Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: Why did some journalists bury the faith tie that binds them?

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If it’s been said once it’s been said a thousand times: Jimmy Carter may have been a very unsuccessful U.S. president, but his life after the White House has been top-notch.

In fact, according to a 2015 poll, the American public thinks he’s No. 1 among the nation’s post-presidents.

Obviously, there was that Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, which was awarded for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” But if you ask average Americans what they admire about Carter’s life post-White House, I think most of them would mention two, or maybe three, parts of his life.

First, there is his record in volunteer work and public service, symbolized by decades of work with Habitat For Humanity building homes for the working poor. If you have followed that story at all, you know that Carter doesn’t just show up with a hammer for the photo-ops. Second, there is the remarkable marriage-partnership between Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. I have heard Southerners refer to them as the “anti-Clintons,” as in Bill and Hillary Rodham.

Finally, there is — as Jerry Falwell, Jr., of all people, once put it — Carter’s many decades of work as the “world’s most famous Sunday school teacher.” Ths smiling Baptist did that work week after week whether there were TV cameras present or not.

That faith element was the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) in which host Todd Wilken and I looked at three mainstream-press features about Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. If readers are interested in the faith tie that binds in this marriage, they should start with this fine Washington Post feature, with it’s one-word headline: “Inseparable.” Here’s the overture:

PLAINS, Ga. — When they arrived, they strolled hand-in-hand toward their pond with a graceful willow at its edge.

“We’re going to be buried right there, on that little hill,” Jimmy Carter said, motioning toward the lawn sloping up from the pond.

“There are little white azaleas all the way around the back of it,” Rosalynn Carter said, pointing and remembering the recent day when a beautiful bluebird landed on her future gravesite. “It sat there all the time I was talking to the man who was actually digging the holes to put the vaults in.” …

On Wednesday, the Carters will be married 75 years, the longest in presidential history. Jimmy, 96, and Rosalynn, 93, will mark the occasion in the town where they met nearly a century ago. “They will probably just sit and hold hands,” said a friend and neighbor, Jill Stuckey.

Churches pop up over and over in this love story about the Carter. While this story never includes a bold statement of the bottom line, it’s clear that the simple rituals of personal Christian faith are at the heart of this relationship — even more than politics (image that).

The following anecdote, near the end of this long feature, contains all kinds of hidden information about the lives that they have led. Read between the lines in this touching passage, describing the fact that Jimmy and Rosalynn have spent very few days apart:

Later in life, he said, he would occasionally spend a few days overseas without her for the Carter Center. But they didn’t let that get in the way of their nightly routine of reading the Bible together before bed — often in Spanish.

They would read to each other on the phone. Or, if the time difference made it too difficult, they would read alone, each knowing that the other was reading exactly the same verse.

Jimmy said that was comforting, especially on a night when Rosalynn was in the hospital 10 miles away in Americus. When he got home, he told us, he would read at his bedside while she read the same words just down the road.

Apart, but together.

During the podcast session, I asked a few questions that church-going folks might want to ask about this tradition knit into their daily lives.

When did this start? After decades of doing Bible study together, do they have patterns that they follow or study-guides that they use? When (and why) did they start reading in Spanish? Here’s a safe assumption: This Bible time is followed by prayers. Are there patterns and rituals linked to that, as well? Do they keep a notebook on the events and changes in the lives of all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

The final line in this piece is symbolic: “Then they drove past the church where they had been married nearly 75 years earlier, starting yet another year together.”

The key to the coverage of this story is, of course, whether journalists think they are writing about the marriage of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter or writing about a political leader who, oh yeah, happens to have been married to the same woman for 75 years.

As we say here at GetReligion: Politics is real. Religion? Not so much.

Take, for example, the nearly faith-free New York Times story that ran under this headline: “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Reflect on 75 Years of Marriage.” This was the symbolic passage for me:

The occasion has nudged the couple to reminisce on a marriage that has come to be defined by its longevity, sure, but also by the closeness of the two people in it. “We share everything,” he said.

They had some advice on how to sustain a relationship: They never go to bed angry. They found shared interests and hobbies, like skiing, bird watching and fly fishing. But they also had the good fortune of enjoying each other’s company.

Something seems to be missing in that paragraph about the key factors in their marriage. You think? Something very specific that has more power than “shared interests and hobbies”?

Of course, if you have followed Jimmy Carter through the decades, you know that his Baptist faith has evolved quite a bit. If you don’t know Southern Baptist life inside-out (as I do, from life experience) then you probably don’t know that the further you travel into the deep South the more complex Baptists become, in terms of political and doctrinal diversity.

It would be easy to say — liberals agreeing with Baptist conservatives, for once — that Carter simply headed left and kept going. But I think that avoids some of his views that, frankly, would cause tension in today’s Democratic Party.

But, as you would expect, USA Today stressed this progressive side of the Jimmy Carter faith story:

He’s since been an outspoken voice for women’s rights, including within Christianity. Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006, denouncing what he called “rigid” views that “subjugated” women in the church and in their own marriages.

The former president ratified those views again, as well as his support for the church recognizing same-sex marriage. “It will continue to be divisive,” he said. “But the church is evolving.”

That’s accurate material, and valid. However, Carter’s take on how the modern world — secular and religious — treats women has other implications when he deals with issues such as sexual trafficking and, yes, abortion.

Consider the following passage from his 2018 commencement speech at Liberty University. This is a side of Carter’s thought that doesn’t seem to get much press, these days, despite the many ways these words link into tensions and Democratic Party infighting during his presidency. This is from an “On Religion” column that I wrote about this address:

For decades, Carter noted, he thought that the possibility of nuclear war was the greatest threat facing humanity.

“Recently I changed my mind. … I think, now, that it’s a human rights problem, and it’s discrimination against women and girls in the world,” he said.

For example, there “are about 150 million girls and women who are not living today, because their parents — in order to comply with laws or customs, and to have just male sons — either killed their daughters by strangling them at birth or they had the modern-day ability to decide before the baby was born what it was going to be, and if the fetus is female then they abort the child.”

Here is the basic journalism question, once again. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the lives of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter without getting into the ups and downs they faced together in politics. But how can anyone write about their MARRIAGE without including lots of content about their Christian faith and the way it has shaped their decades together, as well as their work in the public square?

Honestly, why avoid their faith when discussing their 75th wedding anniversary?

Just asking.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.

FIRST IMAGE: Publicity photo from Habitat for Humanity, taken during the 2018 Carter Work Project.

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