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Jimmy Carter: Religion Overemphasized in Republican Presidential Race

Former President Jimmy Carter speaks at a ceremony at the Carter Center in Atlanta, October 2010. (file photo)

Former President Jimmy Carter speaks at a ceremony at the Carter Center in Atlanta, October 2010. (file photo)

Republican Presidential contender Newt Gingrich carried out a successful primary election campaign in the southern U.S. state of South Carolina last week by appealing to social conservative voters, many of whom are deeply religious. Evangelical Christians have been crucial to the campaigns of many presidential hopefuls, including former President Jimmy Carter, who talks about the role of religion in his life, and how it is shaping American politics.

When he ran for president in 1976, Democratic candidate Carter was confronted with a question while attending a fundraiser in North Carolina.

“One of the news reporters asked me if I was a "born again" Christian, and I said “yes” and that made the headlines.”

Carter's public expression of his faith helped him secure support in traditionally conservative states, and ultimately helped him win the White House.

Since then, Evangelical Christian voters have been a major political consideration for Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Does faith matter? Absolutely,” said Gingrich.

Current Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich - a Protestant who converted to Catholicism - expressed his views about the role of religious faith in politics in an October TV debate on CNN.

"And I frankly would be very worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faiths would affect their judgments because then I wonder, how can you have judgment if you have no faith, and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray? The notion that you are endowed by your Creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by 'America,'" said Gingrich.

One of Gingrich’s main rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is also public about his faith.

“I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and my savior. But I know that other people have differing views, and I respect those views. And don’t believe that those qualify or disqualify people for leadership in our nation,” said Romney.

The tendency of candidates to emphasize their faith on the campaign trail is something former President Carter says is over emphasized as the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination swings through conservative and religious southern states.

“They know that’s what the public who will vote in the Republican primaries want to hear. In the long run, most people will back off when they get ready to actually choose a president in the general election and say, 'You know what the person’s faith might be, whether its Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or Mormon or whatever, it’s not going to affect my vote nearly as much as the basic moral character, the basic principles put forward by the potential president.' So I think the president’s personal background and his proven record in the past in political affairs or business affairs will be much more important than what faith a president espouses," said Carter.

A public opinion survey conducted last September seems to support President Carter’s views. According to LifeWay Research, a Christian research organization that focuses on church and cultural issues, a little more than 16 percent of Americans say they are more likely to vote for a candidate "who regularly shares their religious beliefs."

Carter said that when he was in office, he took measures to demonstrate the Constitutional separation of church and state.

“I was very careful in the White House not to use the White House or the Oval Office as a pulpit from which to promote Christianity in preference to other faiths. And I was also careful to remove any religious services from the White House,” said Carter.

Carter is the author of several books that explore his relationship with Christianity. The most recent, “Through the Year with Jimmy Carter,” is a collection of Bible lessons he has taught throughout several decades on Sunday mornings at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.

“What I’ve tried to do in this book is to cut down a 45-minute lesson to one page, which includes a brief text and brief prayer, and then about 400 words in between, but to connect each lesson with daily life as best I could with some experiences that Rosalynn [i.e., Mrs. Carter] and I have had traveling around the world or with top headline news or something of that kind to make sure that readers could understand the practical application of that faith with our daily lives,” said Carter.

That practical application includes anecdotes about how Carter's faith played a role in negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations with China, and how it helped his wife, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, deal with his reelection defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.