Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

How About an Early Election?

Many voting precincts around the country allow people to vote early for elections, which is a dandy idea if you ask me.  I get to avoid a line even if there aren’t any real crowds (sadly), and I take care of my civic responsibility at a time that suits my schedule.  Early voting is a wonderful convenience.  Given the current political climate leading up to what is likely the most controversial and divisive presidential election of my lifetime, I would like to carry the concept one step further.  Let’s get this over with by having an early election.  If social media is any indication of the current volatility of emotion and anxiety surrounding the election, we need to blow the lid off this pressure cooker as soon as possible.  Is there really anybody left out there who hasn’t made a decision about the candidates?

If we’re honest with each other and ourselves, which hardly ever happens on social media, we know that what we all do is accentuate the negative news about the candidate we oppose and ignore the damning news about the one we support. After a while, most of the “breaking news” about the candidates just becomes sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latest scandal is just another bug on the windshield — hit the spray switch and the wipers and in a few seconds it’s gone. It doesn’t change the course, it certainly doesn’t change anybody’s mind, and it doesn’t get us any closer to being one nation indivisible.

Members of Congress will continue to thwart the efforts of the President no matter who wins the White House, and the President will continue to use executive orders and other powers to bypass Congress. With this model now firmly established in Washington, the federal government will get very little good work accomplished, which for some of the remnants of the Tea Party, will be just fine. The chances of the federal government shrinking any time soon are practically nonexistent, so the next best thing for the anti-government crowd is for the train to stall on the tracks. Of course, that means that horrible abuses of the system and wasteful spending of tax money will continue to escalate, and both of the controlling parties are equally out of control with spending.

I don’t know what it will take for Americans to overcome their deep differences. We may be too far gone. Even an attack on our own soil only produces a temporary and superficial sense of unity that is quickly forgotten when the partisan rhetoric machine cranks up again. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that Trump, Clinton, or Johnson will be able to bring the nation together. If the model of Darwinian evolution’s survival of the fittest can be applied to the U.S., perhaps we simply aren’t the fittest.

Stalled on the Tracks

For most of my life I have lived in the rural parts of Georgia.  Of course, some would argue that outside of Atlanta, there’s nothing left except rural parts.  During a good portion of their histories, many small-town businesses in Georgia were supplied by railroads.  Rail tracks often ran right through the middle of town, as they still do.  Most of the freight trains no longer stop in these small towns because those businesses are supplied by the trucking industry, but the trains still travel through the towns quite regularly.  Most small Georgia towns will only have one or two places where roads either go over or under tracks; otherwise, vehicular traffic has to stop for trains as they make their way through town.

I can remember as a child being stopped at a railroad crossing in the car with my parents.  It was exciting and fascinating to hear the whistle of the engine, to feel how it shook the ground as it passed by, and to watch the succession of rail cars as they sped through the crossing.  Counting the rail cars and reading the graffiti painted on their exterior walls was great entertainment.  Then I celebrated my sixteenth birthday and started driving.  The novelty of freight cars roaring through town wore off and was replaced by impatience waiting for the train to pass so that I could get where I was going.  Now as I have aged and live with a more hectic schedule, as most of us do, I find myself dreading the sight of the flashing red lights and the descending black and white striped crossbars that indicate the approach of yet another freight train and just one more delay in my already too-busy schedule.  But, even worse, and something that raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels, is when the passing train slows down until it finally comes to a complete stop, blocking the road.  This is a situation that railroad companies avoid if at all possible because some townships have actually filed suit against railroads for causing significant traffic problems with stopped or even stalled trains.

Freight Train
Freight Train

Thinking about how enraged I have been waiting 10-15 minutes for a train to finally move past a crossing, I can’t help but draw comparisons with the current political climate in the U.S.  Our government, especially on the federal and state levels, is like a train stalled on the tracks at a major crossing. People who are from multiple origins and who have many different objectives are on either side of the crossing. They can’t get to the other side. They can’t even see the other side. They are completely separated by this huge obstruction that refuses to move forward and clear the way for the good of everyone involved.  The real frustration comes from the realization that the train operators don’t seem to care at all that they have brought everyone, and everything, to a stand-still.  A train can carry an incredible amount of materials, or people, from one place to another most efficiently, as long as it keeps moving.  When it slows down, or worse yet, stops, the train is useless. If a train can’t deliver, it has totally lost its value.

The Centre Cannot Hold

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”  The chasm is exhibited in more than just politics, although the divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.  In a report issued on June 12, 2014, the Center made the following observation.

Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

America seems to be the land of extremes. The labels employed so frequently in public discourse are usually an indictment and a stamp of extreme disapproval: right wing, left wing, socialist, capitalist, communist, opponent, liar, criminal, idiot, moron, etc. We are either desperately searching for the next word or deed that will offend us or someone else, or we are so self-absorbed that we care nothing about those outside our circle of friends and supporters. The polarization is crippling. There is no room for compromise but only intense fear that any concession will result in a quick trip down the proverbial slippery slope. Common ground is gone; there are only camps. An opinion or policy is either right or wrong, not worthy of thoughtful consideration or discussion. There are no intentions of improving on an idea or a plan; either reject any suggestions or scrap it altogether. Considering a different path along the same trajectory is out of the question; only the opposite direction is acceptable.

As much as I dislike doom and gloom forecasts based on the current political climate, I am nevertheless disheartened by what appears to be the disappearance of an ideological center in America.  So many issues now divide us as a population: abortion, immigration, terrorism, gun violence, the economy, same-sex marriage, etc.  Interestingly enough, the research indicates that Democrats are becoming more liberal at a faster rate than Republicans are becoming more conservative (many of my friends would disagree with this finding).  A third political party that poses a platform blending hot-button items into some semblance of a synthesis has very little chance of succeeding.  The viability of a third party of any kind is almost inconceivable, including the Libertarian Party.

America has a colorful history of political antagonism, even to the point of violence.  The Civil War makes the current political waters seem relatively calm by comparison.  Yet looking back at the first half of the 20th century when America went through two world wars, it seems that members of those generations had the ability to put their differences aside to concentrate on greater problems. Even during the Reagan administration, when I started paying attention to politics, the divisions didn’t seem as deep as they are now.  Sadly, the spirit of cohesion and reconciliation that followed an event as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was short lived.  Hostility almost seems to be equally directed internally and externally.

I know that round-the-clock news coverage from so many sources has certainly heightened awareness of the national debates, and social media sites are breeding grounds for vitriolic memes and declarations that serve to further divide people on a wide variety of issues, from 2nd Amendment rights to welfare reform.  The spectacular, if not outrageous,  Presidential campaign underway now obviously is bringing a tremendous amount of tension to the surface, forcing so many of us to dive deeper into our tribal nature and choose sides.  I am reminded of the familiar lines from the poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .

Perhaps our enemies don’t really need to attack us at all; they just need to be patient, and wait.

The Sky Is Falling

World leaders are meeting for the next week or so in Paris to discuss ways in which the major countries around the globe can reduce carbon emissions in hopes of warding off catastrophic effects from global warming.  How serious this problem is has become a topic of “heated” debate in this country, just like almost everything else, from Starbucks holiday coffee cups to Syrian refugees coming to America.  A handful of scientists (about 3% worldwide) are not convinced that the current climate changes we are experiencing are caused by human activity, which is all the evidence needed to call the whole idea a scam by a growing minority of people in this country who completely distrust any message coming from the federal government or the research of individuals, institutions, agencies, and organizations funded by federal tax dollars.  They are convinced that restrictions imposed by governments due to climate change will result in onerous taxes, economic ruin, burdensome regulations, dictatorial bureaucrats, and higher energy costs.

It would appear that the denial of climate change issues has moved into the realm of conspiracy theory.  Some of my friends argue that scientists are lying and falsifying data to appeal to liberal policy makers who pay them and who seek even further control over our lives and property.  They point to the changes in terminology — moving away from phrases like global warming and toward phrases like climate change — as an indication that the science is not solid and that climatologists are not to be trusted.   Here’s a flash.  What we are seeing around the planet IS global warming, but we have folks who can’t understand that global warming is NOT a term to describe weather.  There is a difference between climate and weather, so the vocabulary was modified in an attempt to increase understanding about the problem, which obviously failed.

Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to speak too much about climate change from a scientific standpoint, so I have to trust the consensus of opinion of the majority of climatologists around the world, just like I feel compelled to trust the vast majority of doctors who believe immunization is more helpful than harmful. I could list many other examples. I can remember a time when conservatives thought that recycling was a trick on dumb liberals, that is, until they discovered there is plenty of money to be made in the recycling business. Then it became desirable. I suspect we will eventually see this same pattern evolve with the reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable energy sources, and other similar initiatives.  I believe in being skeptical, but skepticism on the level of global scientific opinion of such a large majority seems unreasonable.