The Bible Meets the Modern Age: A Conversation with Former President Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Thinking in Public

March 20, 2012

Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In the history of our nation, only 43 men have served as President of the United States. The 39th president was Jimmy Carter. Any opportunity to discuss anything with a former president of the United States, represents a historic opportunity. I am very thankful for that opportunity today and of the conversation that follows.

Jimmy Carter served as the thirty-ninth president of the United States. In 2002, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the only US president to have received that prize after leaving office. He’s the author of many books, including the most recent, The Lessons from Life Bible. And it’s the Bible we’re going to talk about.

President Carter, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Carter: Well it’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you, Dr. Mohler.

Mohler: Mr. President, you have been known as one who’s loved the Bible for the entirety of your public life. And when I think about your biography and know the deep rootage you had not only in the soil of Georgia, but also in the Southern Baptist Convention and in the local church, could you just describe for us how you came to have such a deep love for the Bible?

Carter: Well, I was a Southern Baptist when I was a child. My father was a Sunday School teacher and was a deacon in a Plains Baptist church. So, when I went off to the Naval Academy—I was eighteen years old—it was natural for me to accept their invitation to teach Sunday School lessons, so I did it for three years while I was at Annapolis. And then when I was on a submarine in the Navy, I also taught Bible lessons on occasion, not every Sunday, but on Easter service and that sort of thing.

When I was President of the United States, I taught Sunday School lessons in the First Baptist Church in Washington about fourteen or fifteen times without any prior notification so it wouldn’t disturb the regular class. And since I’ve been home from the White House, I’ve taught regularly in Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. We have about a hundred members on our roll—I think there are 120. We have about thirty that come every Sunday, but our church has a special ministry, primarily because of my teaching, and we have hundreds of visitors who come every Sunday. We had about three hundred visitors this Sunday. We have had as many as 870 visitors in one Sunday, who came to, you know, hear the curiosity, I guess, of a politician teaching the Bible. And I really enjoy—we have about fifteen percent Baptist when we count them and the rest of them are other Protestants or Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Amish, Mennonites and other denominations and believers who come. So I’ve really enjoyed the Bible and, of course, I’ve learned more about it since I’ve been a full-time Sunday School teacher than I ever did before because I spend several hours a week just studying the meaning of the Scriptures. And I always try to start my lesson by bringing the class into the realization that the ancient Scriptures, either in the Hebrew text or the New Testament, apply to our lives today, and I give them examples from my own experiences recently or from the headlines in the papers at the time.

Mohler: Well, as a boy growing up in that small church there in Plains, Georgia, you had no idea you would one day serve as President of the United States, but, my guess is, that during those boyhood years, you had a lot of experience of exposure to the Bible, the kinds of things we would talk about as Sunday School and worship services and other occasions. Would it be fair to say that your childhood was in an era of time in a part of the country that was pretty much saturated with Scripture?

Carter: Well, it was. I lived in an isolated community. I didn’t have any white neighbors, so a lot of my religious faith and a lot of my attendance at church was in the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. The most famous person in my life was an African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, William Johnson, and he was the most famous and the most widely traveled person that I knew. So I had a mixture of Baptist Christian faith in the Plains Baptist church, which is all-white, and also mixed in by going to church with my black friends—and my father and mother would go on occasion as well—and I didn’t really realize at that time how divided we Christians were because of the separate but equal ruling of the Supreme Court and it was pretty well accepted in my young life. So, my father taught there every Sunday. As I said earlier, he was a deacon in the Plains Baptist church, so most of my regular teaching of the Bible, of the Scriptures, came from Plains Baptist church.

Mohler: Now in your later life you have, of course, become, undoubtedly, the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher. And I’m curious; I’ve heard several of your lessons, they’ve put onto CD form and released in book format as well. I’m curious, how do you go about studying and preparing to teach your Sunday School lessons there in Plains?

Carter: Well we travel a lot. My wife and I have been to 130 nations in the world and we have programs in seventy countries—seventy-five, as a matter of fact—thirty-five of them in Africa. So as I travel around and do my duties, I am professor at Emory University; I run the Carter Center and we travel a lot. And I kind of take mental notes or sometimes write down things that I think are pertinent that would illustrate the lesson for the Sunday morning. And then Friday or Saturday, I go through the lesson. I generally use a uniform lesson series—the ones that are a standard in Baptist and other Protestant churches—and I try to extract my own experiences or from the interests of the day—what’s on television or radio or in the New York Times and so forth—and so how does this ancient Scripture, say from Exodus or from Matthew or whatever, apply to what’s happening to us that I can use as an illustration. And then I get up early Sunday morning—in fact, I get up early every morning—and I write out just a one page summary of what I want to say, so I don’t get mixed up on the Scriptures and sometimes I don’t even look at those when I’m teaching the lesson. And then it depends on the price of gasoline and tourism and that sort of thing, but vary, when I teach, from 150 to as many as 800 people who come and crowd into our little church. So it’s a give and take proposition, and I know I have to be prepared because when I teach from the Old Testament, quite often I know that I’ll have Jewish scholars, even rabbis, in the audience who want to have discussions with me. So I kind of go out of my way to learn what I know. I have a good collection of commentaries and that sort of thing and a pretty good collection of theologians’ writings—although I don’t claim to be a theologian.

