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Welcome, President Carter

June 8, 2018

Jimmy Carter finds common ground, friendship at Liberty University

Unexpected. Unlikely. Surprising.

In the days leading up to Liberty University’s Commencement on May 19, those were just a few of the words that journalists used to describe the choice of the keynote speaker. But inviting Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, made perfect sense to Liberty President Jerry Falwell.

Politics aside, Carter holds the beliefs and values that should matter most to Christians, Falwell said, and has exhibited those throughout his lifetime of humanitarian work and peacemaking across the globe. Falwell saw an opportunity to not only welcome Carter as the third U.S. president to speak at a Liberty Commencement (George H.W. Bush spoke in 1990, and Donald J. Trump spoke last year) but also to show how Christians can come together at the core — their faith.

When Christianity Today said Carter would be “2018’s most surprising yet hopeful Commencement speaker,” it was right. Some people found it equally as difficult to believe that Carter, a Democrat, would agree to stand on the same stage where so many Republican politicians have stood. Falwell even admitted he wasn’t sure the invitation would be accepted and was joyful when it was. More surprises came when Carter expressed interest in arriving a day early. “During my tenure as president,” Falwell said, “no Commencement speaker has ever done that. Carter made a special investment of his time so he could get to know Liberty. We’re grateful.”

President Carter greets athletes at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Falwell and his family guided Carter on a tour of campus. He said the 93-year-old appeared in great health and greeted students and their families at every turn. “He hiked all around the campus with us. He even went to Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre (the school’s year-round ski slope) and walked out on the slope in the rain and high-fived the students that were doing flips for him. We’ve never had a friendlier guest,” Falwell said.

Carter also rode to the top of Liberty’s newest and tallest landmark, Freedom Tower, and visited the recently opened Rawlings Scriptorium, where he viewed a collection of Bibles and other texts, including a Bible that Yasser Arafat had given him in the 1970s.

Carter then attended the annual Baccalaureate Service, much to the delight of the audience when his face appeared on the screen as Falwell introduced him. Afterward, they shared a meal and meaningful conversation. Carter gave a personally inscribed copy of his latest book to each person around the table.

LU President Jerry Falwell (left), President Jimmy Carter, Becki Falwell, Caroline Falwell at the top of Liberty’s Freedom Tower. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

By the end of his visit, the Falwells said that Carter felt like family. Becki Falwell even said she would adopt him as her grandfather.

“He was smiling and very engaged the whole time,” Becki Falwell said. “Anyone he walked past, he would stop and talk with them. You could just see his love for people,” something the Falwells both said isn’t the nature for many politicians.

“With a lot of them, it is more about power than it is with people,” President Falwell said. “With Carter and Trump, it’s more about people. The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person and give my political support to a person. Policies are important, but candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today. Both of these men entered the White House as outsiders to the Washington Establishment, and I hope that many more outsiders will follow.”

President Carter tours the Jerry Falwell Library. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Carter and his wife of 72 years, Rosalynn, have for decades now taken up a hammer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. And through the Carter Center, they have been focused on resolving conflict, advancing democracy and human rights, preventing diseases, and improving mental health care. President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Carter still teaches Bible classes every Sunday in his hometown of Plains, Ga.

Falwell said Carter told him that he took special care in preparing his words for the Class of 2018, working on his message late into the night before.

His speech did not disappoint.

Carter spoke about the real challenges facing humanity today: division, rising prison populations, wealth disparity, discrimination, human trafficking, and the threat of nuclear war.

But one theme prevailed.

President Jimmy Carter delivered Liberty’s 45th keynote Commencement address. (Photo by Jessie Rogers)

“One of the things we have to learn is how to get along, to do good for one another … in other words, just following the mandates of the Prince of Peace. … We don’t need enemies to fight, nor do we need ‘inferior’ people whom we can dominate,” Carter said, quoting Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor master, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Carter said he strives to emulate the leader of a Southern Baptist missionary program he once served with, who shared how to win souls to Christ.

“He said, ‘I try to have two loves in my heart: one love is for God and the other love is for the person who happens to be in front of me at any particular time,’” Carter recalled. “We Christians are to promote the use of agape love, self-sacrificial love among people. All people are equal in the eyes of God. We are all one in Jesus Christ.”

He challenged the graduates to use their platform from a land of freedom and opportunity in an ever-connected world to make a difference.

