When Jimmy Carter’s presidential term was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1977, he became the first U.S. president to be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. At the time, it was an affiliation he embraced, and the denomination embraced him in return.
That year, President Carter participated in a short video, “In an Act of Love,” for the 1977 SBC annual meeting in Kansas City, promoting the Mission Service Corps of the Home Mission Board. The initiative proposed to recruit 5,000 volunteers to serve as short-term missionaries. In the video, President Carter expressed his love for the denomination and encouraged members to be more active and generous in missions efforts, “to be leaders in a much-needed worldwide spiritual program.”
The following year, he spoke at an event related to the 1978 annual meeting in Atlanta, organized by the National Conference of Baptist Men. In front of an audience of about 8,000 and prefaced by performances from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he raised issues such as human rights, peace, poverty, the proliferation of weapons, and terrorism, which he felt were inherently moral problems. Not one to shy away from his faith, he also felt that his Christian duties and political duties were synonymous: “When I violate one, at the same time, I violate the other.”
Shortly after ceding the presidency to Ronald Reagan, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were presented with the SBC Christian Life Commission’s Distinguished Service Award. At the ceremony, held March 22, 1982 in Atlanta, the Carters championed the value of having strong, healthy family units, including unity in the broader Christian family. Rosalynn Carter spoke of the difficulties that families sometimes face and the reassurance that comes from knowing Christ: “Jesus is always there. We know that he’s always there to love us and to help us and to guide us if we let him.”
Two years later, Rosalynn received the Distinguished Christian Woman Award from the Woman’s Committee at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of a broader conference, “The Changing Roles of Women in Church and Society.” At the award ceremony on Oct. 15, 1984, Rosalynn Carter offered a decidedly egalitarian stance:
“With the time-proven ability of women to share equally all loads and responsibilities with men, it seems we should move beyond resolutions and endless talking, and simply encourage all Americans, male and female, to develop their talents to the fullest, to become leaders based on merit, not on sex.”
In the spring of 1992, the year before R. Albert Mohler Jr. was installed as president, pastor Dan Ariail of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, graduated with his Doctor of Ministry from SBTS. President Carter honored his home church’s pastor by delivering the commencement speech. A key theme of his address was the need for Christians to band together to alleviate poverty. He also expressed his growing disenchantment with the denomination, saying:
“Whenever I tell anybody that I’m a Southern Baptist … it’s treated as something of a joke. ‘Southern Baptist’ has been equated with schism, or divisions, or incompatibility. … The historic image of Southern Baptists as those who are dynamic missionaries for Christ, in places where we are needed … that image has changed.”
In the year 2000, following the adoption of the new Baptist Faith and Message, President Carter’s relationship with the denomination reached its end. He sent a letter to 75,000 Southern Baptists explaining his decision. “I have been disappointed and feel excluded by the adoption of policies and an increasingly rigid Southern Baptist Convention creed, including some provisions that violate the basic premises of my Christian faith,” he wrote, noting issues like biblical inerrancy and the exclusion of women from being pastors.
Since that time, President Carter has continued to find himself in the midst of theological conversation via cautionary blog posts by Mohler, as an advocate for left-leaning Christianity (2004), as an opponent to Christian fundamentalism (2005), for his belief of salvation outside of Christ (2007), and by reiterating his resignation from the SBC (2009). In 2012, Mohler had an opportunity to interview President Carter for an episode of “Thinking in Public.” It was a thoughtful and respectful dialogue about Jimmy Carter’s views of the Bible and his experience as “the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher.” While it was clear that Carter has a deep love for his faith, it was also clear that his faith is not compatible with the current tenets of the denomination that had shaped his early life and career.
For more information on President Carter and his relationship to the SBC, visit the Archives and Special Collections of the Boyce Centennial Library.