The last Christian president

Just days short of his 82nd birthday, the U.S. president handled the heat of a Nevada afternoon fine. He sat patiently listening to the speeches of Northern Nevada Democrats, smiling widely for individuals with cameras.

I stood near the front of a surprisingly small crowd. I’d expected the Manzanita Bowl on the University of Nevada, Reno campus to be packed. Even though Jimmy Carter’s agenda was obvious—campaigning for his son Jack Carter, a Nevada candidate for U.S. Senate, it’s not often a former president visits, especially one who’s a Nobel Peace laureate.

Finally Carter took the stage and addressed everything on my mind.

He’s deeply frustrated that we’ve transformed the goodwill of the world in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, into a widespread disrespect for U.S. foreign policy. Recent reports—from Republican administration agencies—concur that our “preemptive” war in Iraq has exacerbated terrorist threats, making the world a more dangerous place.

Who’s in charge of our nation’s policies? Carter calls it like it is.

“I’ve noticed gas prices are going down,” he said. “Why do you suppose that is?”

Of course, Republican leaders are telling supporters from Exxon and Halliburton, “Hey, lower prices for the next few weeks.” People will feel better about voting Republican. It’s such an obvious mind game. Yet I stood in the sun thinking how well this works in a nation where the top-rated TV show is American Idol.

Carter’s rightly ashamed of our human rights record, furious that we’re imprisoning men without trials and flouting the Geneva Convention. He’s distressed over the disastrous negligent tactics that characterize the United States’ relationship with Iran and North Korea. When President Bush dubs these nations part of the Axis of Evil and then forcibly occupies Iraq, these nations begin to see nuclear weapons programs as justifiable defenses.

Carter’s been through this before.

In 1994, it looked like North Korea had the capability to reprocess fuel rods from nuclear power plants into weapons-grade plutonium. Operation Desert Storm had made North Korea nervous. Would U.S. forces build up in South Korea—to be deployed against the North?

The Clinton administration had no plan for communicating with the government of North Korea.

Carter, who’d studied nuclear physics and reactor technology in college, was invited to visit North Korea. Though the Clinton administration wouldn’t grant Carter the right to represent the U.S. government, Carter traveled on his own to meet Kim Il Sung. Not only did Carter help stabilize the situation, he also paved a way for talks between North and South Korea—something Carter at the time called a “miracle.”

Imagine that. A bold leader who used diplomacy to defuse tense foreign conflicts.

Not that many—from Clinton to the American public—felt much gratitude toward Carter.

This baffles me. Here’s a man who lives his Christian faith at the deepest levels—and yet in 1980, evangelicals in the United States overwhelmingly chose a right-wing, pro-corporate, failed movie star over a compassionate leader. Carter inherited a mess. Yet he had the potential to instill our nation with productive attitudes toward energy use, sound environmental ideals and fair labor policies for workers. His goals were blissfully simple—liberty and justice for all.

He didn’t just claim Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher (as Bush does), but Carter didn’t even put his lifelong career as Sunday School teacher on hold during his stint as U.S. president. (Can you see Dubya teaching from the Bible’s Book of James. where “true religion” is defined as taking care of orphans and widows?)

After campaigning for his son across Nevada, Carter was heading to India where his organization, Habitat for Humanity India, plans to build homes for 250,000 people by 2010.