More Links in News & Events

Prayer and the Civic Religion

By Jimmy Carter

The New York Times

BYLINE: By Jimmy Carter; Jimmy Carter, the former President, is chairman of The Carter Center at Emory University.

I grew up in a conservative Baptist family in which we honored some basic premises that had defined Baptists for more than three and a half centuries. One of the most fundamental was the separation of church and state, based on Jesus' admonition to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

We considered it proper for citizens to influence public policy but not for a religious group to attempt to control the processes of a democratic government or for public officials to interfere in religious affairs.

During the last two decades, these principles have been challenged, often successfully, by Christian fundamentalists. Under the banner of the Christian Coalition, they have merged with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, becoming an active force in politics and enjoying a series of election successes.

They had their first serious setback this year when Bill Clinton was re-elected, and "only" 62 percent of born-again Christians voted against him. In a New York Times interview, Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition's president, condemned Republican campaign leaders as "incompetent," and vowed to play a more active role in upcoming elections.

As a Presidential candidate in 1976, I tried to avoid any religious subject, but when questioned one April night at the home of a North Carolina supporter, I said I was a "born-again Christian." From then until the end of the campaign, national reporters made a big deal of what seemed natural to me and my hosts, making clear to me that injecting religion into politics was a mistake.

This and other incidents made me extra careful to separate my official status as President from the private worship habits of my family. I never permitted religious services to be held in the White House. With as little publicity as possible, we worshiped at the nearest Baptist church when we were in Washington, and at Camp David the chaplain from a nearby Army base conducted private services for us and a few of the Navy families stationed there.

Yet I prayed more during those four years than at any other time in my life, primarily for patience, courage and the wisdom to make good decisions. I also prayed for peace -- for ourselves and others. When Iran was holding our hostages, I asked for their safe return to freedom.

Since publication of my new book, "Living Faith," I have been asked whether my Christian beliefs ever differed from my duties as President. There were a few such conflicts but I always honored my oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." For instance, I have never believed that Jesus Christ would agree with Supreme Court decisions approving abortion or the death penalty, but I honored such rulings to the best of my ability, at the same time attempting to minimize what I considered to be their adverse impact.

Jesus proclaimed that his ministry was to "bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed." But I believe that it is usually government officeholders and not religious leaders who are in the forefront of this struggle to alleviate suffering, provide homes for the homeless, eliminate the stigma of poverty or racial discrimination, preserve peace and rehabilitate prisoners.

There is little doubt that many church members are more self-satisfied, committed to the status quo and exclusive of dissimilar people than most political officeholders are, because officeholders face intense competition from challengers in dealing successfully with human problems.

There is a subtle but important difference between the highest commitments of religious faith and public office. Most great religions espouse the golden rule, based on agape -- love or self-sacrifice, for the benefit of others. A government's ultimate goals are to preserve security and to insure justice: to treat people fairly, to guarantee their rights, to alleviate suffering and to try to resolve disputes peacefully. Both are worthy ideas, but neither is easy to reach.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top