and fallible human being.
The truth was that Carter was a president during times that would have tripped up anyone. The same fate would have befell Gerald Ford had he won in 1976. There is not much any president can do to reduce high inflation, high interest rates and oil shocks in four short years. But Carter did what he could. Although the deficits of the 1970s look puny by modern standards he did manage to reduce the annual federal budget deficit, unlike his immediate predecessors. And he made unpopular but correct choices in a number of areas. Does anyone remember the hubbub of “giving away” the Panama Canal? Does anyone care now that it is under the control of the Panamanian people? It was the right thing to do and Carter had the leadership to make sure it happened.
And what other president prior to Carter did as much for world peace? Certainly many presidents sent men to war to create a peace. But Jimmy Carter actively worked to solve the thorniest foreign policy issues. The Camp David Accords were an amazing achievement that created a peace that has endured for over 25 years between two implacable foes: Israel and Egypt. It is no wonder that for this and his many other achievements in peacemaking Jimmy Carter belatedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Last night I watched Carter, nearly 81, speak at the Democratic National Convention. His voice was unsteady at times but he is otherwise in remarkably good health. He gave of one the most concise but on target speeches against George W. Bush and his strategy of preemptive war that has ever been made. Who else could say this with such conviction and authority?
Today, our dominant international challenge is to restore the greatness of America – based on telling the truth, a commitment to peace, and respect for civil liberties at home and basic human rights around the world. Truth is the foundation of our global leadership, but our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world. Without truth – without trust – America cannot flourish. Trust is at the very heart of our democracy, the sacred covenant between the president and the people.
Jimmy Carter is modeling the behavior we should all emulate. If we had courage we would be following behind him. Instead of squandering our lives playing with game cubes or watching “reality” television, our lives could take on genuine meaning and richness. Carter is showing us a path we can all choose to take. How many of us have the courage to rise above our selfishness and live the meaningful life?
If I could pick just one person among all the brilliant people, statesmen and theologians in this world to spend an hour with I would pick Jimmy Carter. Just to have the opportunity to shake his hand would be the highlight of my life. Jimmy, if you are in Northern Virginia, take this as a standing invitation. And as a wishy washy Unitarian Universalist to a true Christian I say: God bless.