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Jimmy Carter, the nation's 39th president, was a born-again Christian and embraced by the evangelical movement but believed firmly in the separation of church and state. He dealt with an energy crisis and a hostage crisis, in which Americans were taken hostage by the Iranian National Guard. While Carter did not appoint any Supreme Court justices, he elevated Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. (White House official portrait, public domain)

James (Jimmy) Earl Carter, Jr. defeated Gerald Ford in the presidential election of 1976 and served in that office from 1977 to 1981. Born in Plains, Georgia, in 1924, he earned his undergraduate degree at the U.S. Naval Academy.

After serving in the Navy, he returned to Plains to manage a peanut farm. He served in the Georgia State Senate and was elected governor, replacing segregationist Lester Maddox and embracing racial equality.

He ran for president with Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale as his running mate. Carter profited from the negative reaction to Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon of any crimes that he might have committed in office. 

Carter was a "born-again" Christian, embraced by evangelicals

Carter, a Baptist and an announced “born-again” Christian, was initially embraced by the evangelical community, perhaps in part at the expense of support among Catholics (Moore 2011).

 In running for the presidency, Carter informed the president of the American Humanist Association that:

“An important tenet of the Baptist faith is complete separation of church and state. I hold this view. And I have not found it to impose a strain either on my personal religious convictions or on my performance in public office. …  I’ve never used political office to force my religious convictions on someone else. …  So there would be no problems in my Presidency in keeping separate religion and government. I would be a strong defender of the First Amendment and interpret it very strictly” (Flowers 1983, 116).

U.S. faced energy and hostage crises during Carter's presidency

During his term in office, Carter emphasized the importance to using American foreign policy to advance human rights abroad. During his tenure, the U.S. faced an energy crisis that resulted in long lines at gas stations. During the last year of his term, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard captured and kept Americans as hostages. During his term, the Soviet Union also invaded Afghanistan, leading the U.S. to boycott the Olympic games.

One of Carter’s most famous speeches was his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, often known as the “Malaise Speech,” that he gave before a television audience on July 15, 1979. Noting that “our political and civil liberties . . . will endure,” Carter said that the nation was facing a “crisis of confidence” that “is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.” He proceeded to outline a program to help the nation regain energy independence and conserve resources.

Carter pardoned those who left country to avoid Vietnam War 

Carter issued a pardon to individuals who had left the United States to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. He helped personally negotiate peace between the leaders of Israel and Egypt in the Camp David Accords. He also negotiated the treaty returning the Panama Canal to that nation. 

After facing competition for the 1980 Democrat nomination from Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, Carter lost the general election to Ronald Reagan, who managed to capture many of the evangelicals who had supported Carter in 1976. Part of this shift in support stemmed from reaction to the decision by the Internal Revenue Service during the Carter Administration, later upheld in Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), to withhold tax exempt status from educational institutions — some of which had been formed in part in reaction to public school desegregation orders — that practiced racial discrimination (Freedman 2005). 

Carter thought government could not mandate school prayer 

During the Carter Administration, Congress adopted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, later amended in 1994, to protect the use of peyote in connection with “bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes. 

Consistent with most Supreme Court decisions of his day, Carter interpreted the establishment clause of the First Amendment as opposing federal aid to parochial schools or governmentally prescribed prayer in schools (Flowers 1983, 118-119). He did, however, appoint David M. Walters as his personal envoy to the Vatican (Flowers 1983, 126), but he refused to support a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. 

In Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could regulate indecent speech (in this case, a monologued by comedian George Carlin entitled “Filthy Words”) over electronic media that were accessible to children. 

Court establishes rules for regulating commercial speech

In 1980, the Supreme Court established a four-part test for governmental regulation of commercial speech in Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission (1980). 

In CBS, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (1981), the Supreme Court ruled that broadcasters had erred and violated the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 when they refused to allow Carter to purchase airtime for a documentary on his first term in office. 

In his farewell address, in which he focused especially on the dangers of nuclear war, on energy and environmental issues, and on the duties of citizenship, Carter observed that:

“Thoughtful criticism and close scrutiny of all government officials by the press and the public are an important part of our democratic society. Now, as in the past, only the understanding and involvement of the people through full and open debate can help to avoid serious mistakes and assure the continued dignity and safety of the Nation.”

Carter became known for charity work, humanitarian projects 

Carter has long been associated with charity work in connection with Habitat for Humanity that builds houses for needy families. This work, along with his work with the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, has extended into a very long retirement, during which he had tackled humanitarian projects throughout the world.

Reagan defeated Carter’s vice presidential running mate Mondale in the 1984 election.

Carter was among the rare presidents who did not have the opportunity to nominate any Supreme Court justices during his term, although he did nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In recent years, Carter became the nation’s longest lived ex-president.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 16, 2024.

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