Mohler: Well, I want to ask you about that in just a moment because if I were to tell you my own autobiography—I will in part to this degree—it was you who introduced me to a couple of theologians when you were running for president in 1976. But, before I get to that, I want to go back to the Bible for a moment and talk about how the Bible functioned in your life during your public years of particular service in political office and especially the time you spent in the White House.

Carter: Well, I prayed more and more devoutly and fervently when I was president than I did at any other time in my life because I felt the responsibility of really of a global Holocaust. It was during the time of the Cold War, and I knew that the Soviet Union had 30,000 or so nuclear weapons and so did we, by the way, and I knew that any misstep on my part that might lead President Brezhnev to launch an atomic attack on the United States would be devastating to me and to the United States and to Russia and to the entire world, so I really turned more to the principle that I worshiped the Prince of Peace. And I would say that I elevated the maintenance of the peace to the top priority in my order of concerns. I would go into the Oval Office some morning and turn the globe around to Moscow and try to put myself into Brezhnev’s position, so that I wouldn’t do anything or say anything that might cause him to make a mistake and launch an attack on us. Later, of course, I had a crisis after the Shah left and my hostages were taken in Iran. At that time, I spent a lot of time studying the Qur’an and I would have scholars come in and teach me elements of the Qur’an because Iraq invaded Iran and I wanted to know what were the nuances of the difference in their faith. But then in generic terms, I was a very strong stickler for the maintenance of separation of church and state. I really believed what Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We ought to build a wall between the two.” And, Dr. Mohler, I got into a little bit of trouble with my good friend Billy Graham because, although President Nixon and President Johnson and other presidents had brought Billy Graham in to teach or to preach in the Oval Office in the White House, I decided I didn’t want to do that. So I refrained from mixing my faith with my official duties as president. Billy Graham, I heard he didn’t like it so I explained it to him. It was just because I believed in the strict separation of church and state. So I say the maintenance of peace, the implementation of justice and the separation of church and state were the things that permeated my thought while I was in the White House.

Mohler: The Civil Rights Movement has been not only so much a part of the history of the South, but also your biography as well, and I’ve often wondered, and you’ve made reference to this in your previous books, to what degree did the Scripture also guide you when understanding what became known as the Civil Rights Movement?

Carter: Well, I never did meet Martin Luther King, Jr., but I saw the impact of his life in our country. And, of course, Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s chief aides, became a very intimate friend of mine and still is. So, I really saw the Civil Rights Movement from a distance. I came home from the Navy in 1953 and, measured by other Southern standards, my wife and I were very liberal on the Civil Rights issue. We had boycotts against our business and things like that, which I need not dwell on now, but I was able to weather that storm. When our church voted, finally, on the acceptance of black worshipers or not, I was a deacon in Plains Baptist church and I got up and spoke against any discrimination and I spoke in favor of accepting black worshipers. My position only got seven votes—all members of my family, but there were 250 people there and only 50 people voted against my position. And that Sunday afternoon, I got calls from a lot of people in the church that said they knew that we should accept black people on an equal basis, but they didn’t want to take a position in public. So, I would say that my early life spent in the segregation of society and by serving the Navy when Harry Truman ordained that racial discrimination would not apply in any ship on the Navy or in any military forces, I would say it was a slow and evolving process for me to become convinced that everybody’s equal in the eyes of God.

Mohler: I mentioned that you actually introduced me to some of the first theologians I came to know. I was sixteen years of age when you were elected President of the United States, and you may remember that in the course of that campaign in which, by the way, Newsweek declared it the “Year of the Evangelical” because you described yourself as “born again,” and, frankly, the secular journalists hardly knew what to do with that and you gave a very well-known interview in 1976 in which you mentioned two names that, as a sixteen year old, I had never heard before: Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

Carter: Yes, they’re still of my two favorites.

Mohler: Well I wanted to kind of ask you, how did you come to know of them and how do those theologians in their influence—how did this impact your thinking?

Carter: Well I know you know a little about Georgia history. When I began to run from public office, Burt Lance, who served with me when I was governor of Georgia, gave me a copy of a book by Reinhold Niebuhr called Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, and I pretty well studied that book and learned as much as I could about the proper relationship between, you know, religion and politics and how they were not incompatible, but that you shouldn’t use religious authority to exalt your own particular faith. And then I kind of deviated and got onto Paul Tillich later on and enjoyed him very much, so I would say that those were the two theologians that I got to know earlier. Now I have a pretty good collection of others, but I still go back to those two because I’ve known them, and they’ve kind of been absorbed by me as part of my beliefs. Now I have about eight or ten books either by or about Reinhold Niebuhr.

