It’s Sunday morning in Plains, Georgia.
As on most Sundays, Jimmy Carter quietly enters the side door of Maranatha Baptist Church clutching a Bible.
At 10 o’clock on the dot, the 83-year-old Carter, in a dark sports jacket and super-sized bolo tie, takes his place at the front of the modest, Easter-egg green sanctuary.
“Do we have any visitors?” he asks in that lilting southwest Georgia accent. The crowd—mostly visitors from at least 26 states and a handful of foreign countries—breaks into laughter.
When Carter began teaching Sunday school here following his involuntary exit from the White House 17 years ago, fewer than a dozen people made the pilgrimage to this remote spot in the heart of peanut country. They now come by the busloads, representing all denominations.
Today’s flock has endured bird-sized mosquitoes and blazing temperatures waiting in line to hear the 39th president and Nobel Prize laureate.
Carter explains to the crowd scrunched in the pews why he missed last Sunday’s lesson. He and Rosalynn, his wife and closest confidante of 61 years, were in Nepal preparing for that politically fractious country’s upcoming election. For a quarter century, the Carter Center of Emory University, his Atlanta-based policy center dedicated to peace and human rights, has performed the role of neutral arbiter in 68 elections in 26 countries, from East Timor in Southeast Asia to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa to Venezuela on South America’s northern coast.
Carter then gets down to the business at hand: Isaiah, chapter 55, written to the Hebrews who have been in exile for 60 years, many leading prosperous lives. Carter explains that Isaiah’s words are meant to persuade them to trust in God, put their riches aside and return to Jerusalem.
He challenges the congregation to apply ancient scripture to today. “Most of us, including me, are living in a worldly light,” he says, “sometimes with the impression that God blesses us so much because we deserved to be blessed. We are superior people.”
But we can never stack up against the goodness of God, Carter says. The way to God is through faith in Jesus Christ.
“The essence of what Christ stood for is expressed in the kind of life that Christ expects all of us to live. We worship the Prince of what? Peace!” Carter says, becoming decidedly more animated.
“This is a kind of sobering declaration in the modern day. So many of us Americans are committed to war,” he says, his arms waving in 360-degree circles.
“We worship a savior who believes in justice—fair treatment of all people. Not discrimination against certain people because they are different from us.
“We worship a savior who is humble, who doesn’t consider himself, never did consider himself, superior.”
The controversial critic
Carter does not specifically tick off his laundry list of injustices—pre-emptive war in Iraq, persecution of the Palestinians, disregard for the legal rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees, the widening gap between rich and poor.
Outside these church walls, however, he has been laser-like and vociferous in his criticism of late, establishing himself as an alternative, albeit controversial, American leader on the world stage.
His recent book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, set off an international firestorm after he accused Israel of human rights abuses. Israel’s supporters, in turn, accused Carter of anti-Semitism. This past spring, Carter called the current Bush administration’s foreign policy “the worst in history.” The White House shot back, calling Carter “increasingly irrelevant.”
On this Sunday, Jimmy Carter is plenty relevant to the people rapt in the pews. They even endure another hour of regular church following the lesson—extortion for getting their picture made with the former president and first lady. With photo in hand, the throngs disperse far and wide to spread the word of Jimmy Carter.
Not that he needs the help.
Carter is everywhere these days, as likely to show up in Rolling Stone talking about the songs on his iPod as in sub-Saharan Africa teaching farmers how to double and triple their crop production.
With financial backing from British tycoon Richard Branson, Carter, along with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and other diplomatic superstars, recently announced the formation of a group called The Elders, dedicated to tackling the world’s toughest problems.
Carter has a lot to offer in the way of experience. The Carter Center sits on a hill where General William T. Sherman watched Atlanta burn during the Civil War. It has given Carter the vehicle as a private citizen to wage his own battles against war, poverty, disease, hunger, totalitarianism and, sometimes, the U.S. State Department.
On one unpredictably drizzly day in Atlanta, the center’s donors are in town and so is Carter. He is wearing a pinstripe shirt and dark gray suit, which makes his white hair and blue eyes pop. There is no bolo tie. In fact, there’s no tie, giving him that down-to-earth aura he wears so well.
