Our Endangered Values

Jimmy Carter is often referred to as America’s most successful former president. Perhaps he is; the activities and interests he pursues through the Carter Center in Atlanta with Roslyn Carter and a staff of 150 are certainly above and beyond the calling of ex-presidents. Carter works at everything from election monitoring for international organizations and house building with Habitat for Humanity to disease eradication and agricultural reform in Africa. There’s more: he fosters civic-square projects in Atlanta, teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in his home town of Plains, Georgia, and regularly turns out bestselling novels, memoirs, and politically engaged volumes like Our Endangered Values. With the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt, few men have left the presidency with Carter’s commitment to pursue the ideas and policies he supported in office.

But the compliment-America’s most successful former president-is two-edged, mockingly voiced by those who judge the Carter administration a failure domestically (think stagflation) and internationally (recall the failed rescue of American hostages in Iran). In the critics’ view, this afterlife as ex-president far exceeds his performance in office. In fact, Carter carried out some impressive about-faces from the Nixon-Ford era of covert military adventures, illegal intelligence gathering, and tolerance of overseas human-rights abuses (many of the practices now resurrected by the Bush-Cheney administration). Furthermore, as the tone and temper of this book remind us, Carter was a decent, plain-spoken politician sandwiched between the hypocrisy of Richard Nixon and the spin of Ronald Reagan.

Our Endangered Values is a plea to all of us to reject the departure of the Bush administration from basic American policies and practices, and a rejoinder to the exodus of religious conservatives from the true values of “fundamentalism.” In a chapter describing his Baptist beliefs and early evangelical missionary activities, Carter offers a brief account of his upbringing among the kind of Protestants who have become key to Republican dominance in Washington. “For generations,” he writes, “leaders within my own church and denomination had described themselves as ‘fundamentalists’...clinging to the fundamental elements of our Baptist beliefs and resisting the pressures and influence of the modern world.” This once seemed to Carter a “benign aspect of religion.” But today, he describes the more “intense form of fundamentalism” that has emerged as rigid, dominating, and exclusionary, and sharply distances himself and his religious beliefs from it. The Southern Baptist Convention-Carter’s own tradition and a major promoter of this intense fundamentalism-is, he says, part of “a parallel right-wing movement within American politics.” He considers this dangerous for the country and contrary to basic Baptist tenets.

In light of his own understanding of Scripture, Carter analyzes controversies about science and religion; church and state; homosexuality, divorce, and abortion; the role of women in the family and society; foreign policy; weapons proliferation; preemptive war; and the environment. In concise chapters, he makes a political case for more centrist policies and contests the specific readings of Scripture that have led many of his coreligionists into the grand coalition in which “narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.”

Catholics do not traditionally turn to Scripture as their first source in determining the specifics of public policy. So Carter’s arguments employing the same biblical proof-texting of those he criticizes (though in favor of different, often diametrically opposed, policies) will seem alien and perhaps counterproductive to the more philosophically inclined. But given the book’s several weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, his argument may have real resonance in those communities where the Bible is the gold standard of political argument. For the rest of us, there is the sobering reminder that a temperate and honest occupant in the Oval Office can go a long way in serving the American political system while holding serious and distinctive religious beliefs.

Published in the 2006-03-10 issue: 
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Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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