Interview: President Jimmy Carter Talks About His New Bible and Christian Beliefs

 Click on the video player to listen to CP's interview with President Jimmy Carter

Many people know Jimmy Carter as the 39th president of the United States and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. But for many Christians, President Carter is one of the world's most famous Sunday School teachers, having taught classes for over 30 years. He currently teaches at his local church Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.

His Sunday School teachings and interpretation of Scripture are included in a new study Bible called, NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter.

President Carter spoke to The Christian Post about his new Bible book and shared his Christian beliefs when it comes to difficult topics in the Bible such as abortion, women in leadership, homosexuality, and salvation. 

The transcript of the interview with President Carter can be read below: 

CP: What is the purpose of writing the NIV Lessons From Life Bible?

Carter: The overall purpose of the overall project is to bring ancient scriptures into modern applicability. When I speak at my local church, which I try to do 35 to 40 times a year, I try in every lesson to take the Old Testament text or New Testament text and apply them to what is happening to me or how that applies to the audience that I'm teaching in a modern, fast-changing, technological world. I use headlines, interfaith and that sort of thing.

I was incapacitated this past summer, I had both my knees replaced and so I was relatively dormant. The editors of Zondervan and I went through all of my lessons that I've taught - they were all tape recorded - and we selected passages from those lessons that apply to the various scriptures throughout the Bible. So I've given you the criteria we've used to selecting what's in the Bible.

CP: What has been the challenging topic or passage for you to address in this project?

Carter: Well, I think the most challenging thing for me in my life and in the Bible is that we worship Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And our country is constantly at war. When I was in the White House, I was confronted with the challenge of the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and I had 30,000 nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire earth and I had to maintain the peace. We had a lot of challenges then but that's one of the main things I did.

I never found any incompatibilities though between my religious faith and my duties as a politician except in the case of abortion. I don't believe that Jesus would approve abortion except in the case of incest, rape or the mother's life in danger. But I had to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade so I tried to do everything I could to minimize the need for abortions, making it easy to adopt children and by caring for women and infant children in the so-called WIC program. So, that was an incompatibility that I had – to maintain peace and to put my basic Christian moral values into practice – were the things that were most challenging for me.

CP: Which scripture can you point to that would support your views that Jesus would not condone abortion?

Carter: Well, Jesus never mentions abortion. But I think that Jesus did care for the unborn child, I think that Jesus did care for people who were completely helpless, who depend on others for their life and livelihood. I just believe that this should be minimized if possible.

As you probably know, America has about three times as many abortions as they have in Norway, or Sweden, or Nordic countries, and they don't have any laws at all about abortion, but they care for women and infant children, which is a major cause for abortion.

So I believe that we should do anything we can to minimize abortion and not to encourage it.

CP: Now, the NIV Lessons from Life Bible that you've written is based on the new NIV translation, is that correct?

Carter: That's correct.

CP: It's been characterized by Zondervan as gender-neutral. There have been some controversial passages that some Christian leaders have taken issue with. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12. In the old version, it says I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be silent. In the 2011, "have authority" has been changed to "assume authority." Which version do you prefer and why?

Carter: I believe strongly that in the eyes of God women and men should be the same and they should be given the same authority in the church, women should as men. For instance, my wife is a deacon now. She's one of the leaders in our church. I have been in the past. And we have two pastors, one of them is a man and his wife is a woman, of course. I believe there is complete equality between men and women. And I believe those passages in the New Testament, not by Jesus, but by Paul, that say women should not adorn themselves, they should always wear hats or color their hair in church – things like that – I think they are signs of the times and should not apply to modern-day life.

When Paul also says, I think the third chapter of Galatians, Paul says that there is no distinction between men and women, or between Jew and Greek, or between slaves and masters even, that all people are the same in the eyes of God. That's what I used as a guiding light in that sort of argument.

CP: So, you would prefer the newer translation?

Carter: Absolutely. Yes, I certainly would.

CP: I also recently read your interview with The Huffington Post and I would like to ask you some questions regarding some of your statements.

Carter: Okay.

CP: You said that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.

Carter: That's right.

CP: Many believe that Apostle Paul addressed the issue of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 and that has been referred to a lot in this debate amongst Christianity. How would you interpret this verse?

Carter: Well, Paul mentions a lot of other things too. Paul advised people not to get married unless they could not control their sexual impulses and he chose himself not to be married. So I think Paul had some letters he wrote to the congregation based on the current events that might have been affecting that particular group of people. Paul was highly biased in some of his statements. But in general, in the matters that relate to theology or behavior, people to one another, Paul was obviously biblically correct. But when he said that women should always cover their hair or that women should not teach men, women should not have leadership positions in the church, women should not speak in the church, I don't' think that those writings of Paul can be extracted by themselves to stand alone. Also, Paul said that women should be subservient to their husbands but if you read a couple of verses down it says husbands should treat their wives as equals.

