Originally created 08/24/96

Church dilemma ensnared Carter



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

Mr. 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 was 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," Mr. Carter said.

The incident, recounted in a new book by Mr. Carter's current pastor, 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 Mr. Carter written by the Rev. Dan Ariail with Cheryl Heckler-Feltz, portrays Mr. Carter as a longtime advocate of civil rights.

In his inaugural address as Georgia governor in 1971, for example, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Carter later urged the church to consider allowing blacks to attend, but was turned down, the Rev. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Carter and desegregation, and a new Botsford Baptist Mission was formed.

Which church would Mr. Carter attend, everyone in Plains wondered, the Rev. 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.

The Rev. Ariail, who has been pastor of the integrated church for the past 14 years, said Maranatha's commitment to hospitality is in keeping with Paul's letter to the Romans: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."

one," he writes in the book, published by Zondervan.}

Mr. Carter was unavailable for interviews about the book. But Richard Land, head of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he would have a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Carter's dilemma.

The task for Christians is to bear witness to racial equality without so alienating people you are trying to change that you lose the ability to witness to them, Mr. Land said.

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

"My job is to call Southern Baptists to an understanding that racism is sin, and to propagate it in the name of the Gospel is blasphemy," Mr. Land said.

But he would stop short of recommending that churches which continue to segregate be tossed from the convention.

Then, Mr. Land said, the church would lose the power of "persuasion that is available among family and is not available when you kick them out."