ATLANTA — Jimmy Carter may never have been president if he didn't go square dancing.
The Georgia Democrat credits a rural square dance club he joined in 1953 with helping him win a state Senate seat by a scant 66 votes.
"If I hadn't received support from our square-dancing friends, I would have lost and never become a state senator," he wrote in his latest book, "Through the Years with Jimmy Carter." "And if that had occurred, I never would have run for office again."
Carter has penned 26 different books, including childhood memoirs, treatises on the Middle East and accounts of his presidency. But none are like his latest, which offers 366 devotionals, each with a biblical passage, a personal story and an original prayer.
The one-page items are sprinkled with lessons Carter gleaned from more than 30 years of teaching Sunday school classes and anecdotes from his country upbringing to his ascent to the White House and beyond.
"The totality of my teaching presents a view of a lay person. I'm not a theologian," he said in an interview. "I'm extracting real messages from the Bible or from Christian faith that apply to daily existence and that's applicable whether you're a farmer, a journalist, a lawyer, a teacher or a political office holder."
In the book, Carter is open about struggles over his own faith. He writes that he felt "despondent and alienated from God" after losing his first bid for Georgia's governor in 1966, and said his wife Rosalynn went through a rough patch when he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. But he said he retrenched during those dark times and worked to remind himself of the role religion has played in his life.
"If there is no basis for our faith ... then how do we account for the presence of Jesus Christ in hundreds of millions of lives across the globe?" he wrote in the book. "How could Jesus still be alive to me? How could so many hearts be touched and minds stimulated by Jesus to seek ultimate truths about life and the world around us?"
His book casts some political debates with religious overtones. He condemns the Patriot Act and waterboarding, writing that Christians "cannot keep silent just because the injustice doesn't affect our own families or friends." And he said it would be "foolish" for the devout to deny global warming.
"While we may disagree on the causes or rate of global warming, shouldn't we all agree that we have a responsibility to take care of the Earth?"
Carter is also candid about some of his shortcomings, such as his lack of patience, his penchant for jealousy and his fights with his wife over trivial issues. One year, when he forgot her birthday, he hastily scrawled out a note to give to her, and it turned out to be one of her favorite gifts. It read: "I promise that I will never make another unfavorable comment about tardiness."
Spread throughout the book are history lessons, with insights over the ancient tensions between Jews and Christians, the roles of politicians and prophets in Biblical times, and the impact of martyrs and apostles on Christianity's spread across the globe. He tells those stories with a healthy dose of jokes he's heard from the pulpit and the White House.
In one passage, he said his brother Billy was on his death bed when he told a friend he had carried out a long affair with the friend's wife.
"His friend's face dropped. The man gulped a couple of times — and then Billy laughed and said, 'No, I'm just joking.' That was Billy.'"
In another passage, Carter mentions a USA Today poll question that probes readers on what they would ask if they came face-to-face with God. Carter didn't say what his answer would be in the book, but in an interview he said he would ask about Christ's role in the creation of the universe. He said he would not, however, waste a question asking about life after death.
"I'm supposed to have complete faith in life after death as a Christian who has, I would guess, as strong faith in Christ as possible," he said, adding: "I'd rather be surprised."
Carter said he hopes the book will help send the message that "God calls us to live out our faith." He urges readers to keep their religion in mind, reach out to new people and enjoy an expansive life. After all, he writes, he never would have guessed that square dancing would have helped him win an election.
"Rosalynn and I enjoyed the square dancing — but we've probably enjoyed a lot more what's happened since," he wrote. "You just never know."