So you have to use your own modern-day beliefs and basic Christianity to select which of those conflicting statements of Paul you want to observe that says we should treat women as equals and says we should not discriminate against people.

CP: So for that verse in Romans 1, do you believe it characterizes homosexuality as a sin or do you believe homosexuality was a cultural issue that was relevant then and not relevant now?

Carter: Well, homosexuality was massively practiced in some of the conflicting religions at the time of Christ and even at the time of Christ, in Roman times show that homosexuality was widely prevalent. I think it's quite significant that Jesus never did mention it.

When Paul mentions the verse, it can be interpreted homosexually critical. He also says that selfishness is sinful. He also goes through a whole gamut of things that are sinful. On Saint Paul, he's probably one of the best theologians of all time, but I don't believe that some of his teachings are appropriate today.

When I have a conflict like that in my interpretation of scripture, I go back and see what Jesus said about that.

CP: So, you don't believe homosexuality is a sin?

Carter: No, I don't. Our church accepts gay people without any question. We don't perform marriages between gay couples. That's something that a local Baptist church decide on being autonomous. I don't have any complaints about homosexuals being married in a civil ceremony. But I don't think that the government ought to require religious organizations, churches, should perform marriages between homosexuals if a local congregation decides otherwise. I believe in the autonomy of individual churches.

CP: Well, marriage was an institution that was defined and established before government. In the interview with The Huffington Post, you said that you were fine with gays being married in civil ceremonies. On the issue of gay marriage, not civil ceremonies, do you believe the government or the church has primacy, or ultimate controlling authority, in defining marriage?

Carter: Well, those are two completely separate things. I believe in the separation of church and state. The government has the right to say what happens in a civil case, like in a court house. And religious people have a right to say what happens in a church congregation. They are two completely separate things. And I think it's alright if the government wants to say, in the state of Massachusetts, in the state of New York, in the state of California, that civil ceremonies should be accepted, I think that should be fine. I don't think that even those states that believe in civil marriages between homosexuals or ordained in a church should perform civil ceremonies.

CP: Next, there is also a statement you made regarding the fallibility of the Bible. You said, "So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible." Can you explain what you meant by that?

Carter: Yes, I think the Bible is completely inspired by God in it's overall messages. But, for the people of those days to know what was going to happen 4,000 years later in a world of astronomy or subatomic particles. They didn't have access to the knowledge that we presently have about geology. So, we know now that the world was created many of billions of years ago, 13 or 14 billion years ago. As far as they knew, the earth was the center of the universe. They thought that stars were little twinkling things in the sky where as now we know stars are very distant and much larger than the earth. For them to say that stars fall on the earth like they fell off a Christmas tree, that means it's human fallibility. It doesn't mean it was ordained by God who created everything. So I think that those matters of those lack of knowledge about science and technology that come along later are understandable.

I happen to be a scientist. My background is in nuclear physics. I was a nuclear engineer. But I don't see any incompatibility at all with my religious faith and God the creator of everything and the incompatibility between when the earth was created as specified in the Bible. I don't see any incompatibility there because those that were interpreting God's overall message didn't know anything about modern-day science.

CP: You mentioned some parts in Genesis. Can you name parts of the Bible that you believe are "fallible" and how does a Christian determined which parts they can see as fallible and which parts they can accept as infallible?

Carter: I already mentioned that the earth was created in effect 4,000 years before Christ was born. I know that is not right. When you say that stars are little things that can fall on the earth, I know that that is not correct.

But a Christian should know that God is a Creator, that God is an entity that is all-powerful and all knowledgeable, God is everywhere and God is an entity filled with grace, love, compassion and forgiveness, that Jesus is the son of God and Jesus came on earth to explain to people in a very revolutionary way the nature of God, that God was not a stern judge who was keeping track of 600 or so rules and regulations that you had to keep in order to be acceptable to God. I believe that we are saved by the grace of God because he loves us provided that we have faith in Jesus Christ. When I have been asked recently in previous interviews, do I believe in miracles of the Bible? Yes, I do. I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, for instance. I won't go into details about those things. But at the same time, if I did believe in the miracles, that I would still believe that I had to pattern my life after the perfect life of Jesus Christ who is my Savior and I believe that God loves me and is willing to forgive me if I'm repentant. So I have a very personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It doesn't depend on the fact that he can walk on water.

CP: In the study Bible, there are a lot of paragraphs and writings you've written on Jesus throughout the New Testament. You do speak a lot about having faith in Christ and accepting Jesus as your personal Savior. In some past interviews, some Christian leaders have taken some of your previous statements to mean that explicit faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation. In one instance, Albert Mohler has said that your beliefs almost amount to universalism, that people don't need to presently believe in Jesus to be saved. How you would respond to his criticism or accusation that you are a universalist?

