In 1978 I was a page for President Jimmy Carter, at an event associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, in Atlanta, Georgia. Since then, we both left the Southern Baptist Denomination—or more accurately, with a large number of Southern Baptists making an intolerant move to ultra-conservativism and political activism, the denomination left us. I was 17 years old, had just taken my first flight, and was attending this convention in the largest city I had ever visited. I was receiving a National Service Award from the denomination, and President Carter was the Keynote Speaker.
My mother had made me practice my table manners and had dressed me in my only suit, recently purchased from Sears. I was introduced to the President and was instantly surprised how much the President seemed just like one of us. There was no pretense and you got the feeling that he viewed everyone as equal. That night we had a group dinner with denominational leaders, other awardees, and the President. At the banquet, they served southern fried chicken. As we began to eat, I noticed that the denominational leaders were using their knives and forks to eat fried chicken. I was hungry, but had never even considered eating fried chicken with anything other than my fingers. Then, the President picked up his fried chicken with his hand and ate it to the bone. All of sudden, all of the other grown-ups in the room picked up their fried chicken with their fingers. The message I got that night was, President Carter was always Jimmy Carter, regardless of where he was or who was with him. He spoke that night on the importance of serving others and being truthful.
On July 15, 1979, President Carter was once again just himself, when he delivered a speech from the White House entitled, “Energy and the National Goals—A Crisis of Confidence.” In reality, it was a speech about much more than just energy. The President challenged us:
First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans …
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
I think it is clear in 2019 that we did not “face the truth.” We took the path that pitted rich against poor, white against minorities, men against women, and the United States against the world.
Recently, a story about President Carter went viral, when he acknowledged he had fallen and it had caused a black eye and required 14 stitches. Nonetheless, President Carter went to work the next day in Nashville, building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Again, President Carter was just being Jimmy Carter as he told the truth about what happened, and got to work serving others. I wonder what our country would become if in the next presidential election, we look for a candidate with President Carter’s two most central characteristics; the willingness to tell the truth – always, and a commitment above all to serve others.
Dr. David Harpool is President of Northcentral University, an attorney, and ordained minister.