Mohler: A very seminal figure. Of course, his idea of moral man and immoral society, as his Gifford Lectures became known, really did help many American liberals to recover some sense of sin during the twentieth century. And as an evangelical, I would want to believe more than that, but never less than that. I would say a little bit of Niebuhr would be a big corrective in a secular age.

Carter: (Laugh). Well I think so too. And he was very practical about it. You know, he kind of would bring it down to earth and so a lot of theologians I can’t quite understand what they write, but I could understand much of what he wrote. And, by the way, my admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr became known and his widow, after Reinhold Niebuhr died, came to the White House and gave me a collection of tapes of his sermons.

Mohler: Jimmy Carter lived through some of the most consequential events of the twentieth century and then again he was a personal participant of some of those events, especially during the four years he served as President of the United States. It was fascinating to hear him go back to his roots of a time, when as a boy, the most well traveled man that he knew was the bishop of an African, Methodist Episcopal church, when indeed from the soil of Georgia. He gained not only his family in those formative experiences but also his first experiences in church. Those experiences defining so much of not only who Jimmy Carter was but who Jimmy Carter is. And then it was interesting to hear him relate how his love for the Scriptures and how his Christian faith functioned during those very important years he spent in the most powerful office in the world. And yet, there are some pressing questions of which we must turn.

I wanted to ask you about the Bible. Just as you have become known, again, as a Sunday School teacher, known throughout the world, and as you’ve written so much, what do you believe about the nature and inspiration of the Bible? How would you describe its divine inspiration?

Carter: I think allof the Bible is divinely inspired, but it was interpreted, God’s message was interpreted, by fallible human beings, who were constrained by their knowledge of facts about the universe, for instance, when they wrote. God, who created everything, knew that the size of stars and God knew that the earth was not the center of the universe. And when the Bible says that the stars would fall on earth as though they were little twinkling things, obviously that’s not factual. And so I believe the basic thrust of the Bible, the basic message of the Bible, is epitomized in the life of Christ and in the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I also believe that there is nothing in the Old Testament that contradicts the basic teachings of Christ for peace, justice, humility, love and so forth, and each person’s proper relationship with other human beings and also a relationship with God. So I believe in the miracles of the Bible. I believe that Jesus was come from a virgin birth. I believe Christ died for our sins on the cross. I believe He was resurrected and that we are promised, if we have faith in Christ through the grace of God, that we will inherit eternal life. I believe that God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son. I believe those things, but I know that there are some things as a scientist—my background is in nuclear physics—there’re some things that weren’t understood by the writers of the Bible. I just ignored those discrepancies as insignificant.

Mohler: Years ago, in another book you wrote that, “I now believe that even if some of the more dramatic miracles encountered in the gospels could be untrue, my faith in Christ would still be equally precious and unshaken.” Now I want to note, you didn’t say they were untrue; you said if you discovered that they were untrue, your faith would be unshaken. Speak to that for me.

Carter: Well that’s still the case. You know, as I just described, I believe in the miracles described in the Bible, but even if I didn’t believe that Jesus walked on water, for instance, or that Jesus did such certain little things, I would still believe in Christ as my Savior. I would still try to pattern my life and my own fallible human ways after Jesus’ life as a perfect example of the way all of us should live—those kinds of things. And so, Christ would still mean just as much to me, personally, as my Savior, as my Companion, in many aspects of my life, if He didn’t walk on water. That doesn’t make any difference to me.

Mohler: The Bible contains many things that, quite honestly, rub up against the sensitivities of a modern age and require all of us to think about how we’re going to apply the eternal truth of the Scriptures to some of the most pressing and current controversies. The controversies over human sexuality have been an issue. Even in just recent days, you’ve been kind of in the headlines on that issue. What do you think about the Bible’s normative statements about human sexuality? How should we interpret those and apply those in the modern age?

Carter: Well I have to admit, Dr. Mohler, that I’m kind of selective on that point of view. I really turn almost exclusively to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who never mentioned homosexuality at all as a sin. He never condemned homosexuals and so I don’t condemn homosexuals. And our church, our little church in Plains, we don’t ask, when people come to join our church, if they’re gay or not. We don’t ordain, we don’t practice marriage between gay couples in our church, but that’s a Baptist privilege of autonomy of local churches. I’m against any sort of government law, either state or national, that would force churches to perform marriage between gay people, but I have no objection to civil ceremonies. And so, I know that Paul condemns homosexuality, as he did some other things like selfishness that everybody’s guilty of, and so I believe that Jesus reached out to people who were outcast, who were condemned, brought them in as equals and I also pretty well rely on Paul’s writing to the Galatians that everyone is equal in the eye’s of God and we’re treated with compassion. And I personally believe, maybe contrary to many of your listeners, that homosexuality is ingrained in a person’s character and is not something they adopt and can abandon at will. So I know that what I’ve just explained to you might be somewhat controversial, but it’s the way I feel.

