Jimmy Carter’s Endangered Values

Former president Jimmy Carter has written yet another book — his twentieth — and he has hit the media circuit in order to promote his latest project. Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis represents the former president’s return to familiar themes, even as it will add new layers of confusion concerning his actual beliefs and values.

Jimmy Carter makes one central argument in this new book, and that is that America (indeed civilization itself) is under attack by a sinister force. In effect, he argues that a new specter now haunts civilization — the specter of Christian fundamentalism.

After tracing a series of crises faced by the United States and the larger world, Mr. Carter places the blame squarely upon conservative Christians: “The most important factor is that fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree. At the same time, these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state.” That’s quite an argument, but those familiar with Jimmy Carter’s mode of public engagement will understand that this is merely the expansion (and repetition) of what the former president has been saying ever since the American people denied him a second term in the Oval Office.

Those who would wish to take Jimmy Carter and his ideas seriously will find little assistance in this book. More than anything else, it represents a superficial complaint against conservative Christianity. He offers a caricature of conservative evangelicals, even as he redefines basic Christian doctrines in order to conform to his own worldview. He criticizes fundamentalists for simplistic and superficial convictions, while he offers superficial and simplistic assessments of urgent moral questions.

What exactly is Jimmy Carter against? The “fundamentalism” he so vehemently attacks is, according to his own definition, represented by movements that “almost invariably” 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.” Furthermore, Mr. Carter argues that “fundamentalists usually believe that the past is better than the present,” even as they wish to retain “certain self-beneficial aspects of both their historic religious beliefs and of the modern world.”

Beyond all this, Mr. Carter argues that fundamentalists “are militant in fighting against any challenge to their beliefs.” Accordingly, fundamentalists are likely to be angry and abusive against those who oppose their goals.

Most interestingly, Mr. Carter argues that fundamentalists err when they “draw clear distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil.” The most amazing aspect of that assertion is Mr. Carter’s own moralism, both as president and as America’s globe-trotting ex-president. Even in Our Endangered Values, Mr. Carter continues the pattern of arguing that others are wrong when they assert that he is wrong. But, according to his own emphatic assertion and self-analysis, he is right and others are simply wrong. One gains the quick impression that they are mostly wrong because they consider Mr. Carter to be wrong.

As to his own worldview, Mr. Carter reveals: “In the religious realm, I shall depend on the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the words and actions of Jesus Christ. On political issues, I shall rely as much as possible on my own personal experiences and observations.”

What exactly are the “values” that Mr. Carter believes to be so endangered? For one thing, Mr. Carter argues that fundamentalists are primarily responsible for the raging controversies that now mark America’s public life. As he sees it, America is being ripped apart by the fundamentalists who push their concerns about abortion, marriage, homosexuality, and other issues in the public square. Since these conservative Christians are driven by their own Christian convictions, Mr. Carter argues that their favored positions represent a violation of one of his most cherished values — the separation of church and state.

Once again, readers of Our Endangered Values will be frustrated if they are looking for Mr. Carter’s own understanding of how church and state should be related. He offers no serious or coherent theory, but merely affirms “what Thomas Jefferson espoused as ‘a wall of separation between church and state.'” As he would surely remind those he criticizes in his newest book, an assertion does not amount to an argument.

In actuality, Mr. Carter offers few examples of exactly what he finds to be an unacceptable mixing of church and state. He offers a glancing blow at President Bush’s “faith-based initiatives,” (an issue that truly requires serious evaluation), but he centers his most direct criticism on the fact that “right-wing Christians” have been criticizing the federal court system.

How, exactly, should an individual’s Christian convictions affect public service and public policy? Mr. Carter does not offer any substantial approach to deciding this matter. Furthermore, he admits: “Despite what I consider to be a constitutional and biblical requirement for the separation of church and state, I must acknowledge that my own religious beliefs have been inextricably entwined with the political principles I have adopted.” Readers of Mr. Carter’s new book must be forgiven for thinking that religious beliefs are fairly applied to public policy when the beliefs and policies are those favored by Mr. Carter, but not when the beliefs and policies are those favored by conservatives.

