The Tense History Behind Jimmy Carter’s Liberty U. Commencement Address

On Saturday the Liberty University community heard a commencement address from an evangelical Christian who disagrees with Trump and Falwell Jr. on almost every major policy issue of the age.

[Photo: Jimmy Carter speaks to Liberty University]
Carter urged Liberty graduates to fight “discrimination against women and girls in the world.” He lamented the divisions over doctrine in his own denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention—and told a story about how he made efforts, in the years after he left the office, to heal divisions in the Convention. CNN / YouTube

Last year Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the university, said that Trump’s speech “will go down in history as one of the greatest commencement speeches ever.”

This year’s speaker was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States. On Saturday the Liberty University community heard a commencement address from an evangelical Christian who disagrees with Trump and Falwell Jr. on almost every major policy issue of the age.

Carter and the Falwell family have had an uneasy relationship over the years. Both Carter and Jerry Falwell Sr. (the founder of Liberty University and the father of the current university president) claim(ed) to be born-again Christians. But during the Carter administration, Falwell Sr. was a staunch critic of the president’s position on a host of social issues. Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Falwell Sr. did not. Carter opposed prayer in schools and a constitutional amendment banning abortion (although he opposed abortion personally). Falwell Sr. championed both issues. Carter believed that government had a major role to play in promoting justice. Falwell thought government was an intrusion on individual liberties.

Falwell Sr. also criticized Jimmy Carter for his infamous 1976 interview with Playboy magazine in which the Georgia governor and presidential candidate confessed that he had “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Falwell Sr. said that Carter’s decision to give an interview to Playboy “was lending the credence and the dignity of the highest office in the land to a salacious, vulgar magazine that did not even deserve the time of his day.”

By 1980, Falwell Sr. was leading a contingency of conservative evangelical ministers—a group that included Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, James Robison, and Tim LaHaye—who felt betrayed by Carter. They eventually turned their back on their fellow evangelical in favor of Ronald Reagan. The former California governor won their loyalty by talking about the Christian roots of American freedom and connecting American destiny to the old belief, dating back to the 17th-century Puritans who settled New England, that America was God’s great “city upon a hill.” Reagan opposed abortion, promised to fight moral decay in American culture, and assured Falwell and the rising Religious Right that he would keep the federal government from intruding on the lives and schools of ordinary evangelicals, a posture that has often been portrayed as a thinly-veiled attempt to cater to racist policies and institutions in the evangelical world.

Even after Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, Falwell Sr. did not stop his criticism of the former president. When the Lynchburg minister questioned the authenticity of Carter’s Christian faith for his decision to initiate the Salt II treaty with the Soviet Union ( a treaty that would place limits on the nuclear arms race), Carter fired back: “There is nothing any television evangelist can do to shake my faith…Jerry Falwell can–in a very Christian way–as far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.”

Fast forward to 2016. When Donald Trump made a campaign stop at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., who would shortly thereafter endorse the reality-television star’s candidacy for president, took his own shot at Carter: “My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter…because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who’d been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher….Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.”

Anyone familiar with this history might wonder why Jerry Falwell Jr. invited Carter to speak at the 2018 commencement. Carter was surprised as well. During his speech he recalled the negative letters he received from Liberty students when he was in the White House: “Most of them were about my giving away the Panama Canal or forming what they believed to be an unnecessary Department of Education or normalizing diplomatic relations with the communist government of China.” Carter then smiled and said, “Those critical letters…ended with the 1980 election which brought my involuntary retirement from the White House. After that I didn’t get very many letters from Liberty.”

In the end, Carter came to this bastion of the Christian Right because he is a grace-filled Christian. In a Liberty press release, Falwell Jr. explained why he invited his father’s old rival. In January 2017, the Liberty University president read a Bible passage at a prayer service on the morning of the Trump inauguration. Carter, who was also in attendance, approached Falwell Jr. and thanked him for his words. As Falwell Jr. puts it, “He stopped me afterward and told me he thought I did a good job…He said he saw my name on the program before I spoke, and he thought it was great that I’d be here to read Scripture. He was very kind.” Carter did not need to do this, but his evangelical faith no doubt compelled him.

