What Jimmy Carter Said Today at Liberty University


Yesterday I wrote a post on what I thought Jimmy Carter could teach Jerry Falwell Jr. at today’s Liberty University commencement.

Today Carter delivered his address.  In his introduction of Carter, Falwell Jr. could not help but try to compare the former president to Donald Trump.  Falwell Jr. politicizes everything.  Hey Jerry, Liberty University’s commencement is for the graduates, it is not about your court evangelicalism.  Here is what Falwell Jr. said:

Becky and I attended the opening of the Billy Graham Library in 2007 about one month after my father’s death.  And I remember commenting to Becky then, that of the four former presidents speaking that day, Jimmy Carter sounded more like one of us than the rest…President Trump has called me and spoken to me about his appreciation for the former president’s friendship and support…Both Presidents Carter and Trump entered the White House as outsiders to the Washington establishment, and I hope that many more outsiders will follow.  The longer I live the more I want to…give my political support to a person.  Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected.  The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today.

After this, Falwell Jr. praised Carter for his 1976 Playboy interview because Carter followed the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to list for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Of course Falwell Jr.’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., was one of the strongest critics of Carter’s Playboy interview.  This is why it is kind of shocking that Falwell Jr. would go on to say: “It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine.”

So what did Jimmy Carter say to the Liberty University graduates?

  • Carter began with a jab at Trump: “This is a wonderful crowd.  Jerry told me before we came here that it’s even bigger, I hate to say this, than it was last year. I don’t know if President Trump will admit that or not.”
  • Carter admits that “he was surprised he was invited to Liberty to speak.” He recalls that he received a lot of negative letters from Liberty students when he was in the White House.  “Most of them were about my giving away the Panama Canal or forming what they believed to be an unnecessary Department of Education or normalizing diplomatic relations with the communist government of China.”  (I am sure some of these letters looked like this).  Carter adds: “Those critical letters…ended with the 1980 election which brought my involuntary retirement from the White House. After that I didn’t get very many letters from Liberty.”  .
  • While Falwell tried to paint Carter as a politician who is on Liberty’s side in the culture wars, Carter told a slightly different story about his life.  Carter did not define his life in terms of politics.  Instead, he talked about his work at sharing the Gospel (“winning souls to Christ”) as a young man, his Sunday School teaching, his championing of peace and human rights, his efforts to end global disease, and his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity.
  • Carter reminds the Liberty graduates and their families about the great disparities of wealth around the world.  Here he sounds like Bernie Sanders (who he supported for POTUS in the 2016 election).
  • Carter said that he believes the greatest moral challenge we face right now is “discrimination against women and girls in the world.”
  • Carter talked about his attempt in the early 1980s to bring leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention together to prevent a split in the denomination.  He said the meeting failed largely because many of the leaders present, some of them who would go on to become presidents of the denomination, were unwilling to compromise on the status of women in the church.  (One can’t think about these comments without reflecting on the recent controversial remarks of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson).
  • Carter wants to unify Christians in the world, especially Southern Baptists.  (Falwell Jr.  nods in agreement).
  • Carter makes a subtle and indirect jab at Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement: “America has abandoned its leadership…as a champion of a clean and healthy environment.”
  • Carter identifies himself as an “evangelical Christian.”  He is not yet willing to abandon the label.
  • Carter quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.”  He asks Liberty students to go beyond mere justice and promote “agape love, self-sacrificial love among people.”
  • Carter tells the Liberty graduates that Americans have always had a hard time embracing equality.  He adds: “even now, some of us our still struggling to accept the fact that all people are equal in the eyes of God.”  (Here Carter gets some tepid applause from the crowd).  He adds, “our nation should be known as a champion of peace, our nation should be known as a champion of equality, our nation should be known as a champion of human rights.”
  • He challenges the students “to live a completely successful life as judged by God.”
  • Carter adds: “We decide whether we tell the truth, or benefit from telling lies. We decide, do I hate, or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide: do I think only about myself or do I care for others?”

Indeed, Jimmy Carter is an evangelical.

Compare Carter’s speech with last year’s speech by Donald Trump: