Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis

As President Jimmy Carter now terminally nears the end of his long life at age 98, I am compelled to make a left-field comparison of two American giants of the 20th century.  It is not their pre-eminence in their respective lines of work that makes them stand out – they may not be at the very top of the list in their fields – but rather their ages: they both have lived to almost 100 years old.  I am referring to Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States from 1976 – 1980, who went on to be a self-styled ambassador of peace in arguably the most formidable post-presidency career of all U.S. Presidents, and Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist who by all accounts has preached to more souls worldwide, either in person or by television, than any other person in history, who died in 2018 at age 99.

Age may be an odd criterion upon which to choose two candidates for a comparison but I have my reasons.  One is that they survived such long periods of American life, looming shadows casting a presence long after anyone expected them to be alive.  Even after disappearing from active public life, their legacies were hard to shake; you can’t completely write off someone who hasn’t died yet.  Secondly, they had time to do a lot, taking on multiple roles over the decades, sometimes surprising us in their 2nd or 3rd iterations or in their evolving worldviews.  Most importantly, I would argue, over the span of nearly 100 years, you get to see someone’s true colors: if there were ever to be scandal, corruption, demoralization, or complacency, it would certainly show up over the course of that length of life.

And on that note I’ll commence my comparison, beginning with what they had in common.  No one questions the integrity of either; they were two leaders above reproach in terms of walking their talk and living out their creeds.  That doesn’t mean they didn’t make mistakes: Rev. Graham got called to the plate more than once on his response to race relations; President Carter lost credibility in his handling of the Iran hostage crisis.  But in terms of honesty, trustworthiness, and humility, both were men who could be relied upon to stand up for what they believed in whether it was popular or not and take the hits with humility and self-examination.  Their commitment to family despite the rigors of their respective professions only serves to strengthen this integrity.

Moreover, they were both men of deep faith, the Christian faith to be exact.  They believed it, they talked about it (notwithstanding presidential protocol about religion in politics), they studied it, and they lived it.  The thread between their creed and their practice was woven tightly.  They both continued to walk and talk it to the very ends of their life (so far).

They were both very involved in public life albeit in different ways.  Many may not know that Billy Graham was personal advisor to several presidents, had been asked to be a cabinet member by one, and commented frequently on matters both social and spiritual.  Both sought to engage God in world affairs across multiple scenarios and ideological parameters.   At the opening of his remarks at the signing of the peace treaty between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978, President Carter gave the credit for its success to the prayers of people around the world.  Similarly, Billy Graham made a daring trip to the Soviet Union in 1982 to preach the gospel, knowing full well the political weight that such a trip carried.

Not only were they Christian, but both came out of the same ideological circle within that tradition.  They were both Southern Baptist, both saw the teachings of the Bible as authoritative in their lives, and both held relatively orthodox views of the faith.  Before the emergence of the religious right in the 80s and 90s, they would be seen as generally ‘on the same side’ in matters both public and religious.

We have public statements from each about the other.  From Carter: “Billy Graham is one of my great lifetime heroes. I think he epitomizes the essence of what a Christian leader should be. I have participated in some of his crusades a couple of times in Atlanta. I’ve seen the profound impact he’s had on me personally, and on other people who were not Christians and accepted Christ as Savior.”  From Graham: “I grew to like [Carter] as a person and to respect both his intelligence and his genuine and unashamed Christian commitment.”  Carter attended one of Graham’s crusades.

Nevertheless, when Americans look back at either the history of religion or the history of politics in America, rarely will they mention these two figures on the same page.   They have lived almost the same years (Graham, 1918 – 2018 and Carter, 1924 – present), were eminent national leaders in the same country, practiced identical faith traditions, and had enormous respect for each other . . . and yet are never associated with each other.  Like ships passing in the night, their universes rarely interfaced.

Why is that?

Is it because one was a politician and the other a clergyman?  Maybe.  But I think the difference goes deeper than profession and is characterized by the terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’.  Let me explain.  The Latin ‘ortho’ means ‘straight,’ as in ‘orthodontics,’ the straightening of one’s teeth.  ‘Doxy’ refers to what one believes, one’s creed or belief system.  ‘Praxy’ refers to ‘practice’ or what one actually does in one’s life.  ‘Orthodoxy’ means ‘right belief’ while ‘orthopraxy’ means ‘right practice.’  Those who busy themselves with orthodoxy are concerned about believing rightly.  Those who busy themselves with orthopraxy want to be sure they’re living the right life.

Both Carter and Graham cared deeply about what they believed and how they lived.  But my thesis here is that when push came to shove, Graham cared more about orthodoxy and Carter about orthopraxy.

