After 40 years in political exile, Jimmy Carter is still a preacher at heart

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Former President Jimmy Carter after teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Ga. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

PLAINS, Ga. — They had come to this small town and slept in their cars and then woke up to scrub themselves with baby wipes and stand in line in the soft early morning light, amid a thick ground fog that shrouded the trees.

Once inside, they were instructed not to cheer or applaud when the teacher came in. He doesn’t like that sort of adulation.

So, when the moment arrived, rather abruptly and without warning, a charge went through the room. But instead of exploding into noise, all the energy remained suspended in place.

“Good morning, everybody.” Those were the first words that Jimmy Carter uttered as he entered the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church, interrupting the church’s head pastor, the Rev. Tony Lowden, who was midsentence.

Carter’s voice was still strong and clear. And then there he was, with a hitch in his step and using a cane to walk as a result of the broken hip he had suffered just two months earlier. But at 94 years old — the longest-living president in American history — he moved with as much purpose as ever.

Audience members responded to Carter’s greeting with their own salutations but then fell quiet as he shuffled across the front of the room. Once he was seated, Carter asked those in the packed room where they were from and cracked a joke or two. And then he launched into his lesson, talking about his own struggles to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with that of the New, and then about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

Former President Jimmy Carter jokes with his wife, Rosalynn, about arriving a few moments into his Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church. Carter was playfully reproved by Jan Williams, a member of the church since 1977: "That's not nice," Williams joked back at the ex-president. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

The room of sleep-deprived, unwashed pilgrims sat quietly, at rapt attention, hungry to hear.

It was hope. And goodness. That’s what so many people who had come and slept in cramped quarters in their cars were looking for.

“At this point in our history, we are lacking moral integrity and leadership in our political system. … I wanted to be reminded that that still exists and it will exist again,” said Keegan Kautzky, a 35-year-old agricultural program developer, who had arrived around 3 a.m. two weeks earlier and slept in his car, only to find out the next morning that he would be in the overflow room.

This time he arrived around 6 p.m. on Saturday, slept once again in the passenger seat of his sedan and ended up in the second row.

No one knows how much longer Carter will continue doing this. He’s been teaching Sunday school since he was a student at the Naval Academy in the mid-1940s, according to Jill Stuckey, his friend, adviser and aide in Plains. He continued to do so even during his presidency.

And he has continued to teach into his 90s, usually twice a month. It’s an expression of what Carter has always considered his core calling, above even politics: that of a Christian minister who works through many channels to tend to those in need.

“In these troubled times today, [Carter] is like a beacon of light,” said Jeanie Miglis, who was first in line with her husband, Mitch. The Melbourne, Fla., couple arrived at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon but were fortunate to be in a Winnebago on a multiweek road trip.

“He represents good morals; he represents hope and peace,” Miglis said.

People line up outside Maranatha Baptist Church, in the order they arrived the previous afternoon, into the evening and overnight. Most slept in their cars to see former President Carter teach Sunday school on July 21. Church members worked through the night to keep track of the arrivals and give them line numbers. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Dawn Meyers came with her daughter Lily, a 15-year-old high school student, from Athens, Ga., and with two other moms and three other daughters. They all slept in two SUVs, with the teenagers piled into the trunks and the rear hatch opened.

“They need role models,” Dawn said of her daughter and her friends. “There’s precious few role models right now who you can really be proud of that are that famous.”

Some had more personal reasons. Kristen Slemons, 56, of Marietta, Ga., went into cardiac arrest after surgery last December and nearly didn’t come out. She was there with her husband and daughter on what she called a pilgrimage.

“I’m here and I’m super thankful. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed, so I decided to live my life and do things I always wanted to do,” said Slemons, a speech pathologist.

Not all were quite so sad about Trump’s America. Ken and Betty Johnson, retirees from St. Louis, had spent the morning chatting and laughing with Kautzky, the program developer, who had not broached the topic of modern politics, perhaps sensing that the Johnsons did not share his dire view of the current president.

“We are not wanting to vote in a socialistic way, I’ll tell you that,” Ken Johnson, 77, said, referring to the current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Johnson and the younger Kautzky didn’t dwell on that and soon went back to lighter topics.