Carter’s office, which overlooks one of the center’s two lakes, is a tranquil place. Carter takes a seat in a wooden rocker. The former leader of the free world is disarmingly approachable, using the word “neat” to describe a digital recorder, even though he’s undoubtedly seen a million just like it.
“Notre Dame means a lot to me, Father Hesburgh particularly,” he says. He and Mrs. Carter hold honorary degrees from the university and in 1992 became the first recipients of the Notre Dame Award for International Humanitarian Service.
Carter wants to know how many women now go to Notre Dame. The world could benefit with more women in charge, he says. He doesn’t just give lip service to his belief. In 2000, Carter publicly cut his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention over its prohibition of female pastors and belief that wives should be submissive to their husbands.
In January, the New Baptist Covenant, a fledgling group of moderate Baptists that Carter helped found, will gather in Atlanta, working for “an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times.”
The unequal treatment of women not only is wrong, Carter believes, it can be dangerous. In his 2005 book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Carter takes aim at fundamentalism.
“I pointed out that any group can become extreme, fundamentalist in their philosophy,” he says. "I described on one page, I remember, the characteristics of a fundamentalist. In religious circles, it always begins with male domination. This has been down through the centuries and still exists in the Roman Catholic faith and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“A fundamentalist has an honest belief that I am uniquely related to God and that my decisions, my actions are favored by God,” he continues. “To compromise is compromising away God’s will, which is almost sacrilegious in a fundamentalist’s mind. It also leads to the refusal to communicate with people who disagree with you. Those characteristics cause extreme actions by deeply committed people in various faiths.”
The conversation turns to Carter’s 1977 Notre Dame commencement address, given five months into his first and only term. The newly minted and then-popular president reiterated to graduates his pledge to make human rights the foundation of America’s foreign policy.
He tried to keep that promise, he says. “We elevated, not perfectly but to a substantial degree, the image of America as a nation that raised high the banner of human rights.”
Carter attributes his lifelong dedication to advancing human rights to having grown up on a farm just outside Plains. Although the South was under the vestiges of segregation, most of Carter’s playmates were African American. “I was fortunate, in retrospect, in having been born and raised in a family during the Great Depression, in an isolated community, where all of my neighbors were black,” he says.
His mother Lillian, a Peace Corps volunteer late in life and subject of his next book, was a registered nurse who did not see black and white, only sick people. “She didn’t care much about honoring the restrictive Southern mores and customs,” he says.
Carter describes being blown away as a Naval submarine officer when President Harry Truman ordained by executive order the end of racial discrimination in the military. Two decades later, in his 1971 inaugural address as Georgia’s governor, Carter shocked the state and catapulted himself onto the national scene by declaring, “The time for racial discrimination is over.”
“When I became president, I thought it was time to expand the concept of civil rights, which was the phrase we had always used then, to human rights, which had a global connotation,” Carter says. After leaving the White House, his view of human rights evolved even more.
The Carter Center
It is through that global lens that the Carter Center now conducts peace and health programs in 71 of some of the poorest countries in the world, half of them in Africa.
Its efforts to stamp out Third World diseases have helped bring about the near eradication of Guinea worm, a painful, debilitating affliction linked to contaminated water.
When the Carter Center spearheaded the effort to rid the world of Guinea worm in 1986, there were 3.5 million cases. Today, there are about 25,000, putting the disease on track to become the first since smallpox to be wiped off the planet.
On the peace side of the equation, the center’s role observing and certifying the fairness of elections in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America has helped to spread democracy and to boost the center’s stature and credibility.
The work, which most often takes place in unstable countries transitioning from civil war or authoritarian rule, doesn’t stop after votes are tallied.
The center has programs, including new ones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Palestine, which offer human-rights training and underscore the building blocks of democracies such as transparency in government and an independent judiciary.
“If you remove human rights as part of elections, you don’t have democracy, you have elections,” explains Karin Ryan, director of the center’s Human Rights Program.
Carter’s freelance diplomacy since the Oval Office has been credited with defusing conflicts in many of the world’s tinderboxes, including Haiti, Korea and Nicaragua.
He has successfully lobbied behind the scenes for the release of more than 50,000 political prisoners, according to research by historian and biographer Douglas Brinkley, author of The Unfinished Presidency.
In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “decades of untiring effort” on behalf of peace, democracy and human rights.
An unofficial title increasingly uttered with his name—the greatest ex-president in American history—is one that he and supporters believe shortchanges the accomplishments of his single term: the Camp David accords, the Panama Canal treaties, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Still, Carter calls his post-White House years with his wife his most fulfilling. A force in her own right, Mrs. Carter, 80, runs a nationally acclaimed mental health program at the Carter Center and is an international advocate for people with mental illness.
“Our life is not one of personal sacrifice,” Carter says. “It is a kind of pleasant adventure and unpredictable challenge and a very gratifying experience.”
Carter shows no signs of letting up. Unlike his father and three siblings, all of whom died from pancreatic cancer, Carter has been blessed with excellent health. He engages in many of the hobbies associated with retirement. He paints, fly fishes, hand-carves furniture. He is writing his 23rd book.
But he pledged to himself after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, whom Carter called a “blood brother,” to die with his boots on, his friends say.
In 2005, Carter stepped down as chairman of the Carter Center’s board of trustees, but staffers say he remains as involved as ever, if not more so, scribbling notes on memos and dispatching people to far-off lands.
He and Mrs. Carter, who have visited 125 countries, continue to maintain a brutal travel schedule. “He is definitely worked up about a lot of things in a very great way,” says Ryan.
Among the things about which Carter is most exercised these days is what he views as the Bush administration’s about-face in the area of human rights. Its policies not only have undermined America’s moral authority to criticize human rights abuses, Carter maintains, it has emboldened other governments to abuse human rights in the name of fighting terrorism.
“Our country was founded on the basis of human rights,” Carter says. "It has been an embarrassment and a great aggravation to me to see America lose its historical and treasured position, certainly since the time of Harry Truman. You could go all the way back to Abraham Lincoln if you wanted to.
“Now when you go overseas and talk about the United States’ basic image, Abu Ghraib comes to the forefront and our own prison in Cuba, Guantanamo. That is the image America has.”
Carter opposed both wars with Iraq, favoring negotiations and inspectors over bombs and troops. Prior to the current war, he called the administration’s move against Iraq, in light of world opposition and the absence of a national security threat, “almost unprecedented in the history of civilized nations.”
He was among those who predicted that the war would destabilize the region and fuel terrorism against the United States.
Two years ago, Carter called on the United States to close its prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, arguing that the administration erred in saying that parts of the Geneva Convention do not apply to the hundreds of terrorism suspects held there. Today, treatment of the detainees yet to be charged continues to be a source of controversy and hand-wringing for this country and abroad.
“To see Americans’ civil liberties I would say constrained, to say the least, sometimes violated, for us to have people in prison for three or four years and never tell them what the charge is against them, is something that we ordinarily wouldn’t equate with America,” Carter says.
He characterizes the impact of the Bush administration’s policies as “horrible.”
“The damage is severe, not only in the Arab countries, the Muslim countries, but in Europe as well. There is a great sense of betrayal.
“And now a totalitarian government that wants to stamp out the free voice of a human rights activist says ‘We are just acting like Washington acts. We are doing the same thing, like a Patriot Act in my country.’”
As a kind of counter-offensive, the Carter Center now hosts annual policy forums to give dozens of human rights activists from around the world a place to be heard. In 2005, the group unanimously stated that the war on terror was being used as a pretext for restricting freedoms in many countries, including the United States.
This is not how ex-presidents are supposed to act. They are supposed to swallow their criticism in the name of statesmanship. Or, like the late President Gerald Ford, criticize from the grave, as he did when he called the Iraq War unjustified in an interview to be published after his death.
But as the biographer Brinkley notes, no one has ever been able to muzzle Jimmy Carter, nor should they. "Jimmy Carter is a maverick. He is going to do what he feels his God and his heart tell him to do.
“And that alienates people. When you start criticizing a country for human rights abuses or you start disagreeing with our U.S. State Department and you are an ex-president, you are going to make some enemies.”
Whenever Carter enters the public debate, he is a lightning rod, particularly for those on the far right of the political spectrum who excoriate him as naïve, meddlesome, self-promoting. They dismiss his post-White House achievements as an attempt to extinguish memory of a presidency of double-digit inflation, long gas lines and the Iranian hostage crisis. They accuse him of cozying up to dictators and have called him a traitor.