I have one problem in my political service with my faith and that is concerning abortion. I have never believed that Jesus Christ would approve abortion and so I had to interpret my duties as president compatible with the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, but with my religious beliefs I did everything I possibly could to minimize a need for abortion by liberalizing adoption services and by starting a program—it’s still in existence, by the way—called Women and Infant Children, WIC programs where, because one of the—the key reason for abortions around the world is when a pregnant mother doesn’t think she and her baby will be cared for. So I did everything I could to minimize abortions because I don’t believe that Jesus would approve of a liberal interpretation of that law.

Mohler: Well I appreciate very much your candor, Mr. President. It’s helpful in a conversation like this to be able to exchange not only a conversation where we agree, but where we disagree, and I appreciate very much your honesty in that.

I want to come back and ask you something else. I had a conversation like this with Martin Marty, the great American church historian at the University of Chicago.

Cater: Whom I admire very much.

Mohler: Well, and another wonderfully gracious man. I asked him about how American, the larger American culture, especially the intellectual elites, discovered evangelicals. And he said, “They didn’t have to until one ran for president.” And he pointed to 1976 and your candidacy and, of course, the very phrase born again became so much a part of our national vocabulary, very common among evangelicals for generations, but it became a part of our national vocabulary because of all the secular journalists who were scratching their head about what indeed you were talking about. So I want to talk about the gospel for just a moment. When you were president, you were well-known, actually, for sharing your faith with other heads of state, a rather unprecedented role for an American president. How would you share your faith? How would you describe and define the gospel?

Carter: Well I did this on several occasions; one had profoundly important significance. The first time I did it was when I went to Poland. It was my first visit to a foreign country and the communist general secretary of Poland, the ruler of Poland, was an atheist. And I had a meeting with him in a private room and afterwards he said, “Why don’t we exclude all of our staff,” because he wanted to talk to me, and just the two of us, so we did with an interpreter. And his brother was a devout Catholic and had been to visit the Pope and he wanted me to explain the basic tenants of my Christian faith, which I did to him. I don’t know what happen, but, as we know later, the Pope himself came from Poland.

Another time I was in South Korea and President Park, who was later assassinated, asked me about my faith and we had a similar conversation—and I’ll abbreviate by just saying “similar.” And he asked me if I would go get him acquainted with a Christian in South Korea, which I did. I called one of my leading Baptist friends and had him go see President Park.

The most significant was when I normalized relations with People’s Republic of China in the first of January ’79. And Deng Xiaoping came over and, when we were having our final banquet, he said, “Mr. President, you’ve done a lot for the people in China and you’ve never asked anything for your service. Is there anything I can do for you?” And I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, when I was a child I used to give five cents a week to build hospitals and schools for those Chinese children and our number one heroes that used to come to Georgia were missionaries to China. And now you don’t permit missionaries. You don’t permit Bibles and you don’t permit freedom of worship. And I wish that you would reinstitute those three things.” He said, “Let me think about it.” So the next morning, he told me, “We will not let missionaries come back in, but I promise you that we will authorize the distribution of Bibles for the first time, and we’ll also pass a law in China that permits freedom of worship.” So they did. In 1982, they did that. I was over in ’81 as soon as I left the White House, and they were really distributing Bibles, so now, as you know, the fastest growing number of Christians on earth is in China and partially because of that conversation I had with Deng Xiaoping.

Mohler: Mr. President, in terms of the gospel itself, one of the issues you’ve written about of late has been your concern about how it’s interpreted. In terms of the question, “Must someone come to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ to be saved?”, and in a couple of your books, you suggested that you’re not ready to say that, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What is your understanding of the gospel and the necessity of personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

Carter: I believe it is necessary, and I teach that every Sunday in my classes that it is necessary for full salvation and acceptance before God to believe in Jesus Christ. The question then comes up, though, “However, how about the people that don’t know about Christ? How about the ones to whom Christians, evangelicals, have never reached or given them the message?” And I don’t feel constrained, Dr. Mohler, to condemn those people as lost or as going to hell, and I rationalize it, perhaps, in using theological terms, in using biblical terms, by Jesus’ admonishment that we should not judge other people, but let God be the Judge. So, in a quandary like that about people who don’t know about Christ, what would be their fate? I’m inclined to believe that they will not be condemned or punished by God.

Mohler: Well, that is an ongoing issue of deep concern to Christians, and I think there’s probably not a more important question that we could talk about, just in terms of helping not only the listeners to this program, but all who would be within our influence, to know that the gospel is, I believe, to be revealed in Scripture to be the only message that saves. And you’ve been a proponent of missions, and I think back to when you were very active in the Southern Baptist Convention and what was called the Bold Mission Thrust back in the early ‘70s, so you have kind of simultaneously held this position where you’re not certain that those who have not heard the gospel will be lost, but, at the same time, you’ve been a proponent of sending missionaries. You just talked about your experience talking to the Chinese leadership about this.

