Jimmy Carter: Pro or Con?

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Jimmy Carter gained favorable publicity recently while promoting his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, which argues that “discrimination and violence against women and girls is the most serious, pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.” Also drawing positive attention from critics of the National Security Agency was the former president’s comment that when he wants to communicate with other world leaders, he writes a letter and delivers it to the post office because he fears if he sends an e-mail, it will be monitored.”

Less flattering is the fact that critics of President Obama sometimes enjoy insulting the current president by comparing him to the former one. Carter might be accustomed to such indirect criticism by now, almost thirty-five years after Ronald Reagan sent him home to Plains, Georgia in the landslide 1980 election.

The publication of Carter’s new book on women is a good time to reflect on Carter’s support of women’s rights as president. Before Carter took office, only eight women had ever served as Article III judges. Only one female court of appeals judge and five district judges were on the federal courts as his presidency began. In contrast, in one term in office, Carter named forty women to Article III courts. Although Carter never had an opportunity to appoint a Justice to the Supreme Court, Carter’s actions likely prompted Ronald Reagan’s electoral pledge to name a woman to the Court, a promise fulfilled when Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor for the first vacancy. Carter also established a presidential task force and advisory commission to promote women’s inclusion in other federal offices.

President Carter joined First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s active support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to state explicitly “equality of rights under law shall not be denied . . . on account of sex.” The amendment passed both Houses of Congress in 1972 and went to the states for ratification. As the original 1979 deadline for ratification approached, Carter lobbied Congress to extend the deadline, changed about seven no votes to yes votes, and then signed the legislation extending the deadline until 1982. Today, thirty-four years later, even with the knowledge that the ERA failed, and with his current book in mind, Carter’s pro-ERA remarks from 1980 resonate:

Women have not been deprived of responsibility. More than a fourth of all the households in this Nation are headed by women. Women have not been deprived of the burden of labor. Forty-three percent of our workforce is comprised of women. What women have been cheated of is equal wages, equal opportunities in education, equal opportunities under the law, equal opportunities to hold property, equal opportunities for ‘human dignity, equal opportunities to realize the hopes of a human life and to utilize the talent that God has given.

This is a smirch on America, not yet to have succeeded in ratifying the equal rights amendment. I’m concerned about every one of you here, because I know what you go through. I meet every month with the presidents of most women’s organizations, to share ideas and to share plans and to assign responsibilities, for telephone calls, for luncheons at the White House with the Governors and the speakers of the house and the majority leader and the minority leader of the State legislatures which still have not yet ratified the equal rights amendment. We make numerous calls. My whole family, my whole administration is committed to this struggle: to say that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. A simple statement, but one with profound significance.

My message is, don’t be discouraged.

Carter’s attitude toward abortion was more ambivalent; he simply believed that Jesus would not condone it. Yet it became a significant part of his political life. Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia when Roe v. Wade and its companion case from Georgia, Doe v. Bolton, were decided in 1973; a candidate in the first post-Roe presidential election; and president when the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s restrictions on federal funding for abortion. He reiterated numerous times—on the campaign trail, as president, and in post-presidential reflections—that abortion was the only topic about which he was torn between his faith and his oath of office.

Nonetheless, although his personal, Christian ethic disputed the legality of abortion, Carter signed permissive abortion legislation in Georgia, supported Roe because of his commitment to the absolute separation of church and state, and named Roe’s lawyer Sarah Weddington as a White House Special Assistant. Ironically, his commitment to separation was firmly and primarily rooted in his Baptist heritage rather than in the Constitution.

Perhaps Carter was not disappointed after the Court announced in Harris v. McRae that the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion were constitutional? When Carter was confronted with complaints about discrimination against poor women in abortion funding, he had famously remarked “there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.” Those comments and other actions caused a serious rift with some of the women who worked within his administration. Despite his efforts, some aides complained that he had not appointed enough women to high positions or effectively supported abortion rights.

Carter’s legacy on religion is also paradoxical. Carter is now the last strong proponent of separation of church and state to inhabit the White House. Although Carter later criticized the Christian Right for imposing its theological beliefs on others, he placed Christianity at the heart of his political identity and at the core of his 1976 campaign in a more open manner than previous presidents. After his election however, many Evangelical Christians quickly became disaffected with Carter’s policies on tax exemptions for religious schools, government funding of religion, prayer, families and abortion, and formed the organizations of the new Christian Right in 1979 to protest Carter’s policies. Reaction to Carter’s separationist public faith encouraged the coalition that eventually put George W. Bush in the White House.

Pro or con? Praise or blame? I lean toward pro and praise because his feminist accomplishments as president are largely ignored, and post-presidency, Carter has supported women’s rights within religions, not only in the new book, but more publicly by resigning from the Southern Baptist Convention in protest of its anti-woman policies. Nonetheless, con, I blame his public theology for prompting the Christian Right (Reagan and George W. Bush), which in turn attracted the Christian Left (Barack Obama), which means that since the Carter administration separationists can rarely be found in Washington, D.C.

Leslie C. Griffin

Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Professor Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.