Jimmy Carter is perhaps the US President that I’ve most admired in my lifetime for living his ideas, particularly after he left the White House. He works tirelessly for good causes like Habitat for Humanity, is kind and humble, hasn’t tried to enrich himself, left his Southern Baptist church because it denigrated equal rights for women, and took his terminal cancer diagnosis with equanimity (he may actually be okay now).
But I’ve never really been clear about the nature of his religious beliefs. Yes, he’s a Baptist, but does he buy into all the Christian mythology?
Apparently he does, at least according to an interview conducted by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times, “President Carter, am I a Christian?” Kristof poses some tough questions for Carter, who simply affirms his belief in Christian mythology—at the same time he rejects creationism because he claims to accept science!
Here’s a bit of the interview:
ME: How literally do you take the Bible, including miracles like the Resurrection?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection.
I find this stunning. Carter rejects the Genesis story of creation because he has a scientific background, but accepts the equally unbelievable Biblical story of the Resurrection because his faith tells him it’s true (see below). This is gold-standard cognitive dissonance, but he can get away with it because we have no evidence bearing on the Resurrection save conflicting Biblical claims (and the absence of parthenogenic reproduction in humans), but tons of scientific evidence against creationism.
But wait: there’s more! Carter tells us why he accepts these ancient accounts (except for those in Genesis, of course):
[KRISTOF]: With Easter approaching, let me push you on the Resurrection. If you heard a report today from the Middle East of a man brought back to life after an execution, I doubt you’d believe it even if there were eyewitnesses. So why believe ancient accounts written years after the events?
[CARTER]: I would be skeptical of a report like you describe. My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.
The fact that something helps you or makes you feel better has no bearing on its truth! His dismissal of even the need for a scientific evaluation of the Resurrection shows that he’s not really operating rationally here. And he’s taking as fact whatever gives him “personal benefit”.
But wait: there’s more!
[KRISTOF] I think of you as an evangelical, but evangelicalism implies belief in inerrancy of Scripture. Do you share that, and if so, how do you account for contradictions within the Gospels?
[CARTER]. I look on the contradictions among the Gospel writers as a sign of authenticity, based on their different life experiences, contacts with Jesus and each other. If the earlier authors of the Bible had been creating an artificial document, they would have eliminated disparities. I try to absorb the essence and meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ, primarily as explained in the letters written by Paul to the early churches. When there are apparent discrepancies, I make a decision on what to believe, respecting the equal status and rights of all people.
Usually it is the consilience of different accounts that gives veracity; that’s the way science establishes what’s true. In Carter’s case, though, he takes discrepancies to be evidence for truth! And then, based on what he wants to believe, he simply punts and decides which Gospel is true.
Finally, Carter affirms his belief in the literal efficacy of prayer (something disproven in at least one good scientific study of heart patients), but then dismisses the need to show that prayer is efficacious after Kristof cleverly raises the “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” question:
[KRISTOF]: Do you pray daily, and if so, do you believe in the efficacy of prayer in a miracle kind of way, or in a psychologically-this-helps-me-deal-with-the-world kind of way?
But then Carter says that some exigent needs can’t be met by God:
[KRISTOF]: Skeptics have noted that when prayers are “answered,” there is usually an alternative explanation. But an amputee can pray for a new leg, and a new leg never grows back. Isn’t that a reason to believe that prayer helps internally, but doesn’t access miracles?
[CARTER]: It is usually impossible to convince skeptics. For me, prayer helps internally, as a private conversation with my creator, who knows everything and can do anything. If I were an amputee, my prayer would be to help me make the best of my condition, to be a good follower of the perfect example set by Jesus Christ and to be thankful for life, freedom and opportunities to be a blessing to others. We are monitoring the status of cancer in my liver and brain, and my prayers are similar to this.
If I were an amputee, and believed that God could literally answer prayers, I’d be praying for a new leg!!
I wonder what would convince Carter that these stories in which he rests his faith are fiction.
Here we have a man who says he accepts the tenets of science, but then rejects them if they yield conclusions that don’t make him feel good. In that sense, he’s evincing intellectual hypocrisy. But of course, that’s the mindset required to be a believer yet also feel that you’re modern, liberal, and on board with science.
Yes, I still admire President Carter greatly: he’s a good man who does good works. But I now view him as somewhat delusional and self-deceiving, and thus I’ll never be able to see him in quite the same way again.