Carter: Well, the Bold Mission Thrust program was began by a conversation between me and Jimmy Allen, who at that time was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I spoke at the Convention that year when I was president. It was in Atlanta, I believe, and I was on the way to South America. Well, I’m not saying that we don’t all have a mandate; that was the last thing that Christ told us really was that we should spread the word about faith in Him in Judea and so forth and throughout the world. And I believe it’s very important for evangelism to take place, but when Christians fail to be evangelicals and don’t reach out to people with whom I deal every day, in Ghana and in Nigeria and in Burkina Faso and so forth in Africa, I just can’t bring myself to believe that they will be condemned and sent to hell because no evangelical has ever been able to reach them and tell them about Christ. But I don’t worry about it because I believe that God and Christ, obviously, will deal humanely with those people and will not send them into eternal punishment.

Mohler: Mr. President, you have been known as a Southern Baptist from the moment you were really born and grew into boyhood there in Plains, Georgia, and then beyond when you were in the presidency, the very same thing. There’s no doubt that there has been some change in that relationship over the last several years as change has happened in the Southern Baptist Convention, and I just feel like, given my responsibility, I should turn to you and give you the opportunity to say what you would wish to say to the Southern Baptist Convention as we are a denomination that you have known throughout your entire lifetime.

Carter: Well, I was a Southern Baptist until the year 2000 and I was on the Brotherhood Commission. I played an active role in a top echelon of the Southern Baptist Convention without having an official office. I really became concerned about the basic thrust of the Southern Baptist Convention on two or three issues that happened in Florida in the Convention when it was there, in particular, the status of women. I feel very strongly, in the eyes of God, women are equal to men and to choose the particular passages that say that women have to be subservient to men and that they should not teach men and boys, I think it contrary to the basic thrust of what Christ meant and said. I know that you have a different belief in that and Southern Baptists do as well. Now there are some seminaries that don’t even let a woman professor teach boy students in a class and others that won’t let women speak from the pulpit and things of that kind. I believe in complete equality. My wife happens to be a deacon in our little church in Plains that I’ve described already. We have two pastors—one is a man and one is his wife. They both are ordained, and I participated in the ordination.  So I believe that throughout religious faith that women should be treated equally with men. And, here again, I use the word rationalize pretty often when I’m talking to you, at least. I think in Romans 16 when Paul described all the leaders of the Christian world in those days, he mentioned a number of women who held exalted positions within the early Christian church, so that’s been the main problem that I have with the Southern Baptist Convention. Had it not been for that issue, I would be much more accommodating with the Southern Baptist Convention.

I might say that a few years ago, about five years ago, I felt a need to reach out to the Southern Baptists. No, in 1990—longer than five years ago—I had an assembly of about forty leading Southern Baptists at the Carter Center. Seven of them had been or would be presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention and we tried to see how we could bring all the Baptists back together in a spirit of harmony. We had good luck while we were at the Carter Center, but that was kind of undone later on and, to my grief. About five years ago, I started to say, we started a move called “A New Baptist Covenant,” primarily designed to end the distinction between black and white Baptists, and so we had an assembly in Atlanta, with which you may be familiar. We had about fifteen-sixteen thousand people come, about half black and half white, together. And we also reached out to Hispanics in Texas and other places and also to some Asians. Now, and so I’ve tried the best I could to bring all the Baptists back together, and I think that the World Baptist Assembly is an umbrella under which we could all serve. We at our New Baptist Covenant, which I’ve been one of the leaders of it, we always take the position that we should just assume that all of us believe that we are saved by the grace of God, through our faith in Jesus Christ. And, in detailed issues like homosexuality or status of women or the autonomy of individual churches or the leadership of a pastor leader or a servant, those kind of things be relegated to a completely secondary position and bring us Christians back together, but so far that has not been possible. And so I’m grieved about it, and I don’t claim that I’m right and other people are wrong.  It’s just the way I feel.

