Last year Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at Liberty University. This year’s speaker is Jimmy Carter.
Carter and the Falwell family—the late Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the university in 1978 and Jerry Falwell Jr. is the current president—have not always seen eye-to-eye about how evangelicals should engage with public life.
Both Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell Sr. claimed to be born-again Christians, but during the Carter administration, Falwell Sr., the host of the popular “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television program, was a staunch critic of the president’s position on a host of social issues. Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Falwell Sr. did not. Carter opposed prayer in schools and a constitutional amendment banning abortion (although he opposed abortion personally). Falwell Sr. championed both issues.
Falwell Sr. also criticized Jimmy Carter for his infamous 1976 interview with Playboy magazine in which the presidential candidate confessed that he has “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Falwell Sr. said that Carter’s decision to give an interview to Playboy “was lending the credence and the dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine that did not even deserve the time of his day.”
By 1980, Falwell Sr. was leading a contingency of conservative evangelical ministers, a group that included Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, James Robison, and Tim LaHaye, who rejected Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was fond of talking about the Christian roots of American freedom, often mentioning the seventeenth-century Puritan belief that the United States was a “city upon a hill.” Reagan opposed abortion, promised to fight moral decay, and said he would keep the federal government from intruding on the lives and schools of ordinary evangelicals.
Even after Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, Falwell Sr. did not stop his criticism of the former president. When the Lynchburg minister questioned Carter’s faith, Carter fired back: “There is nothing any television evangelist can do to shake my faith…Jerry Falwell can–in a very Christian way–as far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.”
Fast forward to 2016. When Donald Trump made a campaign stop at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., who would shortly thereafter endorse his candidacy, took his own shot at Carter: “My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter…because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who’d been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher….Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.”
So why is Jimmy Carter giving the commencement address tomorrow at Liberty University?
Because Carter is a grace-filled Christian. After Falwell Jr. read a Bible passage at a prayer service on the morning of the Trump inauguration, Carter, who was also in attendance, approached the Liberty University president and thanked him. As Falwell Jr. put it in a Liberty press release: “He stopped me afterward and told me he thought I did a good job…He said he saw my name on the program before I spoke, and he thought it was great that I’d be here to read Scripture. He was very kind.”
Carter did not need to do this, but his evangelical faith no doubt compelled him. He has a lot to teach Falwell Jr. and the students at Liberty University. Consider:
- Carter confessed his sin on the pages of Playboy magazine. Jerry Falwell Jr. supports a president who has been on the cover of Playboy multiple times and claims to have never had the need to confess his sins. In fact, Trump’s Playboy cover is prominently displayed in this picture of Trump and Falwell Jr.
- Jimmy Carter practices a Christianity defined by hope, not fear.
- Jimmy Carter is an advocate for peace in the Middle East and has long shown his solidarity with Palestinian Christians. Jerry Falwell Jr. supports the president responsible for this.
- Jimmy Carter understands that the Christian life is a life of humility, compassion, service, and self-sacrificial love, not a life in pursuit of political power.
- Jimmy Carter calls Christians to “work together in harmony and to forget about political differences and to pursue the principles of Jesus Christ.” Falwell Jr. seems more concerned about dividing the Christian church.
- Jimmy Carter called the nation to self-sacrifice and a sense of limits. He understood that American freedom also required a sense of duty and a commitment to the needs of others. Falwell Sr. chose a presidential candidate who defended a political philosophy that offered “the right to dream ‘heroic dreams’ without sacrifice.” Reagan promised “a combination of guttural self-interest mixed with a utopian vision of the future,” a vision “that Carter could never offer….”
I look forward to hearing Carter’s speech.