Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values

One of the things I’ve always admired about Jimmy Carter is his unshakeable sense of values. He was so committed to them that many people consider it to be one of his failings as president. Think about the terrorist act he presided over as president — the Iran hostage crisis — and his handling of it compared to how Dubya might have. We would have invaded Iran nearly 30 years ago. I wonder what the world would look like today if we had done that. I suppose all we’ll have to do is wait another 20 years or so and we’ll find out!

Carter probably lost his second term as president over Iran, but it’s really hard to imagine another approach that would have worked better. Three years ago, on the brink of the Iraq war, Carter wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, which I recall reading at the time, predicting all sorts of potential problems if we invaded Iraq. He reprints the entire piece in his book Our Endangered Values, as a sort of summation of everything he stands for. At the time, the piece seemed rather quaint — did Carter really believe that the best approach with thugs like Saddam was diplomacy? But it turned out, he was right — the war itself would be easily won, but the peace afterwards would be a mess. Why destroy our relationship with our allies over an impotent little mideast dictator?

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):

  • 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.

He summarizes these characteristics as in this way “there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism: rigidity, domination, and exclusion.”

By contrast, Carter’s faith is much more personal, emphasizing prayer and a commitment to follow only Christ. Carter is especially appalled at the recent fundamentalist intrusion into government; when the Southern Baptist convention began requiring worshippers to support the church leadership’s political positions in the year 2000, he and his wife abandoned it. But Carter still gives Bible lessons most Sundays at his home church in Plains, Georgia, free and open to anyone who shows up — even Jews and Muslims (he doesn’t say anything about atheists, but I bet I’d be able to sneak in).

This, to me, along with his analysis of U.S. foreign policy, is the strength of his book. Much of the rest of it seems to me to be an attempt at vindication of his presidency, with not much substance relevant to what’s going on in the world today.

Like most Democratic politicians, Carter says he is personally opposed to abortion but does not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, along with the usual “sex education,” yadda yadda, “reduce the number of abortions,” yadda yadda. The problem with this position is it doesn’t sell well. Trying to “reduce the number of abortions,” if you’re really opposed to them, is sort of like saying “let’s keep illiteracy at a tolerable level.” The candidate who’s got the guts to say he’ll “end illiteracy” is going to win every time, even if his claim is completely unrealistic.

I think the way to go on this issue — if you’re a politician — is to argue loudly and frequently how you’re going to “end unsafe sex.” The large number of abortions in this country is a health problem, but the way to solve it is to vigorously teach the public how to avoid unsafe sex. If people try to pin you down on whether you “support abortion,” you can say you support necessary medical procedures, but that doesn’t mean you support the conditions they treat. You’re not in favor of unwanted pregnancies, and unlike your opponent, you’re prepared to do everything you can to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. You realize, however, that some unwanted pregnancies will inevitably occur, whether due to rape, incest, carelessness, or failure of birth control, and you don’t want the government to impose solutions for those sad circumstances, no matter how they occur. You want to focus on effective ways to minimize the problem, not restricting solutions.

Carter’s logic is the shakiest when he tries to argue that he’s in support of stem cell research, but still believes abortion is wrong. Carter actually advocates a bizarre program to garner stem cells only from fertility clinics, after the parents have had as many children as they want — as if somehow only those stem cells which were created in the attempt to have a baby are “good,” and it would be “wrong” to create stem cells solely to use to try to cure disease. As far as I can tell, the only logically consistent view in this regard (if you claim that “killing” a fertilized egg is “murder”) would be to advocate banning all “test tube babies” as well as all stem cell research. You’d also have to round up a whole host of women to serve as surrogate mothers to “save” the hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs which already exist in fertility clinics.

For me, Carter’s book is a demonstration of the problem with having blind faith in an old, contradictory set of writings. Why not just try to figure out what’s really right and wrong for yourself, instead of letting a bunch of ancient myths decide for you? It might be better than letting Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson tell you, but not by much.

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2 Responses to Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values

  1. Michele says:

    I’ve always loved Jimmy Carter, but I can’t buy into the literal truth of the Bible. Of course, I was raised by a scripture scholar, so the question of translation is a big part of that.

    I think the “old, contradictory set of writings” slash “bunch of ancient myths” have been very significant to how our Western civilization has developed its sense of right and wrong. What is right and wrong has a lot to do with the cultural norms and “collective conscience” of any given society, don’t you think?

    Whether or not the “truth” of the Bible as the “word of God” exists for any given American, it has already shaped our sensibility of what is right and wrong. What the individual chooses as right and wrong for him or her self is limited by the social construct, and is not as free as the non-Bible reader might hope.

    I think the old myths are useful because they show us patterns of human behavior and proffer warnings against over-confidence, arrogance, and greed. Contemporary fiction and fairy tales and personal essays can do the same thing, of course. But there are more copies of the Bible in print than any other book in the world, right? At least those myths and that cast of characters are something many of us recognize and wrestle with and argue about and discuss.

    I think that the decisions of “right and wrong” are best made in community. That way, people are less tempted to convince themselves that they can come up with all the answers on their own. Who would want to try to have all the answers, anyway? In addition, when the Bible is used as a point of reference for people, it offers a focal point for discussion and discernment. What about Paul? Why was he so excited about those letters, anyway?

    And I think faith that is blind is dumb. Faith that is examined and tested and wrestled with is much better.

    I completely respect the fact that you don’t believe the Bible is “the word of God” or that God exists, but you have to admit that a book that is so popular might have a few worthy things to say.

    Just my two cents.

  2. dave says:

    I completely respect the fact that you don’t believe the Bible is “the word of God” or that God exists, but you have to admit that a book that is so popular might have a few worthy things to say.

    My problem with the Bible isn’t so much that it doesn’t have worthy things to say, my problem is people who claim the Bible takes precedence over every other book. Some of the things Jesus says and does, particularly his non-miraculous acts, to me are quite inspiring.

    But it’s odd that so many revere this book that has so many contradictions, and so much that people ignore. For example, the ten commandments are nice, but later in the same section of Exodus, are rules such as “whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death.” There are rules about buying and selling slaves, including how to sell your daughter, and so on. The New Testament is a little more consistent, but still, if I held the Bible to the same standards I held any other book, it’d be in the trash bin.

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