“Right now, you have the maximum opportunity to use the three gifts that God gives every one of us — life, freedom, and an opportunity to live a completely successful life, as judged by God,” Carter said. “We have a perfect example to follow if we are in doubt; we just have to remember the perfect life of Jesus Christ.”

In President Falwell’s introduction, he acknowledged Carter’s work as president, including signing the Hyde Amendment (three years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion), which barred federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. Hyde was considered the first legislative pushback against the Court’s decision, Falwell said, and Carter’s support cost him politically among his own party. “President Carter’s life can be described as having the courage of conviction,” he said. “I pray that more men and women aspire to serve in public office with such courage.”

To President Falwell, Carter’s visit was a chance to show that even though Christians may not agree on the role of government and many other issues, they can join together in service to others.

“I am proud that Christians are uniting here today on issues where they agree rather than fighting over issues where they disagree,” Falwell told the crowd. “Christians all acknowledge that Jesus taught we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the poor, widows, orphans, and the least of these.  At the same time, many good Christians disagree about what the role of government should be in helping the poor.  Jesus never said whether it was Caesar’s job to help those in need or not — but He made clear that it was our job. And that truth is something which can unite us as Christians.”

Sitting on the same stage with Carter was another invited guest, Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a world-renowned brain surgeon. He addressed the crowd briefly and served as the keynote speaker at the Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine’s first hooding ceremony later that afternoon (read story).

Carson rose out of poverty in Detroit to become the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the country at age 33 at Johns Hopkins University. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 2013. In 2008, Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He made a bid for the GOP nomination for president in 2016, during which time he also visited Liberty.

President Falwell and his wife, Becki, introduce their first grandchild, Virginia Rose Falwell, at the Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Carson challenged students with wisdom from Proverbs, to trust in the Lord with all of their hearts and lean not on their own understanding.

“We’ve got plenty of people who are smart but not a whole lot of people who care about everybody else,” Carson said. “That is what we are hoping for you graduates today.”

It was appropriate that Liberty welcomed both Carter and Carson to its 45th Commencement. Both are humble servants who have changed the world by relying on God as their guide and by devoting their lives to caring for others — a perfect fit with Liberty’s mission of Training Champions for Christ.

Their words were well received at Liberty, where service is a longstanding tradition. Liberty students devoted about a half-million hours to community service this year.

President Jimmy Carter kisses the newest member of Liberty President Jerry Falwell’s family, Virginia Rose Falwell, and spends time with the Falwell family as well as special guests Dr. Ben Carson and his wife, Candy, before the Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

Inviting political figures to campus is nothing new to the university. In addition to the three presidents who have now spoken here, many, like Carson, who have considered a run for president, have also headed to the campus for Commencement, including Bobby Jindal in 2014 and Jeb Bush in 2015. Sen. Ted Cruz spoke at Liberty’s Convocation just hours after he threw his hat in the ring for the 2016 presidential election.

And this year wasn’t the first time that Liberty has welcomed someone who didn’t align themselves with conservative Republican ideals.

Sen. Bernie Sanders visited as a presidential candidate in 2016. Even back in 1983, Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke at Liberty’s Convocation.

Though it may have seemed strange to the outside world that the “liberal lion” was invited to a conservative Christian institution, just as it may have seemed odd that Carter would accept this year’s invitation, Kennedy’s visit was in line with the vision of Liberty’s founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, to see Liberty as a prominent place for the exchange of ideas and for challenging society to become civically engaged so that freedom would thrive.

And it is that freedom that breeds opportunities for Christian groups to join on many different fronts.

The Falwells said that many of the institutions that are celebrated for their tolerance have seen protests and disruptions when conservative speakers come to campus. Not at Liberty. Carter’s visit was in contrast to how Vice President Mike Pence was treated at Notre Dame last year, “where the people who speak and teach tolerance walked out,” Becki Falwell said.

“Liberty University had President Carter come and speak and treated him very warmly; we had no protests. That is true tolerance,” she said. “And that’s true Christianity, treating others like Jesus taught.”

“President Carter said that he had never been treated with more hospitality at any place that he had ever visited, publicly,” President Falwell added. “It was my distinct honor to introduce him as our keynote speaker and to introduce him to Liberty because of his extended stay. We are proud of our team for doing such a great job hosting him. He’s become a friend of Liberty’s, forever.”

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