No, it was not coincidental that Graham chose to be a preacher.  To him, it was important to clarify the Christian good news, namely, that as the verse from the gospel of John famously puts it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  It was critical to Graham that people knew this.  Not just most people, but literally everyone on the planet.  Why?  Because then they could gain a ‘right’ belief.  He knew the power that knowledge about God had in one’s life.  When you really believe that an all-powerful Being has a personal stake in what happens to you, that changes you.  It changes how you live, how you think, how you relate, what you believe about the world and about the future.  If people believed this, Graham felt, it would change everything, including how they live.  And he had thousands of personal testimonies to back him up.  That’s not to say that the life of every soul who walked down to the field at those crusades was radically altered.  But many were.  Pivotally.

This was the formula in Graham’s life: if one believes rightly, one will act rightly.  If one allows a Heavenly King to direct one’s affairs, what else does one need to live and behave correctly, in the home and in public life?

Hence, while Graham did write books and comment about the Christian life, offering insights into good practice and often getting into trouble for commenting on political positions he would later regret, he learned after a while to stick to the script: invite God into people’s hearts and let the rest take care of itself.  Orthodoxy will breed orthopraxy.

Not so with Carter.  The nonagenarian has famously taught a Sunday School class for decades in his home church, Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Georgia.  Americans across the country have flocked there for good counsel, exposition of Scripture, and ethical teaching.  He clearly loves teaching!  But whether at the helm of a nuclear submarine, the oval office, or the peacekeeping table, Carter was always about the practice more than the doctrine.  Will I spend the bulk of my career digging out the nuances of truth taught in the Holy Book or figuring out what life looks like when daringly stepping out in faith?  Choosing the latter was a no-brainer for this man.

In the end, it mattered little to Carter whether you were Baptist or Catholic, predestinarian or free-will proponent, liberal or evangelical, etc.  What you did about it made the difference.  And if he was going to convince you to live differently, he was going to show you, not tell you.  While Graham’s teaching modus operandus was opening the Bible, Carter would just as soon teach by picking up a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity project.  Not until after he joined the civil rights movement, pardoned Vietnam War draft evaders, boycotted the Summer Olympics, and oversaw the Camp David Accords would he retire to teach Bible.  One might argue the only reason he taught Bible was because it was a more sedentary role appropriate for an aged person.

Orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Which is more important?  Ask a group of responsible believing citizens and answers will be all over the map.  But if you’re an American, I wouldn’t be surprised if your answer correlates fairly closely with your estimation of these two men.  Those who stress right belief over right practice would likely hold Billy Graham in higher esteem while those who stress right practice over right belief are likely to think more favorably of Carter.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Regardless, here we have two shining examples of what each means.  Both believed deeply and acted deeply and knew the importance of both.  But they differed in their prioritization of the two.

I had the privilege of hearing both men speak in person, President Carter at a Religious Broadcasters Convention (when they still entertained Democrats) in the late ‘70s and Billy Graham at a crusade in Baltimore and again at a question and answer session in Urbana, Ill.  I admire both, learned from both, and feel very much a part of the movements they respectively embodied.

What we believe matters.  What we do matters.  What we believe affects what we do.  That’s why it’s important.  But what we do, not what doctrinal statement or creed we say we adhere to, will ultimately reveal what we actually believe.


  1. Vickie Baldwin says

    Preach Norm! Excellent observations and a great teaching moment for me. I love Jimmy Carter. He wasn’t as well-respected as other former presidents,!I don’t believe, and that is nshame as i think he was one of very few who had nothing to be ashamed about during or after he left office. I will miss his lively and loving presence in this world.

    • Norm Gordon says

      Yes, many wonder where he was most effective: as President or afterwards. Either way, he leaves quite a legacy. I wish I had gotten to one of his Sunday School classes. – Norm

  2. Vickie Baldwin says

    Preach Norm! Excellent observations and a great teaching moment for me. I love Jimmy Carter. He wasn’t as well-respected as other former presidents,!I don’t believe, and that is a shame as i think he was one of very few who had nothing to be ashamed about during or after he left office. I will miss his lively and loving presence in this world.

  3. Marianne says

    Thanks for the comparison. I just wonder if these two prominent people of that era represent two personality styles. We need people to clarify our beliefs and values, and we also need people who put their beliefs in actions. I appreciate that they were consistent with what the core values they held dear in their hearts.

    • Norm Gordon says

      Yes, both lived their faith. It was just a matter of emphasis, in my opinion.

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