Jimmy Carter: Is it Possible to Canonize a Baptist?

That may sound like a crazy title for an NCR blog. But it is the thought that ran through my head after watching former President Jimmy Carter announce to the world -- with the calm that gives witness to his deeply spiritual persona -- that he had brain cancer. He reflected on his life, expressed gratitude for the many opportunities he has been given, and then noted that no one lives forever. And he said it all -- even the thought of his own death -- with a smile.

There is something deeply spiritual about Jimmy Carter that comes across even on television. One can sense his faith -- his sense of oneness with the divine -- even across the airwaves. Extraordinary.

And then, after beginning radiation treatments, he showed up at Marantha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. to teach his regular Sunday school class. Not surprisingly, hundreds showed up to hear him.

At one point in his press conference, he said that -- if given the choice between re-election as President and establishing the Carter Center -- he'd choose the Carter Center.

Anyone not familiar with the incredible works of the Carter Center can get an overview. But for the record, that center works for peace, especially conflict resolution in places like Liberia, Sudan, Syria, and Israel and Palestine. It also focuses on human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, global access to information, and honest elections (through election monitoring around the world). It sponsors special programs with outreach to Latin America and China.  

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It is, in many ways, a model of justice and peace work on a global scale.

Carter is also a man of justice, conscience and principle. He has been involved in fostering good interfaith relations since the days of his presidency. In his own life, in 2000, he confronted the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention stopped its previous practice of having women ministers and said wives should be subservient to their husbands. Because his conscience could not bear such discrimination, Carter left that convention and joined the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. At the time, he said, "I have been disappointed and feel excluded by … an increasingly rigid SBC creed, including some provisions that violate the basic premises of my Christian faith. I have finally decided that, after 65 years, I can no longer be associated with the Southern Baptist Convention." It was an act of conscience. Sounds like something a progressive Catholic would understand.

I had the privilege of interviewing Carter this past March about his book on women, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. He told me then that he had sent a copy of that book to Pope Francis. And I've always wondered if Francis gave it any attention.

But maybe, just maybe … Francis should consider a meeting with Jimmy Carter when he visits the United States. I can only dream.    


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