Tuesday, November 21, 2023
It's Tuesday, November 21, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
From Rural Georgia to the White House: The Life and Times of Rosalynn Carter
On Sunday, Rosalynn Carter, a former First Lady of the United States and wife of former President Jimmy Carter, died at age 96. Now that in itself is a remarkable lifespan. And there are very few women, as a matter of fact, you can do the math, who have served as first lady of the United States. President Carter was elected in 1976 as President of the United States defeating the incumbent President Gerald R. Ford.
Rosalynn Carter was beside him the entire way in the race for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination. And when her husband was elected in 1976 to the office of President of the United States, she and he redefined the model of a presidential marriage and the involvement of the first lady. Rosalynn Carter became very well-known and sometimes became very controversial for her own role in certain presidential matters and matters of national policy. As we shall see, in one sense, she set the stage for at least one model of the modern first lady, but not the only model. And that has led to some very interesting situations in the US.
But first, let's go back to Rosalynn Carter. She was born in rural Georgia, and she has been associated with the Town of Plains, Georgia, as has her husband, the former President of the United States for all of their adult lifetimes. But Rosalynn Carter did not expect to be first lady of the United States when she was born in rural Georgia. As a matter of fact, she didn't expect to be the wife of the Governor of Georgia, nor did she expect a life in politics. But once she was initiated into a life of politics through her husband's run for office, she took to it. Describing herself as far more of a politician than her husband. She had politics, as she said, as a driving impulse and compulsion.
She was born Rosalynn Smith there in Plains, Georgia in 1927. And the tale was told that a very young toddler by the name of Jimmy Carter had been brought by her in order to see this new baby. Their lives could be intertwined for almost eight decades of marriage, a presidential record. The Smith family there in Plains was relatively poor, certainly as compared to the Carter family that produced the future President of the United States. Rosalynn Smith knew Jimmy Carter, who did come from the prominent Carter family and was just slightly older than she. They both attended the schools there in Plains. But Rosalynn Smith had an eye for Jimmy Carter particularly when the young man from Plains came back wearing his uniform from Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy.
They would eventually marry. And Rosalynn Carter, as she was then believed that she was likely to spend her life as a Navy wife. The wife of a Navy officer. Jimmy Carter began serving in the nuclear Navy under the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover. But Jimmy Carter was called back to Georgia largely by the death of his father. The father's death left Jimmy in the position of being the eldest son with a family with a good many financial needs and a languishing business, largely an agriculture business focused on peanuts there in Plains, Georgia. So Jimmy made the decision to leave the Navy and to go back to Plains. Very clearly as their biographies make clear, that had not been Rosalynn's plan. And that was for two reasons.
Number one, she really had not anticipated going back to Plains, Georgia. Remember, politics is not now even on the horizon. But she certainly didn't expect to go back and live with her mother-in-Law, the rather well-known Lillian Carter. Ms. Lillian, as she became known, an extremely strong personality, and as Jimmy Carter, the former president was later to observe, you have to take your life in your own hands when you're living in a house with two extremely powerful women. Rosalynn Carter was not intending to go back and live in Lillian Carter's world, but she did. And it became Jimmy Carter's world. And from the very beginning, Rosalynn Carter was very much a part of that world. Not only as Jimmy Carter's wife, but also as basically a partner in the business in one sense.
Now, that's not to say that either one of them was fulfilled in Plains, Georgia, even as during very hard years, they began to turn the business around. No, Jimmy Carter had his eye set on politics. And without going into the detail about Jimmy Carter's entry into politics, he eventually was elected governor of the State of Georgia. And Rosalynn Carter became the first lady of Georgia. The first time she was in a very prominent public role. And she took on her own interest during that time. But her main interest appeared to be her family and specifically Jimmy Carter.
It was at a Thanksgiving meal during the time the family was living in the governor's mansion there in Atlanta that Jimmy Carter spoke of designs on running for president. At least one member of his family as president of what? Jimmy Carter meant, President of the United States. That just points to the fact that it was a very long shot for the Governor of Georgia who had served and would serve only one term. That office was term limited at the time, and was fairly unknown on the national stage. And remember that no candidate from the South had gained a party's nomination in the sense that Jimmy Carter was aiming, nor won the presidency in decades. And arguably no one from the deep south of either party coming from a state like Georgia had ever been elected president.
Jimmy Carter was reaching for what seemed to be politically impossible. But he began to work at it very hard. He developed a ground game. He began talking about running for president in the 1976 race. He did so at a time in which it seemed that there was virtually no chance a governor of Georgia could be successful, but he had a very significant partner in that run, and that was his wife, Rosalynn Carter. Both Carters would spend 18 hours a day campaigning even earlier than other candidates. For instance, on the ground, playing out the political game in the State of Iowa, headed for the Iowa caucuses for the 1976 race, Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter split up. They sometimes appeared together, but most of the time they appeared separately and they covered an awful lot of ground.
