Jimmy Carter on faith, Trump, and his undying optimism

Apr 11, 2018

Former US President Jimmy Carter says there's an erosion of faith happening all around him. It's one of the main topics in his new book  — his 32nd — called "Faith: A Journey for All."

"All over the world there is a lack of faith in things which we used to cherish. Faith in democracy, faith in freedom, faith in God, faith in ourselves, faith in our neighbors," Carter says. "Your faith in other people, faith in the future."

The more time elapses from his presidency, Carter says, the more he's interested in exploring the spiritual side of life. 

Carter spoke to The World about his book, his faith and US politics. 

The World: You've been described as a progressive evangelical. Has President Trump’s popularity among evangelicals surprised you?

President Jimmy Carter: Well, his sustained popularity among evangelicals has. I think some of that popularity or trust has been shaken lately by the allegations about extramarital affairs and things of that kind. But I think every evangelical is searching for a proper relationship with God and with people around us and I believe that we'll see perhaps in the election in 2018 some loss of that, you know, political confidence.

You also write in your book about the increase in Islamophobia in our country and in the past few weeks many Muslim Americans have spoken out to say they're worried that President Trump's choice for national security adviser, John Bolton, is affiliated with anti-Muslim hate groups. And they're worried that Trump's pick to lead the State Department, Mike Pompeo, sees the fight against terrorism as a sort of holy war. Are these men's beliefs, their attitudes about Islam, cause for concern?

Well, they are cause to be concerned. But, you know, I don't know about their other acquaintances. I don't know most of them, of course. But obviously, I believe we need to look with love according to the teachings of Jesus Christ not only on our own neighbors and friends and those who love us back and are lovable, but even to those from whom we might be estranged or even our enemies or those who hurt us. So the overwhelming concept of love is the one thing that I put in the book, in the final pages of it, that even transcends the importance of faith itself.

You know just on the main news of today, President Trump is threatening some sort of attack on Syria after its alleged chemical attack on civilians. You've been in the hot seat before where you have to weigh our response to aggression. What occurs to you today?

Well, I personally was able, luckily, to maintain our country at peace for four years when I served as president and to promote other human rights as well. I think that living in peace is one of the basic human rights. So I think whenever we go to a war against other people, particularly when it doesn't meet the basic standards of a just war which has been inherited down ever since ancient times, I think we depart from our basic principles of religion. So my hope is that we can escape from the present entanglements that the United States maintains, from the urge to go to war and to go to combat. This could possibly lead in some cases, including our relationships with Russia and with North Korea, to the use of nuclear weapons which would be a devastating thing to happen — maybe to every living thing on earth. So I had to face this when I was president and I prayed more when I was president than I did in any other time my life that I could maintain peace and the other basic human rights. 

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says we are closer to fascism than ever. What do you think about that? Do you agree with her?

Well, I believe that the United States has been able, because of our basic character of it as a nation and as a people, to overcome great handicaps and challenges in the past. You know slavery, and the Civil War, and the right of women to vote equally with men and the end of racial segregation which persisted for almost 100 years. So I think in the past we have proven as a country that we can overcome any major challenge that presents itself. So I have confidence or faith in the future of America.

What is your take though on the rise of nationalism and populism not just in the US but around the world. I mean, is this era anything but normal?

I think it probably is a greater challenge because we lose faith in the basic things. We've lost faith in freedom, we've lost faith in the value of telling the truth. We've lost faith in personal integrity. We've lost faith in some of the very principles that have made us a successful democracy. And the same thing happens in other countries. We, the Carter Center, have conducted or monitored 107 different challenged or difficult elections trying to bring peace and freedom to people and give them a right to choose their own leaders. In history, we have seen major challenges to the principles that we should hold dear and I pray that we have the resilience. And with the almost instant communications, I think we have the capabilities within ourselves and the relationships with others to overcome these challenges.

I would love to know where you get the optimism from because people I know in the news business who are following this every day, some people are freaking out. Is it is it your faith that gives you this optimism?

I get it basically from my religious faith. So I think the ultimate fate of human beings is going to be favorable. We just have to have confidence in ourselves, confidence in others or faith in one another, and be resilient and forceful and let each one of us individually do what we know is right and fair. And there are principles that have guided us and guided all the great religions. So that's why I have faith. I just have faith as a Christian and as others do in our religions.

So the office of the presidency itself, people who know the White House are kind of shocked by all the firings and departures and the reports of chaos. We hear the presidency changes a person. How did it change you and do you think the office might ultimately have the same impact on President Trump.

Well, it made me feel more responsible and more responsibility on myself. And it made me be more aware of the needs of not only a few of the people in my own circle of personal acquaintances, but I had 3 million people, for instance, working for me when I was president the United States who are amenable to my decisions. So I had a much greater feeling of need for guidance and need force for clinging to my basic faith in myself and other people and in the future of humankind — as well as democracy and freedom. So that's what sustained me and I hope it will be a sustaining factor in the life of the president of United States and future presidents as well.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI