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Perhaps I could blame Jimmy Carter for my political disillusionment.

After all, he gets blamed for so many other things.

Calling Carter the “best former president ever” has become something of a paltry platitude. It carries an air of pity, trying to shield a maligned and feeble figure.

Now, however, historians are reexamining Carter’s presidency, and coming to some different conclusions. There is no movement to put Carter on the $20 bill or rank him among the very best presidents. Still, with some historical perspective, increasing appreciation for Carter and his presidency is appearing.

And I’ve come to appreciate him for a very small initiative that over the course of 40 years has sprouted and borne much fruit.

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I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1976. I was young enough to be enamored with Jimmy Carter. I remember wearing one of his green campaign buttons on my very cool denim vest to church one Sunday and stirring up all sorts of conversations and reactions.

I can’t fully remember what I found so appealing about Carter. He seemed like a good guy — folksy, grassroots, genuine. His smile. His very overt Christian faith. (I can honestly say that I don’t believe I had ever yet heard the word “evangelical” at that point.) Gerald Ford was about as exciting as a cardboard box — plus he pardoned Nixon.

All these years later, I can’t specifically recall what soured me so deeply on Carter. In the span of four years I lost my naive hope and replaced it with despair. I was, I suppose, simply imbibing the spirit of the time — lots of media criticism, an angry, impatient public, inflation, interest rates, Iran.

In 1980, when I could vote, I worked on the campaigns of Ted Kennedy (who primaried Carter) and John Anderson, a third-party candidate in the general election — never thinking for a moment that our country would take seriously a candidate like Ronald Reagan!

Ever since his landslide defeat, Carter has received all sorts of accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Habitat for Humanity. The Carter Center. The near eradication of the Guinea worm. Authoring over 30 books. Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Still, all this “best former president” talk felt a bit like a booby-prize, overcompensation for a failed presidency.

I am not a presidential scholar, not even a historian. I’ll let them continue to weigh in on Carter’s presidency. I have noticed, however, a more positive turn in their evaluations. Here’s a piece that says Carter’s emphasis on human rights in foreign relations was significant and left a lasting impact. His much maligned “sweater/malaise” speech has also been revisited. Some contend it was the last time an American president dared to speak honestly and vulnerably to the people. Others note that the initial reaction to the speech was positive. It was only after critics’ counterattacks that it became a punchline.

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My own reevaluation of Jimmy Carter comes from something seemingly much less important.

In October 1978, President Carter signed H.R. 1337, which included an amendment added by Senator Alan Cranston of California. It removed any federal tax on beer brewed at home. Essentially it lifted Prohibition-era restrictions and opened up the possibility of brewing small batches of beer at home. I doubt anyone noticed.

Homebrewing grew mildly in the 1980s and then wildly in the 1990s. After a bit, the more skilled and entrepreneurial homebrewers began opening microbreweries, selling their beers. Think Sam Adams, New Belgium, Founders, Toppling Goliath, and thousands more. Actually, many of these most successful craft breweries have been purchased, in part or whole, by the mammoth, multinational breweries.

But why celebrate this? Perhaps some of you are thinking this trend is troubling, reprehensible, something to grieve. Or maybe I’m just hearing the voice of my teetotaling mother reverberating in my head. (For my take on drinking and alcohol more broadly, check out an earlier blog, Booze).

A case could be made that God is pleased whenever people create a variety of beautiful, delightful, and delicious things. Many of today’s craft beers fit that bill. Creativity abounds. But that’s not where I’m going.

Rather, I am impressed by and grateful for the numerous little breweries and brewpubs that sit on the main streets of small town America and in redeveloping urban areas. Many of these locales have seen hard times. That little brewery putting out good and interesting beers is a source of local pride, a sign of hope, a gathering place, social capital. Often, they are bright stars in formerly bleak places.

My little town does not have a brewery, but it does have a wonderful pub with 50 different craft beers on tap, many brewed right here in Iowa. As a minister, I feel no qualms about being seen there. It isn’t a place of debauchery, but rather a place of community. When beers range from $6 to $8 each, I don’t see over-consumption!

These little breweries and brewpubs often are intentionally family-friendly. Board games, kids’ menus, family restrooms, small tables and chairs all signal that little people are expected. Churches have noticed this phenomenon, too. Pub-theology, discussion groups, and hymnsings all gather there.

The whole story is charming. I am reminded of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed that grows into a shrub where birds make their nests in the branches. Insignificant, completely unnoticed in 1978. Never mentioned among Carter’s achievements. Growing very slowly at first. Then flourishing to provide a place of welcome, joy, and friendship.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

2 Comments

  • Tom says:

    Great piece and true! While I never expect to see to see on this blog an eloquent argument for small government conservatism, this is perfect.

  • Anthony J Diekema says:

    I love this, Steve! I visualize “rehabilitating” the old church library by adding a microbrewery and a few trays of Georgia peanuts; thus creating a truly gezellig (pronounced HaaaZeeellik with deep gutteral emphasis!) atmosphere of love, joy and peace. It could be just the right remedy for restoring (post-pandemic) church attendance and true congregational communion!
    Thanks for the memories!

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