But still, it was a very long shot to the Democratic presidential nomination. And there were many other candidates who appeared to have a much more assured route to the nomination. But one by one, they basically all fell away. And the man who was left with the nomination was Jimmy Carter. It was a personal triumph, but that did not mean that he would be elected President of the United States. But remember that in the general election, he ran against the incumbent President Gerald Ford, sometimes referred to by the not so flattering title, "his accidency."
The reason for that is quite simple. He had not been elected president, he hadn't been elected Vice President of the United States. But when Vice President Spiro Agnew during the Nixon administration had to resign in the wake of a scandal, and then the President of the United States resigned, Gerald R. Ford having been confirmed as Vice President after being chosen by Richard Nixon, he all of a sudden found himself President of the United States. And he ran a very credible campaign against Jimmy Carter. But Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election, and he did so by turning his own southern personality into a political brand.
That political brand, by the way, was largely undefined. And Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter's wife, and thus the new first lady, she with her husband began to develop that brand. And Rosalynn Carter was a working first lady. She was known as the first, first lady to show up at work at The White House carrying her own briefcase. Now, the interesting thing is that as normal as that might sound to some Americans, that was quite pathbreaking and indeed controversial in 1977 and the entire tenure of Jimmy Carter's term, particularly when Rosalynn Carter was known for showing up at White House meetings, and when she began to be assigned by the president to represent him in situations that were not merely ceremonial.
Many in the political class and then many in the media began to note that she had been unelected herself and yet she was representing the United States. She simply said, "If you have a problem with that, take it up with the President of the United States himself." Jimmy Carter stood by Rosalynn Carter. There is no doubt that they were a dynamic duo, which is to say a power team, and they were married almost 80 years. And they are known to most Americans because Jimmy Carter served as President of the United States, and Rosalynn Carter, his wife as first lady, but they are known mostly for what they did after The White House in the longest post-presidency in American history.
Now, there are a few issues of vast worldview consideration we need to tie together as we seek to understand the role of Rosalynn Carter in American politics and culture. Her husband, Jimmy Carter, who at age 99 is the longest surviving former President of the United States. And he has fought back against several terminal diagnoses, and yet he has outlived his wife. Rosalynn Carter, by the way died after entering hospice care just a matter of about two days before her death on Sunday, and just before her death, a matter of weeks before it was released to the public that she was suffering from dementia.
Nonetheless, we are talking about a woman who during her term as first lady, and that's an awkward way to put it because it's really her husband's term as president, but nonetheless, that's the way the role of the first lady has been defined. She was not unopinionated. Now, let's just state the fact that certainly other first ladies, other presidential wives also had very strong political opinions. But for the most part, Americans did not know those opinions. The exception to that rule really was pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of four times elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but she seemed to be the exception that proved the rule, until about the 1970s.
In the 1970s things really did begin to change. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, reelected in a landslide in 1972. His wife, Pat Nixon, was an elegant lady always at his side for occasions, but she was not known for any particular political opinions. When Gerald Ford became president, his wife Betty Ford was in contrast known for her political opinions. She was pro-abortion. She seemed to be for the sexual revolution. The wife of a Republican president, nonetheless, she was basically for both feminism and the sexual revolution, speaking openly of the speculation that one of her children might be living or cohabiting with someone else without marriage. She herself was an advocate of the equal Rights Amendment, which was proposed, and she was also an advocate of legal abortion.
When Rosalynn Carter came into The White House, if anything, she was less enthusiastic about abortion. Both Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter stated that they were personally against abortion, but in the bottom line, they were for a legal right to abortion. Now, by the time Jimmy Carter ran in 1976, the Roe v. Wade decision had been handed down by the Supreme Court, that nationalized the issue. It really took the political pressure off of Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter for that matter. But Rosalynn Carter followed the example of Betty Ford avidly for the Equal Rights Amendment, something that was fought against by conservatives, and actually in one sense led to the development of the conservative Christian movement in the United States pressing back and organizing against the Equal Rights Amendment. Eventually, by the way, successfully.
We'll come back to the social and moral issues in just a moment, but Rosalynn Carter was known for being politically savvy. And in many ways, what was understood is that the President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, where something of unnecessary duo. Now that was healthy when it came to affirming the intimacy and the power of marriage as an institution.