Mohler: Mr. President, I think when we talk about some of these things as people who have been members of the same denomination and of churches, as I think my boyhood church was probably very, very similar to your boyhood church, sometimes talking about these things can be far harder than if we were talking to a Muslim or a Hindu or someone far beyond this, and I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that we’re having this conversation. And I want you to know that Southern Baptists admire you for your public leadership, for your boldness to share the gospel, for your leadership in the Civil Rights Movement when, quite frankly, you and many others were right when we were wrong. And I say we as a denomination. I was very wrong, but I am an inheritor of the same responsibility. I’m very thankful for the work of the Carter Center, and you’ve largely, single-handedly, eradicated Guinea Worm Disease, which I find to be one of the most remarkable things that any human being can say. You’ve been President of the United States.  You’ve received the Nobel Peace Prize, but, in terms of the way human beings live, eradicating a deadly disease is just one of the most amazing things that could be said. I also recently noted that you and Mrs. Carter have been married for over sixty-five years and in an age in which, quite frankly, so many of our public leaders model anything but that kind of faithfulness, I just want to tell you, I greatly admire how you’ve demonstrated that marital faithfulness together. And I want to tell you what a great honor it’s been to have a conversation like this and you and I have exchanged ideas at a distance. I’ve written some articles that I felt like I needed to write; you published a very candid open letter to me in the Atlanta Journal Constitution a few years ago, but the great honor is knowing that we can actually have a conversation like this, and we can start by talking about our shared love of the Bible and then talk about where that same Bible and our understanding of it leads us also to differ. These are important things for us to talk about and I want to tell you how much I appreciate you joining me today on Thinking in Public.

Carter: Well that means a lot to me, and I hope that sometime you and me might get together for more private conversation and see what we can do to pull all of our Baptist Christians together. That would be a real honor and pleasure for me.

Mohler: Well, Mr. President, it would be a great honor for me.

Carter: Thank you. I remember very well when you were editor of the Christian Index and how much your writings and your editorials meant to me personally and to my family. And I wish you well in everything you do.

Mohler: Those who study the American presidency know that in a conversation like this, you could talk about historical events of tremendous consequence and limit the conversation to history. You could talk about the great social developments and movements of the twentieth century. Movements that had such a direct connection to the life of Jimmy Carter. You could talk about geopolitics or economics or many other things, but it is fascinating that in this conversation, the focal issue was theology. Specifically, the Bible. That makes this conversation all the more rare and all the more historical.

Mohler: In all honesty, this is one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had. It

is destined to be that way talking to a former president of the United States. There are so few of them, and the opportunities for such conversations are so rare. I am very thankful for this conversation, and in particular terms, I am thankful I had this conversation with former president, Jimmy Carter. There have been several twists and turns in terms of the last several years in which I have found myself at odds with the former president, often engaged in public controversy over matters that both of us consider to be of very grave importance. When you have that kind of public disagreement, much less with a former president of the United States, there are risks in any kind of conversation. That is what makes me all the more appreciative of President Carter’s willingness to enter in to this conversation and for his remarkable candor and honesty throughout the course of the conversation. President Carter is man of intellectual integrity. He is very clear about what he believes and what he doesn’t believe. And for me, the most important aspect of this conversation is what it tells us about the trajectory of the twentieth century. Not so much in terms of geopolitics but in terms of theology. Theology amongst American evangelicals, American Protestants of the twentieth century. The story of Jimmy Carter is also inextricably related to that story. It is fascinating that this conversation was premised upon a love for the Scripture, and that love for the Bible is very clear in President Carter’s life. He is indeed the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher. He did as President of the United States invoke the scripture often, carried the Scripture with him. He was publicly identified with the Scripture in a way that was courageous and frankly, grating on the intellectual elites.

But the story of Jimmy Carter, the very story that he narrated in this conversation, also takes us back to what the sociologists call, “lived religion.” We can go back as Jimmy Carter tells his story to a young boy in a local church, a rural church in a deep southern state, the state of Georgia. A Southern Baptist church, where he did indeed develop a great love for the Bible. But as the twists and turns of this Bible become very apparent to us, Mr. Carter also came to an understanding of the Scripture in the terms of its authority and inspiration that was well, at odds with where the church had historically affirmed those very truths. For instance, it’s clear that Mr. Carter holds to what in the twentieth century would be defined as a neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture. When he speaks of the Scripture containing truth, and when he clearly speaks of the event of reading the Scripture as being an act of revelation, he is speaking the kind of language that was associated with Karl Barth and so many others. There were many complimentary things that the neo-orthodox said about Scripture. But they did not affirm that every single word of Scripture was verbally inspired, something that Scripture claims of itself. Mr. Carter, in the midst of this conversation, made some very interesting statements. For instance he said that as a scientist trained as a nuclear physicists, there were some things in the Bible that the writers of the Bible just didn’t understand. He said, “I just ignored these discrepancies as insignificant.” In other words, he holds that the authors of Scripture were not only inspired by God and the Holy Spirit in some sense, but they were also trapped within their own systems of meaning. Now, that is a different understanding of inspiration than what we have held that there is very clearly a divine inspiration that means that the Holy Spirit guards the human authors of Scripture from all error. That is a crucial distinction. But it has to do with the question also, as Mr. Carter intimated, that it was the men who were inspired more than the words who were inspired. Now, when you start to look at that you realize that the product of divine inspiration is there very much at stake. Mr. Carter teaches the Scripture with enthusiasm. When he holds it in his hand, he refers to it as the Word of God. But as he made clear in this conversation, he does not believe that is a word that is in terms of plenary verbal inspiration, true in every one of its words. But he also believes greatly what is found in the Bible. He says, for instance, that he does affirm the miracles of the Bible. I was very encouraged by his very bold affirmation of believing in the virgin birth and in other supernatural events recorded in the Scripture. But then he makes the odd statement that if those things were not true, his faith in Christ would still be intact. That is a separation of history and theology that I believe is destructive of the gospel. The gospel is predicated upon certain historical events, without which, there is no gospel. Jesus Christ is not who Scripture reveals Him to be. Now, that leads to other aspects of the conversation that were truly revealing having to do with how President Carter deals with issues of human sexuality and sexual ethics. Very candidly, and even courageously, given his own intellectual integrity, he spoke of his selectivity when it comes to those passages. Now, we need to be very honest and say that sometimes, evangelicals who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture are inconsistent and often selective where we ought not to be. But that means that we need to check ourselves against that kind of selectivity and make certain that we are employing a hermeneutic that is consistent with our understanding of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God.

