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In Plains, Ga., an evangelical politician like no other

Say the words “evangelical politician” and a specific image probably comes to mind. But in one small church, a Democratic former president remains a voice for a minority of the faithful who see the nation and their faith in different terms.

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Former President Jimmy Carter walked with his wife, Rosalynn, after teaching Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., in 2015. In 2018, the two celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary.

Branden Camp/AP/File

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It’s the morning after his and Rosalynn’s 72nd wedding anniversary, and former President Jimmy Carter is walking slowly into the crowded sanctuary at Maranatha Baptist, his hometown congregation here in rural Plains for the past 40 years.

He stops to peer over the people sitting together closely in the sanctuary’s pews. “Are there any visitors here today?” he asks, his lips pursed with just the slightest of grins. The congregation laughs, knowing that when he’s not teaching his Sunday school class, only 25 to 30 of his neighbors join him at Maranatha’s Sunday service.

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There are more than 10 times that number here today – self-described pilgrims, long-time admirers, and journalists. At 93, the nation’s 39th president has been giving such lessons here since 1981, about 40 Sundays every year since the time he left office. He’s slowed down since surviving brain cancer three years ago, and President Carter has only three more classes scheduled the rest of this year. 

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As he walks around the room, asking folks where they’re from, Bertice Berry is grinning, too. She’d driven down from Savannah this morning, taking extra time to wind through the back roads driving west with her daughter Fatima and “white sister” Brynn Grant. They wanted to see their home state’s country sights, they say.

“I just needed it,” says Ms. Berry, a sociologist and member of Savannah’s Christ Church Episcopal, the first official congregation in Georgia’s history. “I guess I’ve been really down over the political climate in the country, and I needed to feel restored. My heart longed for what this all is.”

Preserved by intention and circumstance, Plains is still in many ways a place that many imagine as a kind of pastoral ideal: small-town rural America, where residents hold to simple but strongly held virtues, commit themselves to local civic engagement, and attend small congregations of neighbors, churches that give ’em that old-time religion.

The Carters, in fact, have long structured the daily rhythms of their lives together around this small congregation at Maranatha. The night before, they took the half-mile walk over to the home of their close friend Jill Stuckey, a leader at Maranatha. She hosted a dinner in honor of their 72nd anniversary with about 10 old and new friends and some of his family.

“The Carters didn’t stay long,” Ms. Stuckey says. “Even though it was a special evening, President Carter had to prepare for his Sunday School lesson the next morning.”

In 1976, during a stop at the home of a North Carolina political supporter, then-candidate Carter sparked a wave of raised eyebrows across the United States when he professed to be a “born again Christian.” It was before the full blooming of the religious right and the Reagan revolution to come. At this time, just as many had questioned the implications of candidate John Kennedy’s Catholicism 16 years earlier, many “Washington elites” and journalists alleged that Carter’s conservative evangelical faith might make him the kind of person who would, say, claim to receive messages directly from God.

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In fact, it is fair to say that Carter then and now understands the world entirely through the lens of his Southern-rooted Baptist faith – a faith that indeed infused his politics, he’s said. “Despite what I consider to be a constitutional and biblical requirement for the separation of church and state,” he wrote in 2005, “I must acknowledge that my own religious beliefs have been inextricably entwined with the political principles I have adopted.”

And his 1980 defeat in many ways marked a moment in which Carter’s fellow Evangelicals mobilized into one of the most powerful political subgroups in the country, and the core of the Republican Party to this day.

If some 8 out of 10 white Evangelicals express support for President Trump, many enthusiastically, Carter has in many ways remained a voice for the small minority of Evangelicals, those 2 in 10 who see the nation and their faith in different terms.

There are many “still searching for harmonious answers to most of the controversial religious and political questions,” Carter wrote in his book “Our Endangered Values.” “It is in America’s best interests to understand one another and to find as much common ground as possible.”

Still, politics rarely finds a place in Carter’s Sunday school class, church members and others say. “You want him to get up and say, Trump is bad, and all that,” says Berry, politically far to the left of the former president. “But spiritually, we don’t need that. We need, like he says, only you are responsible for your actions. He’s a great leader by his example, and by his life.”

The Silo

Like a lot of other Maranatha members, Mary Jo Dodson, Carol Anderson, and Mildred, a resident of Plains since 1958 (who asked that her last name not be used), head over to The Silo Restaurant and Bakery after Sunday services most weeks.

The three took their usual table in the back room – an after-church ritual they’ve been doing, well, for at least a few decades, they say, spanning back to when the place had different owners and different names.

At the entrance of The Silo, just inside the front door, a “missing man table” is placed under a black POW-MIA flag. The empty place setting is flanked by a Bible, a candle, and a single red rose, along with other symbols of sacrifice.

“Miss Rosalynn, she was my Sunday school teacher back when I was 10 or 11,” says Ms. Dodson, drawing out her vowels. “We used to go to their house for the lessons sometimes.” And at Maranatha, she says, “we pretty much do everything together.”

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches during Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church on Dec. 13, 2015, in Plains, Ga. Mr. Carter has taught about 40 Sundays a year since after he left the White House.
Branden Camp/AP/File

The church’s longtime organist, Carol Anderson, 60 years in Plains, explains how members of the congregation do almost all the work together, taking turns to serve as custodians, caretakers of the sanctuary and church grounds, as well as the church’s other needs. The Carters have always taken their turn to contribute, she says – in the past mowing the lawn or even cleaning the toilets.

