It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.
Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.
The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.
"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."
The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.
The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.
Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.
"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "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."
Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."
In the heart of his address, Carter listed possible areas of common moral ground, ranging from efforts to provide clean water in impoverished Third World nations to the tragedy of modern slavery, in the form of human trafficking.
However, he placed his strongest emphasis on a topic -- women's equality -- that still divides many Baptists. Clashes over the ordination of women led to his own decision in 2000 to leave the Southern Baptist Convention. At Liberty, the former president specifically linked this cause to an issue -- gender-selection abortion -- that continues to separate him from many other Democrats.
For decades, Carter noted, he thought that the possibility of nuclear war was the greatest threat facing humanity.
"Recently I changed my mind. … I think, now, that it's a human rights problem, and it's discrimination against women and girls in the world," he said.
For example, there "are about 150 million girls and women who are not living today, because their parents -- in order to comply with laws or customs, and to have just male sons -- either killed their daughters by strangling them at birth or they had the modern-day ability to decide before the baby was born what it was going to be, and if the fetus is female then they abort the child."
To make progress on tough issues, said Carter, religious leaders of all kinds will have to find ways to view each other as potential allies, rather than as automatic enemies. Surely it's possible for Baptists to work together "as friends" more often, a dream he said that he discussed with Falwell while at Liberty.
Most of all, he challenged the graduates to strive for success -- but success as it is judged by God, not the modern world.
"We may not be rich. We may not live to be an old person. We may not have many loyal friends. But neither did Jesus have any of those things, but he lived a perfect life," said Carter.
"Without any interference from anybody else, all by ourselves, we have complete freedom to make a judgment. … We decide whether we tell the truth, or benefit from telling lies. We're the ones that decide: Do I hate or am I filled with love? We're the ones who decide: Do I think only about myself, or do I care for others?"
FIRST IMAGE: Liberty University photo.