In 1976, the first time I voted, I cast my ballot against Jimmy Carter.
He struck me as a religious zealot. Instead, I voted for Gerald Ford, not because I was especially a fan, but because to me he came across as so milquetoast I figured he couldn't do much lasting harm.
I still consider that the worst voting error I've ever made.
Carter won, of course. And four years later, my nascent opinions had changed on a lot of matters -- including him, born-again religiosity and my personal priorities.
I voted for him in 1980 and against Ronald Reagan, who I saw as a dangerous saber-rattler. I still consider that among my wiser votes, even though Carter got walloped.
The recent death of Rosalynn Carter, 96, the former first lady and Jimmy Carter's soulmate and political partner for 77 years, got me thinking back to my youthful political and religious awakenings.
In 1976, I was still floundering around trying to figure out what I really believed and why.
Even then I was leery of mixing government and religion. Still am. From Constantine on, the uniting of state and church has more often than not corrupted both institutions.
Carter touted his having been born again. He identified as a Southern Baptist, and at the time I'd had my fill of the Baptists, among whom I was born, baptized and indoctrinated.
Anyway, back then, few of us were accustomed to hearing any presidential candidate so fervently express his Christian faith. Carter left me feeling icky.
But as an abundance of odes to Rosalynn have reminded me, the Carters proved themselves Christians in the truest sense of the word, unlike so many Bible-thumping politicians today.
Before they reached the White House, while in it and across their post-presidential decades, they never used their faith as a cudgel with which to bludgeon or belittle their adversaries, but as a motivation for their innumerable good works.
They brokered peace between Egypt and Israel, hammered nails at Habitat for Humanity houses and started the Carter Center, which is dedicated to, as a motto on its website declares, waging peace, fighting disease and building hope.
When Jimmy was governor of Georgia, Rosalynn hired an inmate convicted of murder, Mary Prince, as the family's nanny. After Carter's term as governor ended, Prince was returned to prison. Convinced of her innocence, the Carters helped her get a reprieve from a Georgia parole board so she could work for them in the White House. Prince ultimately was exonerated. She and the Carters remained close friends.
As first lady of Georgia and then the United States, Rosalynn advocated for better treatment for the mentally ill.
Later, she also founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University.
"There are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers," she said.
After leaving the White House, Jimmy taught Sunday School for 40 years at little Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.
As I said, I wish I'd given my very first vote in 1976 to him -- and, by extension, to Rosalynn, his partner in everything.
I'd wear that vote now as a badge of honor.
Was he the most effective of presidents politically or economically? Maybe not.
But, while reminiscing, I considered how much American politics and evangelical Christianity have changed since that bygone era. I wish we could turn that clock back. It wasn't a perfect time and the Carters weren't perfect people, but the political atmosphere they helped foster was light years better than what we see now.
For a moment compare Jimmy Carter with a certain other ex-president who laces his public addresses with obscenities, blasts his opponents as "vermin" and regularly threatens anyone who contradicts or opposes him.
I'd take Jimmy every blessed time.
And look, too, at what has happened to the type of evangelical faith the Carters practiced.
They used their Christianity to purse peace, justice, forgiveness and grace. Today, many of their fellow evangelicals tack exactly in the opposite direction, preaching grievance, judgment, anger and conspiracy theories.
A study released in October by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, found that 31% of white evangelicals now agree with the statement, "Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country." (See: tinyurl.com/dpbrmt33.)
In the years since Jimmy Carter left office, then, a big chunk of his fellow evangelicals apparently have replaced the words of Jesus -- "Blessed are the peacemakers" -- with "I may have to shoot somebody up in here!"
God bless Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. They look better every day, and my first vote looks worse.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at