Tracing a series of moral controversies, Mr. Carter asserts that a majority of Americans believe that abortions should be legal “in all or most cases.” Of course, this is a serious misrepresentation of the data. One could just as easily argue that the vast majority of Americans reject abortion on demand. The polls are complicated and confusing, and the conclusions reached generally have everything to do with how the questions are asked. The former president also argues that Americans have grown increasingly accepting of same-sex behavior, but he offers few hints as to how he would settle the divisive issue of homosexuality. His one positive proposal is to deny homosexuals access to “marriage” while adopting civil unions as a matter of civil rights.

Mr. Carter also comes out swinging when it comes to the death penalty, noting that his years as governor of Georgia fell in the period between 1972 and 1976 when the Supreme Court had temporarily halted executions. “Some devout Christians are among the most fervent advocates of the death penalty, contradicting Jesus Christ and justifying their belief on an erroneous interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures,” he argues.

This is a fallacious argument. In the first place, Jesus Christ never condemned the death penalty. In forgiving the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered no blanket prohibition against capital punishment. Furthermore, the biblical support for capital punishment is based on a multitude of passages in both the Old and New Testaments. The biblical interpretations Mr. Carter offers are facile, simplistic, and intellectually dishonest.

The former president raises one serious and legitimate concern about the death penalty — the “extreme inequity in its employment” — and he could have called for a responsible evangelical reevaluation of capital punishment in light of the biblical teaching and contemporary application. Nevertheless, his recklessness with the biblical text undermines his point.

This is all the more problematic when it comes to Mr. Carter’s treatment of abortion. He describes this issue as “the most divisive” facing the nation. But, once again, Mr. Carter offers more confusion than clarity when it comes to his own understanding of abortion.

Just last week, The Washington Times reported that President Carter had condemned America’s abortion culture. “I have never felt that any abortion should be committed — I think that each abortion is the result of a series of errors,” Mr. Carter told reporters in Washington. “I’ve never been convinced, if you let me inject my Christianity into it, that Jesus Christ would approve abortion.”

Mr. Carter has made this argument before. In his book Living Faith, published in 1996, Mr. Carter stated: “I have never been able to believe that Jesus would have approved the taking of a human life, but the difficult question then remained: When does a fetus become a human being? My duty was to comply with the rulings of the Supreme Court, but I did everything possible to minimize the need for and attractiveness of abortions.”

In this new book, Mr. Carter offers a similar argument: “I am convinced that every abortion is an unplanned tragedy, brought on by a combination of human errors, and this has been one of the most difficult moral and political issues I’ve had to face. As president, I accepted my obligation to enforce the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, and at the same time attempted in every way possible to minimize the number of abortions-through legal restrictions, prevention of unwanted pregnancies, the encouragement of expectant women to give birth, and the promotion of foster parenthood.”

This position would be sufficiently problematic in itself, but it doesn’t even represent an accurate analysis of Mr. Carter’s own public positions on the issue.

As Peter G. Bourne, a former White House Special Assistant to President Carter, explains in his book Jimmy Carter: “Early in his term as governor, Carter had strongly supported family planning programs including abortion. He had written the foreword to a book, Women in Need, that favored a woman’s right to abortion. He had given private encouragement to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit, Doe v. Bolton, filed against the state of Georgia to overturn its archaic abortion laws.” Beyond this, he hired Sarah Weddington, the lead attorney who argued for abortion in Roe v.Wade, as a White House staffer. Clearly, this calls into question Mr. Carter’s assertion that he has always opposed abortion. Further, if he opposes abortion now, what is he willing to do about it? His new book certainly offers no hope that he would now call for a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Some of the most vitriolic language in Our Endangered Values concerns Mr. Carter’s criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention and its leadership. Understandably, Mr. Carter blames conservative evangelicals in general — and the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in particular — for his devastating loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Indeed, the very evangelicals who had celebrated Mr. Carter’s election in 1976 abandoned him in 1980 — and for what they saw as compelling reasons.

