November 21, 2005

Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:05 pm

Early this year, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis was the first of its kind: an authentically Christian yet unabashedly liberal manifesto. Wallis’s book gave us a new vocabulary: religion as “personal, but never private”, the conservatives’ Jesus as “pro-war, pro-rich and only pro-American”, and liberals under the sway of “secular fundamentalists”.

God’s Politics put progressive Christians on the map, and more importantly, sold well, ensuring that a new wave of progressive Christian books would get the green light from publishers. Two of those books have arrived: Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter, and How the Republicans Stole Christmas by Bill Press. I’ve just finished Jimmy Carter’s book, and Bill Press’s book is next on my list.

Jimmy Carter is arguably this country’s greatest ex-President. The Carter Center is best known as an international election monitor, but it also sponsors programs to work for peace, sustainable development, human rights and health care around the world. Of course he is also an evangelical Christian and a Sunday school teacher in his Baptist church in Plains, Georgia. The motivation for his good works is his devout Christian faith.

I’ve read about the conservative take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention from bloggers such as Bruce Prescott. Jimmy Carter describes it too (pp 33-34):

For generations, leaders within my own church and denomination had described themselves as “fundamentalists,” claiming that they were clinging to the fundamental elements of our Baptist beliefs and resisting the pressures and influence of the modern world. This inclination to “cling to unchanging principles” is an understandable and benign aspect of religion, and a general attitude that I have shared during most of my life.

I soon learned that there was a more intense form of fundamentalism, with some prevailing characteristics:

  • Almost invariably, fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.
  • Although fundamentalists usually believe that the past is better than the present, they retain certain self-beneficial aspects of both their historic religious beliefs and the modern world.
  • Fundamentalists draw clear distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and that anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil.
  • Fundamentalists are militant in fighting against any challenge to their beliefs. They are often angry and sometimes resort to verbal or even physical abuse against those who interfere with the implementation of their agenda.
  • Fundamentalists tend to make their self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted, to isolate themselves, to demagogue emotional issues, and to view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness.

To summarize, there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism: rigidity, domination, and exclusion.

Baptists have traditionally been non-credal, and their emphasis has always been on a relationship with Christ rather than a belief in a creed about Christ. But in 2000 the SBC adopted a revised statement of “Baptist Faith and Message”, which became the required creed of the SBC. Other departures from Baptist tradition included abandoning the separation of church and state, domination by male clergy and a loss of local church autonomy. These and other changes finally drove Carter and his wife from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Carter’s personal story of his faith and his denomination is the most compelling part of the book, but he makes the rounds of domestic policies and foreign affairs. He explains how he differs from the new conservative Christian orthodoxy regarding intelligent design (against it), separation of church and state (for it), civil unions (“comfortable” with it), abstinence-only sex education (against it), the death penalty (against it), women’s rights (for it), the Iraq war (against it), drilling in ANWR (against it), Kyoto (for it) and the Millenium development goals (for it). But more than a list of policy recommendations, Carter provides a condemnation of the Bush administration and conservative fellow-travelers. He extends his definition of “fundamentalist” to include political as well as religious fundamentalists based on the traits I’ve quoted above. He describes how the neocon, tax cut and pro-corporate fundamentalists in the administration and Congress are as much to blame as the religious fundamentalists for the disastrous policies of the Republicans.

Carter is particularly convincing (and frightening) when he turns to the foreign policy of the Bush administration, whose policies have encouraged nuclear proliferation, condoned torture, and destroyed the good will we enjoyed after 9/11. His condemnation of the policy of preemptive war, as realized in Iraq, should make every American shudder. Carter shows how America has pursued an immoral foreign policy with the abrogation of international treaties and the adoption of an arrogant and destructive diplomacy.

As a former President, Jimmy Carter’s critiques are credible and compelling. As an evangelical, they carry the moral weight of his Christian faith. With this book, Carter pushes the progressive Christian agenda forward admirably.

14 Comments

  1. Jimmy Carter is arguably this country’s greatest ex-President.

    I could not agree with you more and I really want to read that book. I love Jimmy Carter!

    Comment by Angel — November 22, 2005 @ 8:28 am

  2. God bless him!

    Comment by wildwest — November 22, 2005 @ 10:09 am

  3. […] In Our Endangered Values, Jimmy Carter writes the way he speaks: in a calm, measured tone, building his case against Bush and the Republicans brick by brick without ever raising his voice. This style makes Carter’s criticisms all the more compelling. In How the Republicans Stole Christmas, Bill Press also writes the way he speaks, and his tone is anything but measured and calm. You can hear him raising his voice, sighing and shaking his head on every page, but without ever being shrill. Press’s style is as effective for Press as Carter’s is for Carter, but fasten your seat belts! For example, when talking about Bob Jones’s letter to Bush after his “election” to the presidency in 2000, Press says: I don’t know about you, but that letter ticks me off. I’m a liberal. I’m a Christian. I didn’t vote for George W. Bush. How dare that small-time college president—who got his job only because he inherited it—tell me I despise Jesus Christ? From what I read in his letter, he wouldn’t know Jesus Christ if he fell over Him. […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » Bill Press: How the Republicans Stole Christmas — November 30, 2005 @ 8:01 pm

  4. Jimmy Carter’s book is awesome and YES he may be the greatest president of our time … maybe of ANY time. I also like to remember the POWERFUL speech he gave at the Democratic Convention in Boston recently. He does not tiptoe through the issues but sees the big picture and take the giant steps. Proud to have worked in both his Presidential election campaigns!