A Woman Who Redefined the Role of the First Lady: The Political Legacy of Rosalynn Carter
But Rosalynn Carter also, as I said, made clear that she was the more political of the two. She said, "I've always said, I'm more political than Jimmy. I'm political. He is not." Patrick Caddell, who was the pollster for the former president, told The Times during the Carter administration, "She is clearly the most political first lady maybe in history in terms of being involved in politics and in the campaign." Now, just remember that in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected defeating Jimmy Carter, putting Jimmy Carter in that list of those who are one-term presidents. But Ronald Reagan was married to Nancy Reagan, and Nancy Reagan turned out to be a very powerful figure in The White House, but more quietly, more off the scene than was Rosalynn Carter. Rosalynn Carter understood her role to be not only standing beside Jimmy, but very much speaking into policy. And there was one area of policy in which she had a particular interest. And this too is very important in the span of American history.
Mental Health Advocacy, Abortion Rights, an End to a Plague, Anti Poverty Efforts, and Marriage Fidelity: The Social and Moral Legacy of Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter was very concerned with where America stood on the issue of mental illness and mental health. And in order to underline how important this is, we need to recognize that during the period even up until the 1970s, there was not much public conversation about mental illness or mental health at all. Rosalynn Carter wanted to change that. She saw it as a major health challenge, a major challenge to the United States. She championed legislation known as the Mental Health Systems Act, and it was eventually passed, but nonetheless, largely reversed by President Ronald Reagan. But President George W. Bush passed legislation that put back in place much of what Rosalynn Carter had been contending for, most importantly that included insurance coverage for mental health on par with physical health.
Now, there are a lot of issues from a Christian worldview perspective to be taken apart here when it comes to the questions related to mental health, psychiatry, psychology, and all the rest. But it is very important to note and honesty compels me to note, that mental health care during that time and institutions for those who are diagnosed as mentally ill, they were often very substandard institutions. And persons who in any way were associated with mental illness were often shunted off from society. Again, lots of issues to discuss here, but there is no question that Rosalynn Carter made a difference in this nation, and there's no doubt that she saw a very legitimate problem.
Now, I mentioned the moral and cultural issues. And in order to understand this, we need to go back to the 1960s and the 1970s. When Jimmy Carter won the nomination finally to be the Governor of Georgia, the Democratic nomination, he did so running as a conservative. But once he was elected on a number of issues, he showed himself to be far more liberal than he had presented himself to be to voters. In one sense, that's what Jimmy Carter did when he ran for president. But in another sense, Jimmy Carter was light years more conservative as president, than anyone who might hope for the Democratic nomination could possibly be now.
But Jimmy Carter on so many issues including abortion, again, he claimed to be personally opposed to abortion, but nonetheless, he contended for the legitimacy of abortion rights. He was for the Equal Rights Amendment and a number of other issues, most notoriously what became known as The White House Conference on Families became an issue of contention. All this to say that the mobilization of conservative Christians as a major force in national politics had a great deal to do with conservative Christians opposed to Jimmy Carter. And eventually in 1980 supporting the Republican nominee Ronald Reagan for President of the United States. I was a young evangelical, very involved in that movement.
Jimmy Carter never forgave evangelicals for turning against him in the election of 1980. He had been elected as an evangelical in what was declared because of his election, the year of the evangelical. But evangelicals voted against him in record numbers, as did many others, including conservative Catholics and many blue collar workers, including labor union members. They voted against Jimmy Carter and for Ronald Reagan. Reagan won in a land slide, one of the biggest in American history, and of course, he was reelected by a landslide just four years later.
Jimmy Carter was very bitter about his loss. But that bitterness paled over against the bitterness of his wife. Rosalynn Carter was not even sure what she and Jimmy would do for the rest of their lives. All that was anticipated at that point was that they would move out of The White House and back to Plains, Georgia. Of course, what we know is that the Carters together invented a post presidency. Now, at this point, I'm simply going to say a lot of what they were involved in is very controversial and open to debate. But it is significant that they did two things, and one of them was to focus on helping to eradicate some world diseases.
One specific disease in Africa known as Guinea worm disease. It was the Carters working together who really should be credited with bringing about an end to that plague in Africa. There aren't too many human beings who can claim to be actively involved in the leadership of ending a plague. But Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were in a post presidency through what became known as the Carter Center. They were also involved in anti-poverty efforts most importantly a ministry that was then known as Habitat for Humanity of using volunteer labor to build housing for the underprivileged. And Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter were eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not individually, but together in 1999.
A final thought in worldview analysis here has to do with the fact that number one, if you live as long as either Jimmy or Rosalynn Carter, not to mention together, you pretty much demonstrate who you are. And I want to give credit to the Carters together because they demonstrated themselves to be a deeply committed couple. And in an age of marriage in recession, it is not insignificant that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter living so long in terms of their lifetimes lived the vast majority of those years together. And when they were pictured in their post presidency and in particular more recent years, they were most always pictured sitting in recliners, side by side in their home in Plains, Georgia.