On Saturday, Carter’s evangelical humility must have been put to the test as he sat on the stage and listened to Falwell Jr. introduce him to the Liberty University faithful. Falwell Jr. seized on the opportunity to politicize Carter’s appearance by comparing him to Trump, the man who Falwell Jr. has described as the evangelical “dream president”: 

Becky and I attended the opening of the Billy Graham Library in 2007 about one month after my father’s death. And I remember commenting to Becky then, that of the four former presidents speaking that day, Jimmy Carter sounded more like one of us than the rest…President Trump has called me and spoken to me about his appreciation for the former president’s friendship and support…Both Presidents Carter and Trump entered the White House as outsiders to the Washington establishment, and I hope that many more outsiders will follow. The longer I live the more I want to…give my political support to a person. Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today.

Falwell Jr.’s need to make Carter acceptable to the Liberty crowd (who Carter joked was larger than Trump’s crowd the previous year) did not end there. Unlike his father, Falwell Jr. praised Carter for his 1976 Playboy interview because Carter was willing to follow the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to list for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Falwell Jr. made no mention of his father’s criticism of the interview and instead added: “It saddens me today to think that so many conservative Christians attacked and demeaned Jimmy Carter in the 1970s for quoting Jesus Christ to a secular magazine.”

While Falwell tried to portray Carter as a politician who is on Liberty University’s side in the culture wars, Carter told a slightly different story. He did not define his life in terms of politics. Instead, he talked about his work at sharing the Gospel (“winning souls to Christ”) as a young man, his Sunday School teaching, his championing of peace and human rights, his efforts to end global disease, and his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity.

Carter urged Liberty graduates to fight “discrimination against women and girls in the world.” He lamented the divisions over doctrine in his own denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention—and told a story about how he made efforts, in the years after he left the office, to heal divisions in the Convention. Carter’s attempts, he said, failed because Southern Baptist leaders were unwilling to compromise on the status of women in the church. (It’s hard to think about Carter’s comments on this front without reflecting on the recent controversial remarks of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson).

It was clear that Carter was not in Lynchburg to please Jerry Falwell Jr. or Donald Trump. Many progressives might say Carter should have done more to criticize Trump and his evangelical supporters. While such a prophetic message would have certainly been appropriate, that isn’t Carter’s style. Some are called to rain down fire; others are called to reconciliation. Carter came to Liberty University to find common ground rooted in a shared commitment to the authority of the Bible. When Carter did take a few subtle shots at the Trump administration, he was simply teaching Biblical ideas—the same stuff he tells those who visit his regular Sunday School class at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.

For example, Carter told the Liberty graduates that “America has abandoned its leadership…as a champion of a clean and healthy environment,” an indirect reference to Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate agreement. He also reminded his audience that America has always had a difficult time embracing equality for all people. “Even now,” he said, “some of us are still struggling to accept the fact that all people are equal in the eyes of God.” (Here Carter gets some tepid applause from the crowd). He added, “our nation should be known as a champion of peace, our nation should be known as a champion of equality, our nation should be known as a champion of human rights.”

He called the Liberty class of 2018 “to live a completely successful life as judged by God” and asked them to consider that the freedoms they enjoy come with a sense of duty and service to others. Indeed, as Carter said, “We decide whether we tell the truth, or benefit from telling lies. We decide, do I hate, or am I filled with love? We’re the ones who decide: do I think only about myself or do I care for others?”

Carter delivered a gentle, yet powerful, exhortation to a Christian university run by one of Donald Trump’s chief evangelical surrogates. At one point during his address he identified himself as an “evangelical Christian.” At ninety-three years old, he is fighting for the label and the kind of Christianity it represents.

I hope Jerry Falwell Jr. and the rest of his court evangelicals were listening.