PLAINS, GEORGIA —
The truck travels best at 55 miles per hour, which is the speed limit on the undulating roads that take you from I-16 into the heart of South Georgia. There were few people driving on a Saturday at dusk, and I swung past pecan orchards and 40-foot cotton bales while the sun colored everything a golden pink. Angels were singing—I cued up Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium” for the cruise through Americus toward a kink in the highway called Plains. The cotton balls I first spotted in North Carolina were still on the roadsides. In fact, they have followed me all the way into Florida. It’s the middle of harvest season all across the South.
At the Hometown of Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th President, I turned right at the only stoplight in town and went up to an old gas station where the price signs were two digits that didn’t seem to refer to anything. Around the back was a driveway to a grassy RV park, my home for the night. I got out of the truck to look for the owner, and a wiry blond man came out of the house next door to calm some dogs. The dogs weren’t his, or anyone’s really, and he wasn’t the owner. But he greeted me all the same in a thick accent I could barely understand, said something about Gone Off to a Barbecue Supper. He said to go along and find a spot, and not to worry about paying Mr. Moss: “He’ll find you.”
I parked on a lump with full hookups and walked around. The air was cool and smelled like burning. Across a back field, the remnants of a big bonfire were smoldering, turning over to release the last plumes of smoke. Through a treeline behind where some Georgia Power workers were staying, a fresh-mown field and buildings in the distance held the last sunlight.
My dog was scared of the mongrels that walked around the lot. They were friendly, though. The neighbor man said quietly that he thought they had been owned by black people in town, and abused. He said someone might have shot one in the foot, and that now Mr. Moss took them for walks down the road in the morning. They didn’t have collars, and the man told me people would steal them right off the dogs. The big one, which looked like a large version of Dexter, followed me and nipped at my legs until I petted his nose and told him to go away. Everyone I saw in the RV lot was white, but two black ladies staffed the convenience store in front of it. They sell pizza and chicken and basic groceries. When I went into buy a six-pack, the store was smoky from frying oil.
I had leftover pasta for dinner, from the microwave. The Georgia Power guys were setting up a television outside, arguing over RCA or HDMI. It was going to be cool at night, 39 or 40. I turned the heater on and cracked the windows and occasionally smelled the bonfire smoke, or heard a barking dog in the distance, the lonesome soundtrack of an evening in Plains.
In the morning I got up, put things away, and walked two doors down the road to Maranatha Baptist Church to see our 39th president.
“When he’s smiling, you know what he’s thinking about? How many more pictures are left to take. Get a clue, people. This is his gift to you.”
That’s Miss Jan, Plains’s innkeeper, church manager, and wrangler for the crowds who descend on Maranatha each week to see Jimmy Carter. When I came across the cotton-strewn lawn at 8:30, there was already a line of people to get inside. I emptied my pockets and let a secret service man go over me with a wand. Once we were seated in the pews, Miss Jan held us captive for an hour and a half with jokes, threats, and stories about “Mr. Jimmy.” She was a former schoolteacher with a taste for discipline and attention, and she quickly dispelled the hopes of anyone who thought they’d have a good folksy conversation with our former Commander-in-Chief. She laid down the rules:
- Do not call him “Mr. President,” “Jimmy,” “Former President,” and certainly not “Ex-President.” He is “President Carter,” “Mr. Carter,” (or “Mr. Jimmy,” but only to Miss Jan).
- When he comes in to teach the Sunday School lesson, he will begin by asking everyone where they’re from. Each section of the room, in turn, is to call out countries and states. If someone else has already mentioned your state or country, you can’t say it again or Miss Jan will give you the eye.
- After Sunday school and the church service, there will be a chance for pictures. Groups must take photos with the Carters all together, not individually. You must wait in line with your hands by your sides, tell Miss Jan how many people are in your group, and hand your camera to Miss Jill, who will take your picture. Smile.
- When you stand next to President Carter, “You’re gonna feel a warm little hand on your back.” Do not reciprocate. Do not give him a hug. Do not corner him with your ideas for world peace. Keep your arms at your sides.
- Do not applaud. Carry his teachings into the world instead.
During the warm-up admonitions Miss Jan cracked a lot of jokes about the secret service. They stood in the corners. At one point, once everyone was seated, a man came in the back entrance and stood looking for a seat. Apparently nobody had stopped him on his way in. Everyone started laughing, a little nervously.
Mr. Carter’s lesson was based on the book of Jude, a short tract by Jesus’s half-brother wedged in right at the end before Revelations. It deals with false teachers and compassion: “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” Carter called on people to read other verses from scripture. He talked about Jesus healing lepers when nobody else would approach them, and about the Good Samaritan. Mostly the idea was that unbelievers or castaways should be helped, not scorned, and that only God can judge them. Which must come to mind a lot at a church where the visitors—Presbyterians, atheists, two women traveling together with six dogs waiting in the RV—outnumber the members by ten to one.
To tell the truth I don’t remember many moments from the lesson, which speaks to the ordinariness of the content and my own self-absorption. I sat there with my head bowed, seeing if everything Jimmy Carter said made sense to me. Wondering if I could ever see Jesus as these people did, as more than an allegory. See Christianity as more than a set of ideas on how to live right. Because while Carter kept his lesson in line with basic morality and the Golden Rule, he also believes in Hell and sinners and blood and resurrection. A man who was Commander in Chief, and who gets called in at age 90 to help resolve conflicts among the world’s most temperamental governments, who gives his time to nonprofits and to lines of Sunday picture-takers, believes man is saved not by works but by faith alone.
Driving into Plains, on those golden hills, thinking of nothing and settling into the hum of my truck’s engine, I wondered if such peaceful moments could qualify as “grace,” what Christians as well as everyone else are after. But Mr. Jimmy had a different definition: God’s Redemption At Christ’s Expense. He said when Amy Carter’s daughter was born, he tried to imagine if every time he sinned, his newborn granddaughter were punished. He said we’d sin a lot less if our actions were reflected on those we loved. Yet people claim to love Jesus, and shouldn’t that be the same?
He peppered his talk with just enough recollections of politics to keep the crowd happy. The thing that sticks with me most: he said that most other countries view America as the most warlike nation on earth. He said the temptation is great, when conflict arises, for a sitting president to send troops into war. Because then he’s transformed from a struggling administrator into Commander in Chief of the world’s largest military.
I understood something, coming to Plains, about why many people want their presidents to be religious men. There’s an idea that the man, and his actions, come from somewhere. That they sprang out of the earth thanks to a force greater than ambition or greed or the need to spread hateful ideas. And it’s an oddly powerful idea that, when he was done with presiding and forced into “early retirement,” as he put it, Carter went right back to his little patch of earth and his church full of people.
This is the first year, Miss Jan told us in a volley of Carter trivia, that Mr. Jimmy’s farm hasn’t grown peanuts. He is ninety, his wife is eighty-six. They eat mostly vegetarian and ride an exercise bike around the tennis court. They will continue to get secret service protection until both of them die. They already have their gravesite plotted out, side by side, in a patch of forest. When they’re both buried, the site will have 24-hour protection by the National Park Service. After two years, their home will open up for tours. Visitors, said Miss Jan, will not be allowed at the graves.