I think lamentably on many issues, one of them, most importantly, the issue of abortion. I think on many of those issues, the Carter's were profoundly unhelpful. And I think in one sense there's a political hypocrisy in claiming to be personally opposed to abortion and believing it to be immoral evil, but nonetheless insisting that it should be legal. Now, Jimmy Carter's made statements about his reservations about unrestricted abortion in the United States, but in office he did nothing to restrict abortion in the United States. And by the advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment, basically added fuel to modern feminism and to other liberal issues. But again, by the standards of today's Democratic Party, Jimmy Carter wouldn't even be a candidate for the nomination. He wouldn't even get close.
Now, as I noted, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were married for almost eight decades, the longest presidential marriage in American history. But Mrs. Carter is only the second longest lived first lady. Bess Truman, the widow of former President Harry S. Truman was 97 when she died in the year 1982. So Rosalynn Carter came close, but Bess Truman is still the longest living former first lady of the United States. And what happened to Bess Truman eventually happened to Rosalynn Carter. The vast majority of Americans who are alive today never knew Rosalynn Carter as first lady of the United States married to the incumbent President of the United States. That's simply because the passage of time is extremely significant in itself.
By the way, one final note. When you look at Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and now as we think about Rosalynn Carter after her death on Sunday, I think it's important for us to recognize that during the time she was in The White House, she was thought of not only as a presidential wife, but also as a mother. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had three boys, and then they had a daughter in 1967. So Amy Carter was 10 when they moved into The White House in 1977, and there hadn't been a 10-year-old child living in The White House for a very long time. And Americans were encouraged to see not only a married couple in terms of the president and the first lady, but also children in The White House.
Now, children who've grown up in the White House have often gone on to live very difficult lives. But nonetheless, it is a reassuring picture of a family in The White House.
The Imprint of the Carter Years Are Still With Us: The Challenge of the Moral Revolution Before Our Eyes
In the final analysis, I would argue that the 1970s were some of the most transformative years in American culture, and largely not for good. I think them sexual and moral revolutions, the cultural movements of the 1960s that seemed so radical, they actually came to fruition not in the '60s, but in the '70s. And the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976, basically through his presidential nominations, and many of his policies gave an impetus towards the social and cultural liberalism that was championed even more aggressively by candidates such as 1972 Democratic nominee, George McGovern. But Jimmy Carter was elected as an evangelical. Again, the year he was elected was largely for that reason, declared to be the year of the evangelical. But by 1980, evangelicals weren't voting for Jimmy Carter. They were mobilizing to defeat him.
In some ways, the issues of the 1970s are still very much with us, even though the Equal Rights Amendment is not front and center in our international conversation, a lot of the gender confusion of our age basically represents where evangelicals were very concerned the Equal Rights Amendment would go. Now we're there, and frankly, past evangelical fears at that time. We are in an America very different than the years The White House was occupied by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. But we need to recognize that the imprint of those years is still very much with us. And even though Jimmy Carter served only one term as president, that's not to say he did not leave a decisive impact on American politics in a very transitional period of American history.
Speaking of the moral changes that have come to America, and as we are headed for the Thanksgiving weekend, how about this from a headline published in the New York Times: "Macy's Shuns Boycott Threat Over 2 Nonbinary performers." I just look at that headline and wonder, what would someone in Jimmy Carter's America during the time he was in The White House, what would someone even make of that headline? What would they think it might mean that there's a boycott threatened against Macy's over, "two non-binary performers?" What would non-binary even appear to mean in the 1970s? Well, we know right now what it means. And what it means is that the revolutions of the 1960s and the 1970s have now proceeded far further than even the activists of those decades could have imagined or dreamed. We're talking about an American institution such as the Macy's New York Thanksgiving Day parade, and now you've got the word non-binary performers in a headline, and it's supposed to make sense to us.
Sadly, in one understanding. It does make sense because we know what is being invoked here. We know what is being claimed here. We even know what's being criticized here, but we understand even more fundamentally that we can't go along with this mass illusion, with this mass effort at self-delusion, at this deliberate attempt to confuse. So we look at this and recognize that this particular headline just tells us again, the scale of our challenge. And something like this just can't come out of the blue. You look at this headline and you say, how could this arrive in the New York Times as a sensical headline in the year 2023? In order to answer that question, you're going to have to look at a scale of moral change over a progression of decades, and at least a central part of that's going to have to take you back to the 1970s. And thus we end today where we began. The seeds of the moral revolutions of the future are being sown right before our eyes, right now.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler.
For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Dallas, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.