“They’re down-to-earth everyday people,” says Mildred, as she eats her fried chicken and white beans with ham hocks – which people joke is the vegetable down here. “They’ve never put on any airs – they’re just one of us, that’s all.” Mildred’s been a Maranatha member from the start. The congregation had its 40th anniversary in 2017, after breaking from Plains’s more conservative congregation in 1977.

Carter, who took up woodworking years ago, constructed the sanctuary’s large wooden cross. He also built some of the nursery’s chairs and tables, as well as the large table in the vestibule. He also made the church’s mahogany collection plates.

‘What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?’

“People ask, what was the best advice you’ve gotten from President Carter,” Maranatha’s newly installed pastor, Brandon Malloy Patterson, says to the congregation during a Q&A before the former president walks in to teach his class.

“Well, the first one, he gives a lot of advice on marriage,” says Pastor Patterson, noting that Maranatha is his first full-time posting. “And the latest one he’s given me was, don’t look at any other woman.” The congregation laughed, since the pastor two months earlier had begun his first year of marriage. “He’s very big on being completely committed to one another.”

There’s a common American evangelical theme implicit in this congregation, too, a theology in some ways rooted in a letter of Paul to the Corinthians: God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak of the world to confound the mighty.

A Millennial, Pastor Patterson says it’s been a very hard transition moving to rural Georgia, since he’s always preferred living in the bustle of big cities.

But as he notes, he speaks with a heavy lisp. “My voice is weird,” Patterson tells those gathered. “But God said, Brandon, I’m going to do something weird with you. Think about it: I’m short, I have the craziest hair, I have this lisp, I have a high-pitched voice that likes to crack, but there’s a God who said, Brandon, let me use you to speak to 500 people.” 

‘Hear, O Israel’

After his greetings, the former president began to teach his lesson on a momentous passage, Deuteronomy 6. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.”

“And shall love the Lord thy God with, what?” Carter asks the class. Most respond: “With all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.”

But it’s what follows that most interests him in the chapter – the exhortations to keep God’s commands close at hand. Carter notes how commands were sewn into their clothing, posted on their doorposts, and bound to their wrists. They were to teach their children daily, and ponder them morning to night.

“This command to love God Almighty as your only God, and to have no other gods before him, and to love God with all your heart, that was the foundation of God’s promise to Abraham about 600 years earlier,” he says.

And then Carter launches into what could be called a freewheeling and very Baptist meditation.

Daniel and Lauren Berman are among those who came this morning to get the chance to hear Carter teach once more. The CEO of Pharmacentra, an Atlanta-based company that opened a call center just outside Plains, Mr. Berman cast his first presidential vote for Mr. Carter in 1976. Two years ago, he brought his 16 year old son to hear him, too.

“It’s often hard for me as a Jew to take in Christian messages, and take them in a way so that I can receive them,” he says, noting the centuries-long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

And the text, of course, is one of the essentials of Jewish theology. The formulation “Hear, O Israel” is considered the most fundamental affirmation of Jewish monotheism called “The Shema.”

He and his wife give their children a rigorous Jewish education, Berman says. “But his perspective on Christianity, from my perspective as a Jew, is incredibly refreshing,” he says. “It’s inclusive, and the message is universal.”

It’s also very evangelical, but in a way that harks back to a Baptist emphasis on personal liberty and the importance of striving to live a morally perfect life.

“It’s very important for us to know the elements of the Bible,” Carter says. Most all of us have received the Bible “with appreciation, and reverence, and with gratitude to God for giving it to you. But that puts a slight burden on everybody to know what’s in the Bible.”

Carter then laments the decline of Biblical literacy in the US, citing Gallup polls and even a bit by Jay Leno years ago, when he was a guest. The comedian went on the street to interview people about the Bible, Carter recounts. “One of them said, the sixth commandment is, thou shalt not admit adultery.” Another person said, “The epistles were the wives of the apostles.” The congregation erupts in laughter.

But the point, he says, is that people must learn the basic principles of the Bible to pursue the Christian life, and especially the teachings and perfect example, he says, of Jesus Christ.

For many conservative Evangelicals, the focus is more upon the atoning blood of Christ and the price paid for the forgiveness of sins. Carter, however, focuses mostly on the life and difficult teachings of Christ, which “reveal the meaning of God.”

‘Who makes the decision to love and not hate’

And Carter sees the revelations of God through Jesus Christ as requiring an even greater commitment to living a moral life. Love your enemies; turn the other cheek; murder and hatred differ only in degree, not kind. Lust and adultery are one and the same, too. Forgive 70 x 7.

“It’s a profound and challenging and far-reaching standard that we Christians have to follow the example and laws described by Jesus Christ in our daily lives,” he says. “Does that put a responsibility on you that you didn’t feel before?”

“I’m not trying to burden anybody,” he continues, “and I have the same problem accepting as a Christian the ideals and goals of a transcendent life, a life that is worthy of God’s approval.”

Carter concludes, then, with what Baptists have long emphasized: the complete liberty of individual.

“That’s a very sobering thing, is it not? To know that what we do is up to us,” he says. “Who makes the decision to love and not hate, or be generous and not stingy, who makes that decision?”

“If we have a life at this moment of which we’re not proud, or if we’re not satisfied, we have an opportunity this moment to change it,” Carter says. “Because every one of us many times every day makes a basic decision: This is the kind of person I choose to be.”

“What could be better?” Carter concludes. “That’s what Christianity offers, not only an opportunity, but an obligation, to look at ourselves at every moment, ask God for forgiveness, study the life of Christ in prayer, and then make the decision, This is the person I want to be.”