NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Former President Jimmy Carter has agreed to correct future editions of his recently released book, “Our Endangered Values,” after James A. Smith Sr., executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, challenged his allegation about an Oval Office exchange with Adrian Rogers.
Carter also has apologized to the Rogers family.
Smith raised the issue after reading an interview with Carter published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Nov. 22, which began with the newspaper asking Carter about his 1979 White House meeting with Rogers.
“He said you were a secular humanist?” The Journal-Constitution reporter asked.
“Yes,” Carter replied.
The former president has been using this example to make his case that there has been an increase in “fundamentalism” (Carter’s word) within the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter describes himself as a “conservative Christian.”
The question arose from an excerpt on page 32 of Carter’s book which reads:
“A few weeks before our hostages were seized in Iran, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention came to the Oval Office to visit me. This had been a routine ceremony for many years, especially when the president of the United States happened to be a Baptist.” (Before Carter, Harry Truman was the last president who was a Southern Baptist church member.)
“I congratulated him on his new position,” Carter continued in the book, “and we spent a few minutes exchanging courtesies. As he and his wife were leaving, he said, ‘We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.’ This was a shock to me. I considered myself to be a loyal and traditional Baptist, and had no idea what he meant.”
Carter had given another account of the incident during a segment of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” Nov. 4:
“I had been always in my life a devout and committed Baptist, and in 1979 there was an election of a new president of the Southern Baptist Convention who came to visit me in the Oval Office since I was also a Baptist. And when he left, he said, ‘Mr. President, I hope you’ll abandon your commitment to humanism and become a Christian.’ I was taken aback. He was on the way out. I didn’t know what he meant at all. Secular humanism was a phrase with which I was not familiar.”
And back in 2001, Carter had mentioned the meeting during an address at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Smith had interviewed Rogers Oct. 6, just weeks before Rogers’ death Nov. 15, and had asked him about the Oval Office visit.
“After I saw the AJC interview,” Smith told Baptist Press, “I got the book and found the claim. That’s when I went back to the recording of my interview with Rogers, found what he said about the matter and decided that the discrepancy needed to be pointed out.”
Rogers, in the interview, voiced a different view of the conversation than the one Carter had been repeating.
“… Rogers said he told Carter, ‘Mr. President, it is a heady thing for a Baptist preacher to be in the Oval Office’ and ‘if I had had the cheek or temerity to say that, I will guarantee you I would have remembered it,’” Smith recounted. “Rogers continued, recalling his statement to Carter, ‘I may have said going out the door, ‘We need to turn this nation back from secular humanism, back to its roots.’’ He said further to Carter, ‘Now, unless you think I am a sheer fool, insane or [a] liar, I can tell you emphatically I didn’t say it. Had I said it, it would have been so etched in my consciousness.’”
Rogers’ wife, Joyce, also recounts the story on page 106 of the recently published biography she wrote about her husband titled “Love Worth Finding.”
“The visit … would later be the source of some contention. President Carter had aligned himself with the moderate faction of the convention. At one of their meetings he said Adrian Rogers asked him why didn’t he turn from secular humanism to biblical faith,” Joyce Rogers writes. “Adrian was certain that he had not said this to the President. He knew that if he had done such a thing, it would be indelibly etched in his mind. He wrote to President Carter and said, ‘I did not call you a secular humanist; nor do I believe you are one. While we may differ in denominational politics and theological views, I have been grateful for your open declaration of your faith in Jesus.’
“Jimmy Carter wrote back a hand written letter: ‘I know that is what you said, because it was the first time I had ever heard the term secular humanism. Rosalyn and I discussed it. But if you would like to talk about it further, I am willing.’”
Rogers then met with Carter in Atlanta and told him, “President Carter, you know there’s often what a man says and what he thinks he said and what a man hears and what he thinks he heard.” Carter replied, “You are a very persuasive person.”
Smith, with his interview with Rogers fresh in his mind, contacted Carter’s press secretary to ask for a statement from the former president on the matter. His two attempts initially went unanswered, and Smith published an editorial on the matter Dec. 8.
In the editorial, Smith expressed disappointment that Carter — after supposedly accepting that Rogers had not called him a secular humanist — would use the disputed story as a primary illustration of the dangers of religious fundamentalism and even compare Rogers to Iran’s extremist Ayatollah Khomeini in his book.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible for Carter to compare Adrian Rogers, whose love of Christ and humanity compelled his preaching ministry sharing the Gospel with people around the world, with a totalitarian dictator in religious garb whose hate inspired the taking of American hostages and has lead to the deaths of countless people in Iran around the world,” Smith wrote. “Jimmy Carter owes Adrian Rogers an apology.”
Smith told Baptist Press that Carter’s press secretary sent a brief e-mail from Carter Dec. 7 disputing whether the account was even about Rogers at all.
“It was a meeting in the Oval Office in August 1980 and not 1979 when the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention made the remark to me concerning secular humanism. It was not Adrian Rogers,” Carter wrote.
And then Smith received a letter from Carter Dec. 12 formally responding to his editorial and saying it had left him “quite disturbed.”
“In no way did my text make any personal equation between Dr. Adrian Rogers, a great Christian leader, and the Ayatolla[h] Khomeini,” Carter wrote. “My only inference was regarding my personal experiences with the rise of fundamentalism (carefully defined in the book) at about the same time in my life — approximately a quarter century ago — when our hostages were taken and the Southern Baptist Convention made a dramatic movement toward conservative leadership.
“Although I did not include any names in the text, I feel personally culpable for any misinterpretation, such as in your editorial, of a lack of respect for Dr. Rogers,” he added. “Although he and I had strong differences of opinion about Baptist policies, both in public statements and in our private conversations, I have never doubted his integrity or truthfulness. After expressing condolences to his widow the day after his untimely death, I added, ‘Adrian was a powerful and influential Christian leader, and I know how proud he made you all.’
“The book text will be corrected in future editions, and I have sent a personal apology to Dr. Rogers’ family for any aspersions that were aroused against him because of my writing or comments,” the former president said.
Smith said he is “delighted that President Carter will be correcting future editions of Our Endangered Values and that he has apologized to the Rogers family.” But Smith said he is unsatisfied with Carter’s refusal to explain why he keeps using the story in public remarks.
“Left unanswered by either his e-mail or letter is why President Carter repeated this claim in the book and in a Nov. 22 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” Smith said, “even though Rogers disputed it in a private meeting with the president after Carter made the claim during the 2001 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly.”
For additional coverage, visit www.floridabaptistwitness.com.