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Column: Sunday Morning With Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., in 2009. (Associated Press - John Bazemore)

Former President Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., in 2009. (Associated Press - John Bazemore)

Southwest Georgia is Baptist country. The back roads heading south out of Columbus are bracketed by red soil, scruffy pines and clapboard buildings sporting names like Shiloh Marion Baptist Church, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church and Greater Good Hope Baptist Church. “Love Jesus No Matter What,” one roadside sign reads, and another: “Only Jesus Saves.” Outside of Preston, still another sign implores, “Take Jesus for your Saviour,” and the Preston Baptist Church has posted each of the Ten Commandments on a chain-link fence for the edification of travelers passing through town.

Just before crossing from Webster into Sumter County, signs on Georgia Highway 27 point toward Archery, the boyhood home of Jimmy Carter, and then the road eases into Plains, where it becomes Church Street. The business district, not much more than a block long, lies just beyond the railroad tracks, across the street from the train station that served as campaign headquarters for Carter’s improbable run for the presidency in 1976.

Plains, with a population of only 764 souls, nevertheless has two Baptist churches, the large white clapboard Plains Baptist Church and the newer, brick building, Maranatha Baptist Church, on the north edge of town, just past the sculpture of a smiling peanut. The Carter clan voted years ago to integrate Plains Baptist, but they were joined by only one other member. While Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were in Washington, a dissident group formed Maranatha. The Carters attended both churches during their visits to Plains, but when they moved home following the 1980 election, they cast their lot with racial inclusivity and joined Maranatha.

A couple of squad cars sat at the foot of the driveway, and farther along a bomb-sniffing dog circled every vehicle before it was allowed to continue to the parking lot. By 8:30, 90 minutes before Sunday school, visitors began to queue outside the front door. Inside, past the Secret Service agents waving security wands, Jan Williams, church member and retired schoolteacher — Amy Carter was one of her students — instructed the gathering about protocol. Photographs of the Sunday-school teacher are allowed only before the lesson begins, she warned. The 39th president of the United States wants no applause. “The applause you give him is how you take the lesson and apply it to your life.”

Jimmy Carter, notorious for punctuality, materialized precisely at 10 o’clock, wearing a dark sport coat, a light blue shirt and a bolo tie. This is lesson number 613 he has given at Maranatha Baptist Church, Carter told us; he has the lessons numbered on his computer. (He’s also notorious for quantification.) Having taught Sunday school since he was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter clearly enjoys the classroom; even while president, he taught 14 times at First Baptist Church in Washington.

The president took the morning lesson from the New Testament book of Hebrews, the gist of which, Carter said, was “the son of God explaining the character of God.” Hebrews is, by almost any measure, an odd text; a recent book by Garry Wills cast doubt on its merits, especially the reference to the Melchizadek priesthood, which appears only twice elsewhere in the Bible, both in recondite passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Carter seemed unaware of the Wills book, and his take on the epistle was decidedly Protestant. “One of the things I have always been taught since I was a child was the priesthood of the believer,” he said, a reference to Martin Luther’s quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church, which had inserted a priestly caste between God and ordinary believers. “As we approach the rest of our life,” Carter said, “we can be reassured and have hope because we have a direct relationship with God almighty.”

Carter, who tends to teach in syllogisms, was less interested in theological exposition than application. Our duty as believers, he said, is “to emulate, or copy, the life of our savior.” Leaders who call themselves Christians, even political leaders, have an obligation to emulate Jesus, who was, Carter reminded us, the prince of peace.

The president, who had looked every bit his 88 years at the beginning of the lesson, seemed to gather energy as he warmed to his topic. He lamented that the United States has a reputation around the world as the most warlike nation on Earth, and he noted that for most of the past 70 years we have been at war. “We have an obligation to promote peace,” he insisted, “and justice.” The United States has more people in prison than any nation, he said, seven times the number when he left the White House in 1981. “I personally believe that Jesus Christ would be against the death penalty,” Carter said, referring his auditors to the woman caught in adultery, the incident where Jesus invited any of the woman’s accusers who were without sin to cast the first stone.

Carter learned one of his favorite aphorisms from the classroom of Julia Coleman, just down the street in Plains. “We have to accommodate to changing times,” the woman Carter still refers to as “Miss Julia” told him, “by clinging to unchanging principles.”

By Carter’s own reckoning, the 71 years of his adult life can be broken down to 11 years in the Navy, 17 as a farmer, 12 in politics, and 31 as a professor and head of the Carter Center. Later, during our conversation in the pastor’s study, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told me that he harbored no regrets, and that he wanted to be remembered for peace and human rights.

“The totality of my life has been enhanced,” Carter said, by losing the presidency in 1980. He scratched his chin thoughtfully and then flashed the famous Jimmy Carter grin. “It’s been the best part of my life since I left the White House.”

Randall Balmer is chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. His biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer President: The Life of Jimmy Carter, will be released next spring. His column appears monthly in Perspectives.