When it comes to discussing the exclusivity of the gospel, President Carter said a couple of very interesting things. For instance, he speaks very specifically of the fact that he believes that a personal faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ is, as he said, necessary for full salvation. For full salvation and acceptance before God. He went on and said though, “However, those who never hear will be judged upon their faithfulness in some sense to what they do though.” And he said that “He will not consign them to hell.” Well, the good news for both Jimmy Carter and Albert Mohler is that neither of us is the divine judge. However, I believe that Scripture very clearly does say that there is a dual destiny. The differentiation of which has to do solely with whether one has come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul in Romans 10 says that “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But then it makes very clear that those who are saved are those who indeed hear the gospel and respond to it and believe. “Faith comes by hearing,” says Paul, “and hearing by the word of Christ.” In other words, what we have in the case of President Carter and in this very remarkable conversation is a trajectory that is all together familiar to those who know what happened during the twentieth century in the different kinds of developments in terms of Biblical inspiration, Biblical authority, denominational life, and the public understanding of scripture. President Carter wants to say many very true things about Scripture. He very clearly believes that the Scripture reveals divine truth, but he doesn’t believe that every word of Scripture is inerrant or inspired. And he believes that the divine authors of Scripture, though inspired, were trapped within the worldview of their times, and thus susceptible to at least some degree of error. He suggests that when it comes to human sexuality, even though he says straight forwardly that the apostle Paul speaks very clearly to homosexuality, listing it with other sins, he says that he does not want to judge homosexuals on that basis.

Jimmy Carter is a remarkable human being, and again, I have really appreciated the conversation with him. I appreciate it even more reflecting upon the actual content of that conversation; a conversation that dealt with some of the most important and consequential theological issues that any two men could discuss together. Furthermore, I am very thankful that President Carter was willing to enter in to the public nature of this conversation, and even as he will judge my words, well, inevitably in conversation, we judge each other. And as I evaluate President Carter’s testimony about the scripture, I have to say that it tells a story that desperately needs to be told. A story that is altogether very common in the twentieth century of a young boy who was raised within the piety and in the warm-hearted, evangelical fervor of a Southern Baptist church in the south, but who did not come to a deep understanding of the Scripture’s authority in terms of its divine inspiration, its verbal inspiration, and its inerrancy. A young man who was caught up in the twentieth century social transformations and who clearly understood that social change was not only needed, it was a mandate. And one of the issues that happened during the twentieth century is that so many Christians, young Christians who saw deep social ills and signed on to a progressive understanding of politics and social change, also began to attach a progressive understanding to theology and indeed to the Scriptures. And what we see is that in the case of so many Southern Baptists and mainly Protestants of the twentieth century, is that they did basically adopt something like a neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture. And that is where we see the problem in this conversation. And that is where we also see the opportunity that the conversation affords. President Carter was very candid and honest about his understanding of the Scripture, and I need to be equally so. I believe that the Scripture is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. I believe that God inspired men, yes, and the writers of scripture as Scripture says of itself, to write in such a way that they were preserved and protected from all error such that when scripture speaks, God speaks. That puts a constraint upon us that does not allow the kind of selectivity that we could just claim as an interpretive principle. Mr. Carter is a very skilled and very serious interpreter of Scripture. He goes to commentaries and he reads, and as he teaches his Sunday School class, he wants to speak of what the text says. But what the text means, can’t be separated from what the text actually states and the divine authority with which the texts speaks. Jimmy Carter is the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher, and in his most recent book and in so many others, he deals with the Scripture. And by and large as evangelical Christians, committed to the inerrancy of Scripture would read those comments, they would find tremendous areas of commonality. President Carter mentioned early on in the conversation that even where there are issues in which we differ, there are vast areas in which we are in agreement. That’s also true, but the issue for us, the difficult issue, is where there is disagreement. Not where there is agreement. And that’s what makes a conversation like this truly important. We are called to be thinking in public. In order to discuss these things in such a way that we speak with great respect, and we speak with appreciation for each other, for the appreciation of the opportunity for a conversation about what really matters. What matters not only to us, but to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. That trajectory that is represented by Jimmy Carter, that trajectory that pious religion in the south in the twentieth century meets head on with the great theological transformations that came to the end of that century, especially in that second quarter and continue now into the twenty-first century. The issues of Biblical authority and the verbal inspiration of Scripture. The issues of human sexuality and the exclusivity of the gospel, of the authority of Scripture and the veracity of all that it contains the miracles and everything else. All of these are still live issues, just like the great social and political issues of the twentieth century are still with us, so also are the theological issues, and that is why this conversation is important not only to look to the past, nor even just to think about the present, but to aim to the future. It’s a great challenge and opportunity to speak to a former president of the United States, an 87 year old man who continues to be active in public life and to speak and to write of the things that are most important to him.

