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Praying with a president

EVEN AFTER getting my car sniffed by a bomb dog and then being wanded by a friendly Secret Service agent, it still took me awhile to fully digest the fact that I was in church with a former president of the United States, who was standing right in front of me teaching Sunday School.

That’s when I realized Jimmy Carter is good at teaching Sunday School. Really good.

And I don’t just mean good for an 87–year–old man, though we’d all be lucky to be half as sharp as he is at his age. Hell, many of us would settle for being half as sharp as he is at half his age.

In the current environment of recent White House residents and aspirants who are either terminally narcissistic (Barack Obama), wear their anti–intellectualism on their sleeve (George W. Bush), or are apparently soulless men with no inner world whatsoever (Mitt Romney), it was frankly inspiring to see President Carter speak for nearly an hour extemporaneously, without notes or teleprompter, in a warm, interesting, engaging, humble and humorous fashion.

This particular lesson — on giving and generosity — would range from the power of prayer to New Testament scholarship to Carter’s work with Cuban-American pastor and missionary Eloy Cruz to, of course, politics (the immorality and ineffectiveness of trade embargoes).

Say what you want about Carter and his single term as president, but watching and listening to him speak in person makes you glad that our country not only produces such acutely intelligent, remarkably articulate, and widely educated people, but every now and then actually elevates them to high office.

So why was I in tiny Plains, Ga. — so small that it’s little else but a living history demonstration of Carter’s life — this past weekend? As I’ve mentioned here before, I do a little travel writing on the side. My latest project, a state guidebook on Georgia, took me through the area researching.

Turns out President Carter — who’s taught Sunday School semi–regularly since leaving office in 1980 and actually taught a few classes as president, the only one to do so — was scheduled to lead the lesson this past Sunday at his longtime church, Maranatha Baptist.

All you have to do is show up about an hour before class, get checked out by the Secret Service, sit through a preparation session of dos and don’ts, and at 10 a.m. on the dot "Mr. Jimmy" ambles to the podium (not the pulpit, since he’s not the preacher, they’re quick to point out) and cheerily gives the adult lesson right before the regular 11 a.m. worship service.

And so that’s what I did: Just showed up.

The sanctuary’s a humble one. Maranatha Baptist is nowhere near the biggest church in Plains. That honor goes to Plains Baptist Church, which Carter and his wife Rosalynn left decades ago because of its refusal to accommodate African-American congregants.

You’d think a church service with a president in his hometown would be a huge draw, but you’d be wrong. In another revealing sign of the times we live in, attendance at old–line Plains Baptist this past Sunday was a good bit larger than at Maranatha.

(To be fair, Maranatha is a bit unusual by South Georgia standards. It has female deacons, a source of disagreement even within the congregation.)

While a respectable crowd came to Carter’s lesson, they say crowds were bigger in years past. An overflow room is available, but it wasn’t needed this past weekend.

Locals chalk it up to the bad economy, which has hit rural Georgia hard. One shopkeeper insisted the dropoff was also due to Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The book is quite controversial in some circles for its departure from the rigid pro–Israel stance that’s become a hallmark of evangelical Christianity and the Southern Baptist Convention itself, which Carter famously left in 2000.

How ironic, and how telling, that the first president to call himself “born-again” would be for the most part soundly rejected by those calling themselves born-again today.

There was a bittersweet quality to Carter’s lesson, which he closed with a simple prayer. Not only because at some point Father Time must eventually catch up with even this remarkably ageless man, but because we seem to have left behind the idea that a U.S. president can be smart, committed to principles over popularity, and live a blemish–free, happy, and blissfully private family life.

Indeed, America’s consistent rejection of Jimmy Carter and his often prophetic philosophy — you might remember he talked about energy independence and sustainability literally decades before those ideas went mainstream — probably tells us more about the nation than about the man.