    Comment by Dr. Marilyn Naito — December 3, 2005 @ 12:02 pm

  5. Required Reading

    Required Reading
    Catch up on these important books this Christmas—and be sure to share.
    By Bob of iamachristiantoo.org Early this year, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis was the first of its kind: an authentically Christian yet unabashedly

    Trackback by CrossLeft — December 14, 2005 @ 9:59 pm

  6. So how is Carter different than those he obviously hates?

    * Is Carter an authoritarian male who considers himself to be superior to others?
    * Does Carter believe that the past is better than the present, they retain certain self-beneficial aspects of both their historic religious beliefs and the modern world.
    * Does Carter draw clear distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and that anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil.
    * Is Carter militant in fighting against any challenge to their beliefs. They are often angry and sometimes resort to verbal or even physical abuse against those who interfere with the implementation of their agenda.
    * Does Carter to make their self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted, to isolate themselves, to demagogue emotional issues, and to view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness.

    I think I can ake a compelling arguement that Carter’s book is at least as guilty of these great sins as the folks he’s attacking.

    Comment by Dan Morrow — December 19, 2005 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Nice cut and paste job Dan, but the accusations simply don’t hold up. If you have read the
    book, you’ve missed the essentials of Carter’s personal viewpoints in a effort to defend
    the behaviors he criticizes. Carter makes clear that one of the principles that he clings
    to is the role of the Christian as a servant to his fellow human being, rather than a ruler.
    He doesn’t characterize others as being ignorant or evil, but mislead by selective
    interpretation. He is not ‘militant’ even in tone, let alone action. His point is that
    Christ was inclusive and non-judgemental in his dealings with other people and that should
    be our model.
    If you’re going to make a compelling arguement, you’ll have to first read Carter’s book more
    carefully, then cite some evidence that contradicts his premise rather than just
    accusing him of the same thing.

    Comment by kcpackrat — December 19, 2005 @ 6:04 pm

  8. Can’t wait to read his book after reading this. Have it on hold already at the library.

    Comment by L. Larson — January 3, 2006 @ 11:43 am

  9. As one who voted for Jimmy Carter twice, I’ve paid some dues to voice my outrage over his current offering.

    In his new book, President Carter sets up a straw man, the “fundamentalist,” to embody all he finds wrong with the current administration, as well as to equate his fellow Christians with Jihadists who lop off heads.

    This is a conceit for which he offers no proof, or even examples.

    Who, precisely, are the “fundamentalists” within the current administration? Dick Cheney? Paul Wolfowitz? George Bush himself? (Excuse me, but no one will mistake today’s Methodist Church for a fundamentalist enclave.)

    For liberals, like Carter, the term has become a catch-all, to tar anyone who advocates policies one dislikes.

    There was a time when “fundamentalism” referred to the doctrinal response to Darwin and the liberal theology that followed him. Its adherents have included, no doubt, good and bad men. Most contemporary observers will never know that, but will rely on the popular shorthand echoed by Carter, who ought to know better: “fundamentalist” now means evil, power-mad bigot.

    Carter’s description of his imaginary bogeyman completes the stigmatization of a once-respectable branch within Christianity. And all this from a fellow Christian.

    Shame on him.

    Comment by Bill Ireland — January 4, 2006 @ 5:28 pm

  10. I have almost finished reading Our Endangered Values and highly
    recommend it to anyone that is fed-up with the Bush
    Administration. If they and their “fundalmentalist buddies” are
    so Christ-like, where is their compassion for the poor and
    oppressed here at home and abroad? Those in this administration
    could never hold a candle to Jimmy Carter when it comes to his
    Christian actions. As my late mother said of Carter, “He was to
    good for the office of President”.

    Comment by L. O'Neill — January 16, 2006 @ 3:28 pm

  11. Just finished president Jimmy Carter’s book, “Our Endangered
    Values”. Because it discusses what is going on today in the
    US of A and gives convincing viewpoints on important topics and
    actions I am sending my son and daughter each a copy. The mass
    media not only does not give opposing viewpoints and data to what
    is being done by the new religious right and our current
    Republican regieme, it doesn’t offer enough information to make
    any kind of a value judgement. Jimmy Carter outlines the complex
    issues in easy to follow and understand prose.
    I thank him for his writting and to you for an oportunity to
    comment.

    John Wright
    Boynton Beach, FL

    Comment by John Wright — February 17, 2006 @ 10:12 am

  12. […] Carter spends much of the book discussing his own faith, and how it differs from fundamentalist movements. As a Southern Baptist, it’s fascinating to see how he distinguishes his beliefs from the Religious Right. He describes himself as an evangelical Christian, who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, with a special emphasis on the words and deeds of Christ. This leads him to certain attitudes about the sanctity of marriage, and a personal belief that abortion is wrong. But he is most emphatically not a fundamentalist. Here’s how he describes fundamentalists (from I am a Christian Too): […]

    Pingback by Word Munger » Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values — March 25, 2006 @ 11:19 am

  13. President Carter is a great encouragment to many around the world who have watched with horror as the Bush administration has abandoned the moral high ground. The sadness we feel at the loss of credibility in issues of human rights, upholding the geneva convention and promoting peace around the world is geartly diluted by the voice of Jimmy Carter and others like him. America has a duty to aspire to leadership in the spread of lofty ideals due to it’s powerful position in the world. Lets hope that President Carter will pevail in keeping those ideals alive through this dark period of world history into which President Bush has led us all.

    Comment by llew breese, vancouver, canada — May 25, 2006 @ 1:28 pm

  14. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender
    my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

    If Mr. Carter is the embodiment of progressive spiritual
    oomph, would he not love his enemies? As much as the left
    want to say that the religious right are taking everything
    over and they want to include not exclude, why do they
    not want to include the right? Because the ideologies
    are opposed…

    Comment by sparkey — August 27, 2006 @ 7:30 pm

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