I mentioned in the conversation that I first heard the names of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich from President Carter. It was in the course of his 1976 Presidential campaign. I was 16 years old, and I had never heard those names before. I went to look them up. Now, at age 16 I did not find out a great deal about those two men, but as I studied theology as an academic discipline, I certainly did. It’s interesting of course that he would site those two theologians as most formative, in terms of his life and his thinking. Reinhold Niebuhr was a very complex figure, a titanic figure of Protestant theology of the twentieth century. A man who did indeed stress the reality of human sinfulness, but he did so primarily in terms of social structures. Not in terms of individual responsibility. There is a great question as to whether Reinhold Niebuhr actually believed in a personal God even though he did believe in a force of divine justice. Now, when we come to Paul Tillich, there is an altogether different picture. We are rather certain that he did not believe in a personal God. In fact, he made very clear that he did not. He did not believe in a personal God, a revealing God, a God who speaks in Scripture, but rather he believed in a great force, a ground of being. He merged existentialism with theological language. In other words, Paul Tillich was one of the most radical theologians of the twentieth century, and of course he gave birth to other radical schools of theology that followed. Now, the interesting thing to note here is that if you were a young man, a thinking young man, a thinking young protestant in the twentieth century during the decades when Jimmy Carter was coming to his intellectual maturity, if you were certain that vast social change needed to take place, you often looked to those leaders who were riveting the intellectual super structure for those changes. Unfortunately, on the theological side, it was often the liberal theologians who were right on some of the most important social issues. And altogether, too many young evangelicals attached their theological allegiance to liberal theologians who were right on other issues but deeply wrong on areas of theology. This lead to a trajectory where as there were a good many people who were raised in the piety of the Southern Baptist Convention and other denominations in the United States, but whose minds became very much attached to and even dependent upon theologians whose own theological systems were radically at odds with those who they had known as children. One of the things that we need to note is that theology matters. Isn’t it interesting that this theme that theology matters comes up in a conversation with the man whose chief claim to fame, notoriety and historical significance, is that he served not as a theologian-in-chief, but as Commander-in-Chief, as President of the United States.

One of the most difficult things to do in terms of a Christian conversation is to disagree, and to disagree publicly. That’s why I so respect President Carter’s willingness to enter in to this conversation, and even as it was an opportunity for him to speak of his deepest convictions, it is also an opportunity for us to consider what these things mean, not only to the church in terms of its past, but in terms of its present and future. I deeply appreciate the willingness of President Carter to enter into this conversation. As I said in the conversation, I greatly honor him for so much that he has been able to do in the world. Eradication of disease and the alleviation of human suffering. I am thankful for the boldness of his Christian witness when he was President of the United States.

As I said in the interview, I greatly respect President Carter for all of the good things he has done. Eradication of disease, so many things he has done since he has been out of office. I also respect the fact, I have to say, that even when I disagree with him, whether on matters theological or matters political and cultural, here is a man who is in his ninth decade of life, is still actively engaged in a way that is not only serious but indeed courageous in terms of the fact that he articulates his beliefs, he stands behind them, and he is willing to stand before the watching world and stay on his own two feet for all that he believes. This is also the kind of conversation in which, to be honest, I face a great personal challenge. And that personal challenge is to be reminded again and again of what it means for personal conviction to intersect with an entire web of personal relationships that are important not only to me, not only to a local church and to a denomination, but to a nation and to a watching world. A conversation like this is a matter of stewardship. It has given us a lot to think about. And as we think about these things, my greatest concern is that we would be faithful to the full authority and truthfulness of scripture, to the integrity of the gospel, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And along with President Carter, who speaks very candidly of his conviction, it reminds us to speak with equal candor of our own. There is a lot to learn from each other in a conversation like this. That is why it is important to think and to enter into conversation with people whose beliefs are not identical to our own. And the great stewardship of course, is not only having the conversation, not only thinking, but thinking in public.

Mohler: Great thanks again to my guest President Carter for thinking with me today.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.