Carter: Well, as a matter of fact, I just had a long interview with Albert Mohler and this is one of the things that he asked me about.

I believe that we are given an order by Jesus. One of the last things he did was to spread the word of God and he being the basis for our salvation. Christians are supposed to be evangelicals. And I am. I am evangelical. I've been a private missionary on several occasions. I won't go into that. But I mentioned to Dr. Mohler that we have a lot of programs in Africa, a lot of health programs and other things. But when I go to a country like Burkina Faso, Niger or Tamale or to Congo, and I see good people there who haven't heard of Jesus Christ because no evangelical has ever been there, no missionary has ever been there. I don't believe that God will punish those people into eternal damnation or suffering in hell because they never heard of Jesus. I rationalize that by the admonition of Jesus to not judge other people. He says, "Do no t judge other people. Let God be the judge." So why should I judge those people who are in Africa? I'm not going to say, "You're going to hell," or because I don't believe that they are going to hell. I let God be the judge and I believe that we worship a just and fair God who won't punish innocent people unnecessarily.

CP: How do you believe Christians should go about witnessing if faith in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation and the end judgment lies in the hands of God?

Carter: Well, I go about that. I've been to cities in America and I've spent days there witnessing to people who don't go to church. I've been to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, I 've been to Springfield, Massachusetts, I've been to a lot of cities in America earlier on in my life and I've spent a lot of time knocking on people's doors and going and explaining that I'm a Christian and explaining the elements of my faith: that Jesus is the Son of God, that we have a chance for God's blessings, God's salvation through our faith in Jesus Christ and that all of us are sinners who fall short of the glory of God, and that the wages of sin is death but through our faith that Jesus Christ, we can be saved. And then I leave. And if I don't, then most people accept Christ. In one city, we polled a small church with 48 members that accepted Christ the week I was there.

So I've been an evangelistic Baptist all my life and still am to some degree.

I consider my teaching in Sunday School every Sunday that I'm home is part of my evangelical commitment that I made to Christ when I accepted him as my savior. The thing that I'm reluctant to do is to say that people who hadn't had a chance to know about Christ should be condemned. I don't believe that although I know that people like Dr. Mohler who do believe that people who don't accept Christ go to hell. We'll let other people worry about that.

CP: So, you're referring to people who have never had the opportunity who hear the Gospel and you say that shouldn't be held against them. What about people who have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel but reject that. What then?

Carter: Well, you're very persistent which I don't mind. I'm still not in a very judgmental frame of mind. I fall back on the order from Christ, "Do not judge lest you be judged." Let God do the judging. So what will happen to those people, I can't say. I'm only inclined to be forgiving with their mistakes but I'll let God do the judging.

CP: What has been some encouraging comments that you've received on your project and what criticism have you received on the NIV Lessons from Life Bible?

Carter: It hasn't been out long enough for me to have criticisms. There have been some people who have questioned my beliefs like you do. There have been criticism within the Baptist church, within the Baptist denomination. I believe men and women are the same and that women should be given an equal chance to serve God with men.

The Southern Baptist Convention, as you know, decided in the year 2000 that women should not be permitted to be pastors or deacons or chaplains in the military service. Some Southern Baptist seminaries don't even permit women to teach male students. I don't agree with that. But they can go in and quote a few passages of Paul, which you and I already discussed, that women should be restricted in their services. So we have a difference of opinion. I took the same theologian Paul where he said in Galatians that all are equal in the eyes of God. In Romans 16, he listed a number of people who had been the leaders in the Early Church. About half of them are women. And they were pastors, prophets, elders and so forth. So they had titles in the church approved by God through this message of Paul.

So there are some discrepencies in the writings of Paul. Some Christians chose those ones to emphasize. I choose to emphasize the equality of people in God's eyes.

CP: What else can we expect from you President Carter in the future?

Carter: Well, I don't really know how to predict that. I already exhausted myself this past summer. I already had two books that were based on my religious faith. One was called Sources of Strength, that was a collection of 52 of my Sunday School lessons, three or four pages each. And I had another one called Living Faith which describes the foundation of my faith in God and my faith in my country, my faith in myself, and my faith in other things.

I've had four books now out for a total of 27 books that were devoted to religious teaching. The Bible and studying the Bible has been an important part of my life.

CP: You've had such an extensive career from being president of the United States to a Sunday School teacher. How would you like to remembered?

Carter: Well, I would like them to remember that I kept the peace when I was president and I worked for peace, that I espoused human rights in its broadest definition, not only freedom of speech but freedom of assembly, freedom of worship and trial by jury but also the right of people for people to have a decent home to live, food to eat, employment, healthcare, self respect, dignity. So I think the broad gamut of human rights, peace and freedom. I would like to be remembered for those things to the degree that I deserve it and I still have a long way to go.