Time and again, Jimmy Carter seems to win the public-relations war, diminishing the vitriol with images like those of him taking on dictator Fidel Castro on Cuban soil or brandishing a hammer building homes for the poor with his work for Habitat for Humanity.
The White House’s characterization of Carter as “increasingly irrelevant” made him seem somehow only more relevant, given the editorials and letters the tit-for-tat generated on newspaper op-ed pages worldwide.
Brinkley calls Carter the most relevant active Democrat on the scene today, one destined for folk hero status. "His popularity around the world is extraordinarily high. Wherever he goes in Africa, Asia, Europe, he is seen as a great man. He’s not seen as quite that back home.
“When he’s gone, we’re going to realize what a rare bird he was for being a leading politician who spoke to the people of the world with such utter candor.”
Jimmy Carter’s willingness to lay it on the line is no more apparent than with his Palestine Peace Not Apartheid book. Drawing on the Carter Center’s work monitoring three elections in Palestine since the mid-1990s, Carter accuses Israel of abominable oppression in the occupied territories.
“This is an area where terrible persecution exists among Palestinians in their own land by the Israeli occupying forces and the people’s basic rights are terribly subverted—a fact that is hardly known or ever mentioned in this country. It is debated strongly in Israel but it is not appropriate in this country because of political and other exigencies.”
In the book, Carter accuses the pro-Israel lobby of stifling the debate in this country. He describes a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation separating Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. A wall that divides Israel and Palestine is the backdrop for the book’s cover.
In many ways this is more oppressive than what blacks lived under in South Africa during apartheid, Carter says. “I made plain in the book and in the title that the word apartheid applied to Palestine, not to Israel, and that it was not based on race but on the avarice of some Israelis for Palestinian land.”
Carter says he wrote the book to educate Americans about the plight of the Palestinians and to revive the peace effort. His commitment to peace in the Middle East dates back 30 years to the presidential retreat at Camp David, where he brokered an agreement between long-time enemies Israel and Egypt. The agreement’s call for Palestinian autonomy has never been fully realized.
Carter expected that the book and the use of the word apartheid in its title would prove provocative. He did not, however, expect to be called a bigot, a plagiarist, a coward, an anti-Semite. The book prompted the resignations of 14 of Atlanta’s business and civic leaders from the Carter Center’s advisory board.
“The personal nature of the attacks did surprise me,” Carter says. “I’ve been called, even by some of my fellow professors at Emory, a liar, that I created false statements to go in my book, to be an anti-Semite. This is a new experience for me, which I can certainly absorb.”
Carter has reached out to members of the Jewish community. Appearing before students at Brandeis University earlier this year, he apologized for a sentence in the book that he says could be construed as justifying terrorism. Otherwise, he stands his ground.
“The response to the book in a private way through letters and so forth has been strongly favorable, even from Jewish Americans,” Carter says. “I even had a number of Jewish rabbis endorsing what I did, privately. And even a few Holocaust survivors agree with my book.”
The word humanitarian is used to describe Jimmy Carter. Optimist should be another.
Asked if he believes peace is truly possible between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he fires back an enthusiastic “sure.”
“The ones that are perpetrating these crimes against the Palestinians are a small minority. The overwhelming majority of Israelis express themselves in every public opinion poll in the last 30 years of being in favor of withdrawing from the Palestinian lands in exchange for peace.”
As disheartened as he is with the current administration’s report card on human rights, he believes the next president can right the course quickly with an inaugural address that pledges to abide by international treaties and laws respecting human rights.
“We guarantee that never again would the United States hold a prisoner with the deprivation of charges or legal counsel. I think that statement in itself would immediately almost tell the world that the ill-advised policies of the previous eight years will be in reverse,” he says.
Although so many of the world’s conflicts turn on religious differences, Jimmy Carter continues to believe that faith can unite. He’s even been known to invite a dictator or two to Plains for Sunday school.
The foundation of his belief harkens back to a Sunday school lesson he delivered not so long ago.
“I am a highly biased person, but I worship the prince of peace and humility and service and forgiveness and compassion and love and the alleviation of suffering,” Carter says.
“I would say those characteristics are not unique to Christianity. Those same basic principles are espoused by Jews, by Muslims, by Hindus, by Buddhists. Compassion, love, humility, kindness, peace.”
For Jimmy Carter, those are words to live by.
Ann Hardie is a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.