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Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis
by Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster, 2005
(224 pages, $25.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Mark Tooley
I will deliberately mix religion and politics,” declares Jimmy Carter in his latest book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. Most reviews have focused on the book’s politics, which promotes standard Democratic policies. But its religious element is more revealing.
The first chief executive to speak openly of having been “born again,” Carter describes himself as an “evangelical Christian” and affirms that he depends on the Bible, as “interpreted by the words and actions of Jesus Christ.” Yet the theologians he cites—Reinhold Neibuhr, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Hans Küng—are those of a liberal mainline Protestant, not a traditional Baptist.
He praises Sojourners activist Jim Wallis, a Religious Left fixture, yet condemns his fellow Baptists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Raised Southern Baptist, Carter was “born again” after his initial defeat for the Georgia governorship shook his faith. As a teacher at his Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, he “never deviates in any appreciable way from expressing the traditional Christian beliefs,” but he laments the rise of religious “fundamentalism.”
This fundamentalism, now dominant in his (now former) denomination, is characterized by “rigidity, domination, and exclusion.” As examples, and with equal distress, he cites the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran and the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Christian Right has injected “divisive social questions,” such as “sexual preference,” into American political discourse. Christian conservatives hold up homosexual people to “public condemnation and ridicule” in pursuit of their “narrow political agenda.” A “few shrewd political demagogues” are even promoting a marriage amendment to the Constitution. He endorses “civil unions” for same-sex couples and letting churches define “holy matrimony,” without saying what he prefers for his own church.
He recalls that he upheld Roe v. Wade as president while also urging alternatives to abortion, and now writes that he favors contraceptive education for under-age youth. He seems to favor government funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. As an example of “fundamentalism” encroaching on government, he cites the congressional efforts to keep Terry Schiavo alive.
Carter is no happier when he turns to more particularly religious matters. He bemoans the new Southern Baptist policy of (in his words) “keeping women in their place,” which encouraged him to sever his ties with his lifelong denomination.
But his target appears to be any church that does not ordain women. “It is ironic that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of leadership but are deprived of the right to serve Jesus Christ in positions of leadership as they did during his earthly ministry and in the early Christian churches,” Carter writes in a good example of his theological argumentation.
Carter’s “born-again” experience helped to mainstream religious talk back into American public discourse, and Evangelicals, especially in the South, helped to elect him in 1976. But his administration’s liberal policies on social issues enraged many of them, and in a sense, the creation of the Religious Right and its identification with the Republican party can be credited to Carter. Evangelicals overwhelmingly shifted course and supported Ronald Reagan.
Undoubtedly, Carter feels betrayed by Evangelicals who deserted him politically and by traditional Baptists who asserted control over his own Southern Baptist Convention. He lumps these personal foes together as “fundamentalists” and ascribes to them almost all the political developments of the last 25 years of which he disapproves, especially his own political defeats and marginalization.
Carter’s Christian faith is no doubt deep and sincere, if not always rooted in sound theology. And while he throws a lot of stones at Christians of whom he disapproves for being “narrow,” he has his own fairly strict test of What Jesus Would Do. Not surprisingly, Carter’s Jesus has firm views on Global Warming, opposes all capital punishment, and has great confidence in the United Nations.
In theology, as in politics, Carter is more closely aligned with liberal mainline Protestantism than with mainstream Evangelical thought. Perhaps Evangelicals turned against him because they felt betrayed by him politically in the same way that they, or at least many of them, had been theologically betrayed by their own denominations.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.