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Tale of Carter, his church has lesson

 
Published Aug. 3, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

Shortly before the 1976 presidential election, Jimmy Carter's church canceled a Sunday service rather than open its doors to a black man.

Carter, a church member and one who would go on to win more than 90 percent of the black vote in the election, had to make a difficult decision.

If it were a country club, he told reporters, he would just quit.

"But this is not my church. It's God's church. I can't quit my lifetime habit of worship and commitment because of a remnant of discrimination which has been alleviated a great deal in the last 10 years," Carter said.

The incident, recounted in a new book by the pastor of Carter's current church, offers a glimpse of how religious ideals rub against the realities of congregational life.

It is of particular interest as Southern Baptists and others recently have publicly repented their sins of racism and vowed to promote racial equality in their churches.

The Carpenter's Apprentice: The Spiritual Biography of Jimmy Carter, written by the Rev. Dan Ariail with Cheryl Heckler-Feltz, portrays Carter as a longtime advocate of civil rights.

In his inaugural address as Georgia governor in 1971, for example, Carter said, "The time for racial discrimination is over. . . . No poor, rural, weak or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice."

Those views were not shared by all members of his church, however.

In a meeting in 1965 that Carter missed, the pastor and 11 other deacons of his church voted unanimously to propose to the congregation that any blacks who attempted to enter the church on Sunday would be blocked and excluded from the service.

Carter later urged the church to consider allowing blacks to attend, but he was turned down, Ariail recounts.

When in the fall of 1976, the Rev. Clennon King, an activist from Albany, Ga., wrote the church that he would gladly join them on Sunday for worship, the deacons at Plains Baptist canceled the service.

Carter remained a member of the church, offering prayers asking God to "let us see we are brothers and sisters to all our fellow human beings."

By the following April, Plains Baptist fired the pastor, the Rev. Bruce Edwards, who supported Carter and desegregation, and a new Botsford Baptist Mission was formed.

Everyone in Plains wondered which church Carter would attend, Ariail said.

The president's solution during his first visit home after the breakup was to attend both churches. After leaving the White House and returning to Plains, the Carters became members of the new congregation _ now called Maranatha Baptist Church.

"If congregations take seriously Christ's demand to make disciples of all, they cannot reject anyone," Ariail writes in the book, published by Zondervan.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant church, repudiated the denomination's failure to support the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.