Over the last several years, Mr. Carter has repeatedly declared his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention (a departure made all the more eccentric by the fact that individuals are not members of the Southern Baptist Convention in the first place) and he continues his criticism of the convention’s leadership even now.

Most specifically, he condemns the Southern Baptist Convention for adopting a revised version of its confession of faith, arguing that the new version has substituted the authority of convention leaders for the authority of Christ. Clearly, here is a real debate that could have emerged out of his criticism. Nevertheless, Mr. Carter just misrepresents the convention’s action.

I was a member of the committee that proposed the revision, and I would be glad to clarify for Mr. Carter what exactly the revisions represent. Nevertheless, Mr. Carter’s chief complaint is that the confession of faith was “imposed as a mandatory creed on all convention officers, employees, deans and professors of colleges and seminaries, and even missionaries who were serving in foreign countries.” He insists that this was “unprecedented” as the convention sought to fulfill its responsibility to assure the churches of the doctrinal integrity of convention employees.

Of course, this action was anything but “unprecedented.” As a matter of fact, the convention had advised its agencies to establish personnel policies in accordance with the confession of faith as far back as 1969. If the moderate convention leaders Mr. Carter prefers had fulfilled the explicit directives of the convention, the conservative resurgence that Mr. Carter so laments would never have happened in the first place.

On the issue of women in the church, Mr. Carter has been a strong proponent of women as pastors. He dismisses the biblical concerns about this by admitting that, while the Apostle Paul clearly precluded this practice, this just indicates “his departure from Jesus’ example and a strong bias against women.” He insists that he does not mean to claim that biblical texts are in error or contradictory, but that some texts can be understood as dealing only with “local circumstances within a troubled early church congregation.” Nevertheless, Paul’s clearest instructions were not addressed to a specific congregation in conflict, but to Timothy on behalf of the whole church. “There is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women,” he asserts: “he treated them as equal to men.” This may sound like a self-evident truth, for Jesus did treat women with equal respect, equal concern, and equal standing before the gospel. Nevertheless, Jesus did not call a woman to serve as an apostle, nor as one of the Twelve. Equality is not contradicted by complementarity.

In an interesting comment, Mr. Carter recently offered a bit of self-analysis, observing: “I can’t deny that I’m a better ex-president than I was a president.” Without doubt, President Carter and his wife Rosalynn have done much good. The work of The Carter Center in leading the fight against diseases such as Guinea Worm and Trachoma has been exemplary. I will let others debate the former president’s post-term adventures in foreign policy, but I have no doubt that he means to do good and to do well. I also have no doubt that he is a thoughtful and intelligent man, and that he means to be a serious Christian.

Nevertheless, in this new book, Mr. Carter delivers a broadside attack on conservative Christians, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, and those who believe that abortion, homosexuality, secularism, and a host of other issues represent clear and present challenges to the witness of the church. He is surely right to argue that the Bible would broaden our range of concerns beyond these most controversial issues; but he is surely wrong to dismiss our responsibility to maintain a faithful biblical witness where controversy is inevitable.

Mr. Carter’s moderately liberal theology (more liberal than moderate or more moderate than liberal, depending on his various statements) puts him at odds with the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and with the biblical convictions held by millions of American evangelicals. Mr. Carter has chosen to make this a public issue by writing and releasing this book. This was his decision.

Our Endangered Values is not a call for discussion or dialogue. It is not an exercise in seeking understanding. Instead, this book is a political and theological call to arms. Nevertheless, it does serve to illustrate the chasm that now grows ever larger between conservative Christians and those who would offer a more “moderate” understanding of the Christian faith. President Carter and those he opposes in this book agree on one thing — our values are endangered. We just disagree about what those values are and how they are endangered. That’s no small disagreement.