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The Rev. Eugene Stockstill

Way back in the 1970s, two famous political figures brought the phrase “born again” to the forefront of American cultural consciousness. Yes, Rev. Billy Graham trod the sawdust trail almost every day of the year. Yes, the “Jesus Freaks” were everywhere, owning little more than the clothes on their backs. And yes, a wave of charismatic outpouring was gushing. But it took two nonreligious personalities to whet the popular culture’s interest in what the New Testament calls new birth.

Charles Colson, self-described as “Nixon’s hatchet man,” was one of the convicts from the Watergate era. Colson emerged from federal prison saying he was a changed man, and he published “Born Again,” a book about the change. He also started an organization called Prison Fellowship, a Christian mission for inmates that continues to this day. By the time he died, Colson’s most ardent political enemies admitted that he was not the same person he had been before he went to prison.

Jimmy Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer who became the most powerful man in the world, made headlines when he described himself as “born again”; he also confessed in print that he had struggled with lustful thoughts in his journey of faith. To this day, the most ultra-conservative will usually say two things about former president Carter: He is a good man, and the fact that he is a good man made it extra-difficult for him to be president. Carter has continued to work for Habitat for Humanity well into his 90s.

Those testimonies gave birth to a renewed cultural description that most still reference: “The born-again Christian.” It seems a shame that those two men’s histories would result in yet another sub-category of religious experience, especially since the phrase makes it sound like you might be able to be a follower of Jesus without some sort of spiritual rebirth. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

The Rev. Eugene Stockstill is pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church and Myrtle United Methodist Church in Union County.

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