But when Lowden came to introduce Carter, he made numerous references to the divided state of affairs in the country, and his characterizations of Carter veered into the messianic.

Mary Prince, a resident of Plains since 1981, holds church service programs and waits for visitors to be screened by Secret Service agents at the door of Maranatha Baptist Church, before entering to see former President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. Carter has continued to teach twice a month despite battling brain cancer that was diagnosed in 2015 and is now in remission. He was out less than a month earlier this year after he broke his hip. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

“We’re living in a time when humanity is in the ICU unit,” Lowden said. “So your soul starts telling you, ‘Hey, I need to go down to this place called Plains, where the gnats bite all day long.’”

“We still have people outside trying to get in,” he said. “It reminds me of a little story in the Bible where some friends of a man who couldn’t walk wanted to tear the roof off, just to get people in to get healed.”

Carter, like any human, is plenty flawed. His presidency as well was marred by runaway inflation and the Iran hostage crisis.

But there was something familiar about the scene, as if history were repeating itself. When Carter ran for president in 1976, he won by appealing to America’s desperate hunger for healing after the trauma of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.

Now the United States is roiled by a divisive president whose lies are chronicled daily and create a collective sense of vertigo, one who rose to power by demonizing immigrants, all under the shadow of Russian interference. Trump was elected in the years following another costly and disastrous war — this time in Iraq — and in the decade after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

So, as they were 43 years ago, Americans now are exhausted, and the feeling in the room as Carter spoke this day was similar to descriptions of what it was like when he had traveled the country seeking to win the presidency.

Then-Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter presses the flesh on arrival in Plains, in July 1976. (Photo: Peter Bregg/AP)

Charles Mohr of the New York Times wrote at the time that “his speeches are mostly received with a strange quietness.” Jules Witcover, a syndicated columnist, observed the same thing. “A strange calm came over the audience as he talked of America’s basic goodness,” Witcover wrote.

Similarly, this past Sunday, the room in Plains was peacefully still while Carter spoke of simple goodness.

“Why don’t we stop just a moment and imagine a modern world — in 2019 — if God’s kingdom was in place, according to Jesus’s teachings, what do you think a characteristic of that kingdom would be?” Carter asked.

Lone voices spoke up from the crowd. “Love,” a woman said. “Peace,” another called out. “Brotherhood,” said another.

“Brotherhood,” Carter repeated. “Or sisterhood.”

For almost 40 minutes, Carter spoke. He used the Sermon on the Mount as a way of explaining how Jesus had “mandated a much higher standard of conduct” in his teaching than had been required under the law.

For example, he said, Jesus took the commandment not to murder and elevated it to say Christians should not hate anyone. Then Carter came to adultery, which Jesus also defined more broadly.

“I got into serious trouble trying to interpret this,” Carter said wryly, and the room exploded into laughter. “Some of you still remember that,” Carter cracked.

He was referring to one line from a series of interviews he did with Playboy magazine in 1976, which was published a few weeks before the presidential election.

“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter told Playboy. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Former President Carter teaches a Sunday School lesson prior to the main service at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, the small southwest Georgia town where he was born and raised, which he returned to after his father died in 1953, and then again after his presidency. In December 2018, he began sitting during his lessons in a custom-made chair installed by his friends. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Carter had been extrapolating in that comment from Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:28, but the interview exploded into the news cycle and was a “devastating blow” to Carter in the final days of his campaign for the presidency. It almost cost him the election.

But now Carter can joke about it. He has little left to prove, except maybe to convince more people that his presidency wasn’t all bad.

Increasingly, Carter is seen in full rather than just through his hobbled and sometimes disastrous presidency: as a man who came from nothing in a nowhere section of rural Georgia, willed his way to the presidency and then returned home to live simply while redefining what it means to be an ex-president.

He and his wife, Rosalynn, 91, are both still active, if moving a good bit slower. He has survived brain cancer, which was diagnosed four years ago.

“God gives us life, he gives us freedom, and he gives us opportunity to live a successful, happy, peaceful, enjoyable life. Isn’t that wonderful?” Carter asked the audience, his voice rising with conviction.

There were murmurs of agreement in response.

Jon Ward is the author of “Camelot’s End: Kennedy v Carter and
the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party.”

_____

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: