The concept of faith is complex and elusive. One dictionary definition is that, “Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing, or the observance of an obligation from loyalty, or fidelity to a concept, promise or engagement.” Faith’s synonyms may include allegiance, assurance, belief, commitment, confidence, conviction, dedication, devotion, loyalty, reliance and trust. “Faith” is a noun and a verb. Faith, the noun, can imply stability, such as the steadfastness that religion provides. To have faith, the verb, is a call to action and a form of demonstrating beliefs through your behavior.
“My faith is the key to my optimism. It is important to understand what it means, because faith is involved in almost every aspect of our lives.”
Religious contexts often present concepts of faith. In Christianity, the Ten Commandments and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount help define and describe ideals. In Islam, the Quran provides this guidance. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights provide a secular example of guidelines that show how to keep and live a type of faith. On the worldwide stage, the effort to synthesize concepts of faith took place with the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of World War II. The Geneva Conventions, which aim to prevent nations from torturing prisoners of war or subjecting them to extreme punishment, represent a similar international effort.
“We cannot remain true to ourselves if we are not faithful to those with whom we share a pledge, responsibility or common cause.”
Faith in people is elemental; faith in one’s mother is the first form that most people develop. Faith implies fidelity. Collective faith helps sustain families, communities and nations. Faith in unchanging principles – such as equality, goodwill and truth – wobbles as citizens lose faith in one another.
Each person has faith of multiple kinds. Faith has varied origins. All people have at least some faith in themselves and the people they depend on. Faith grows from accepting someone’s word, from personal experiences or from yearning for satisfying experiences. This differs from the faith someone acquires about science, God or the value of, for example, democracy or education.
“We should use to the fullest degree whatever talents or opportunities we have been given, preferably for the benefit of others.”
Following a religious faith is a personal and subjective experience that springs from a search for truths about God and oneself. Globally, approximately 75% of people follow Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist teachings. Others worship heavenly bodies, ancestors or features of nature. Technological developments offer countless examples of things people believe but don’t understand. Computers, TV and space exploration once seemed miraculous, but people now accept them as part of life. They have faith in them.
Faith as Religion
Religious faith doesn’t follow science or facts. It is “a moral concept or vision” of an idealistic or superlative idea. Theological approaches to God and religious faith differ even within a religion. How someone considers God helps define that person’s concept of religious faith. When Carter prays, his relationship with God gives him comfort, courage, hope, peace, reassurance and satisfaction – bulwarks many people seek in their lives.
“Faith in something is an inducement…to action. To me, ‘faith’ is not just a noun but also a verb.”
Carter’s experiences, particularly on the national and international stage, made him consider and prioritize the diversity of religious thought. His personal Baptist religion doesn’t mandate certain beliefs or interpretations of Scripture. When a church class leads to lively debate, it occurs within a community seeking the Bible’s meanings or trying to learn how to apply it to contemporary life. Deeds can demonstrate faith. By following moral concepts, such as the Ten Commandments, people embrace a framework in which to pledge personal responsibility. This helps them strive for ethical and moral goals, and supports them as they address challenges like physical danger, financial worries, family tragedies, career questions and personal guilt.
Religious faith can be blinding. Fundamentalists, for example, can militantly fight anyone with conflicting beliefs. This isolates them, and creates distinctions between fundamentalists – “true believers” – and others. This domination, exclusion and pride sharply contrast with what Jesus demonstrated: humility, erasing divisions between individuals and a leader’s service.
Demonstrations of Faith
As president, Carter met a “who’s who” list of religious dignitaries who demonstrate this idea, including Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Carter finds inspiration from these prominent figures, and from the ways average people show faith through strong belief in themselves and in others. They stay true to their dreams and provide inspiring examples of how each person can demonstrate his or her faith. Religious belief drives many, but not all, of these examples:
- Bill Foege– One of Carter’s heroes, Foege dedicated his life to improving public health. He created the procedure that eradicated smallpox and launched programs to fight guinea worm, river blindness, elephantitis and malaria, among other diseases. At a meeting Foege organized at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, he discussed startling health data showing that 66% of deaths of people younger than 65 could be prevented if people had access to care and information and the ability to invest in their health. Foege helped address the causes of neglected diseases affecting the world’s most impoverished people: contaminated water, poor sanitation, insect-borne illnesses, ignorance and lack of access to basic health services. Foege became chief medical adviser at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
- Lillian Gordy Carter– Carter’s mother, a registered nurse, often treated the poor and needy in and around Plains, Georgia. When she was 68, she joined the US Peace Corps, serving for two and a half years in Vikhroli, India. The village gardener, who secretly gave her vegetables and flowers, let “Miss Lillian” know he couldn’t afford to send his daughter and son to school. To repay the gardener for the bounty he shared, Miss Lillian taught his daughter to read and write. She said that age should never prevent someone from serving others. The Peace Corps annually gives a service award named after her to a volunteer older than 50 who demonstrates the most notable service on behalf of others. And the gardener’s daughter? She became president of the regional university.
- Admiral Hyman Rickover– A father figure to Carter, who was a US Navy officer, Rickover oversaw the development of nuclear power plants for the Navy’s use. Carter joined his program in 1950. When they met, Rickover asked Carter if he’d done his best at the Naval Academy. After reflection, Carter realized he hadn’t. Carter recognized that Rickover demanded the best from himself and those who served him. The admiral demonstrated his nonreligious faith: Rickover had faith in his ability and judgment, in the importance of tenacity and in the value of science.
Carter credits faith as the bedrock of the optimism that has carried him into his 90s. His faith in concepts, people and things gives him stability and confidence. The “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1) bolstered Carter’s faith, even at times of doubt.
“Working as equals with needy people on common projects tended to forge almost instantaneous and binding ties, regardless of…other differences.”
When Carter was a boy, his faith sprang from his relationships with his parents and siblings and soon extended to his church community. His father was a deacon and teacher at Plains Baptist Church. Christianity was presented as something simple, but skepticism about his faith crept in by Carter’s adolescence and on occasions since. By studying Scripture, he says he came to understand his faith in God and Jesus Christ, whom he regards as a constant companion and the ideal behavioral role model.
“As a Christian who has also studied nuclear physics and delved into the mysteries of space, I have not detected any conflict between science and religious faith.”
Carter’s evangelical Christian beliefs shape his actions and attitudes, and fill his life with joy and purpose. He’s taught Bible classes for much of his adult life. His Christian faith seldom clashed with his public life or responsibilities. Carter’s faith helped him understand that science is harmonious with the concept of God and religious belief, since scientific facts cannot contradict God.
“When we brand people as enemies we can learn to derogate and hate them.”
Manifestations of faith appear throughout Carter’s life. His marriage to Rosalynn Carter is his single most important demonstration of faith. They share a powerful commitment that rests upon a leap of faith. That faith, which pairs with love, has sustained their marriage through more than 70 years and varied challenges.
“Deeper religious values, such as humility, atonement, forgiveness, compassion and love…transcend what a government can achieve.”
The writings of activists, ethicists, philosophers, theologians and thinkers influence Carter’s view of faith. These include Stephen Jay Gould, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Karl Bultmann, William Sloane Coffin, Clarence Jordan, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Jürgen Moltmann, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and brothers Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr.
“One of the most troubling political developments…has been the extreme polarization of Americans and the virtual elimination from our national Congress of moderate leaders.”
Carter’s faith helped him decide to start The Carter Center and dedicate it to helping people in need around the globe. Faith tested him with challenges but helped him through them, including his fight with metastatic melanoma in 2015.
Faith in the United States
“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble…because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others.”
Carter believes that in contemporary politics, many controversial topics challenge the power of love, including abortion, civil liberties, environmental protection, gun control, nuclear proliferation, separation of politics and religion, women’s rights, sexual identity, and arguments about science versus religion. He is straightforward about his beliefs. He finds that a superpower nation’s attributes share similarities with a person’s faith-based commitments to freedom, generosity, human rights, justice, peace and truth. The United States must maintain its faith in these principles and demonstrate that faith. Then America could “be the international paragon” of these ideals. President Donald Trump undermines faith in government’s competence with his uncontrolled, irresponsible comments.
“As we seek to renew America’s commitment to promote human rights and human dignity around the world, we have to be a living example here at home.”
The nation is neglecting urgent domestic needs, like infrastructure.Use of force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen conflicts with American claims of dedication to human rights. The United States should oppose war and resolve disputes peacefully. It should be an unwavering champion of human rights and freedom, domestically and abroad. America should provide humane aid to those in need, including migrants, and should cooperate with other nations. The nation should use its unparalleled influence wisely and generously.