Republicans have so relentlessly branded Democrats as secular humanists that it’s important to remember that the vast majority of voters who define themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” also say that they are people of faith. Given this, it’s interesting that while Democrats are frantically seeking a moral identity, they largely ignore the most prominent Christian in their party, Jimmy Carter.
The former president’s latest book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis is full of insights that Democratic leaders could take advantage of. Although organized by chapters, Carter’s tome actually consists of two informative essays: The first is the 39th president’s view of the highjacking of American Christianity by fundamentalist demagogues. The second reviews the ill-considered policies of the Bush administration. Carter links the two, noting that the combination has savagely altered the fabric of American politics. “Fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government,” he writes, “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.”
Carter had a ringside seat at the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Nonetheless, he is not bitter. His observations stand in stark contrast to the invective we’ve come to expect from right-wing preachers like Pat Robertson, who once remarked, “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.”
The former President describes those who are threatening mainstream Christianity as zealots who aver, “Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong.” Their distinguishing characteristics are, he writes, “rigidity, domination, and exclusion.” Carter first became aware of fundamentalists when the new leader of the Southern Baptist Convention told him at the end of his term, “we are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.” He studied American fundamentalism and found that it impacted both theological and secular issues. In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention changed the locus of spiritual authority, a “substitution of Southern Baptist leaders for [the spirit of] Jesus as the interpreters of biblical Scripture.” Next came “almost total dominance of Baptist pastors over laypersons.” Then followed a policy of open “discrimination against women.” And finally, a plan to take over national politics. Carter quotes Robertson on the principle of separation of church and state: “There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
“There is obviously a widespread, carefully planned, and unapologetic crusade under way from both sides,” Carter observes, “to merge fundamentalist Christians with the right wing of the Republican Party.”
Carter is not analytical. He doesn’t provide a systemic overview of fundamentalism, and makes no attempt to describe the factors that have fueled its growth in the United States. For a thorough study, readers might pick up Jean Hardisty’s excellent 2000 Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Nonetheless, Carter does provide a moving personal account of how the Christian right changed America’s socio-political landscape.
In the last half of Our Endangered Values, he explores how fundamentalists’ tendancy “to choose certain emotion issues for demagoguery and to avoid negotiation with dissenters has adversely affected American foreign policy.” He is particularly angry about the “war on terror,” strongly criticizing the Patriot Act and expressing outrage at the abuse committed in the network of U.S. military prisons. Carter laments that our use of torture “has brought discredit on our country,” and feels that there has been “a high-level, broad-based, and deliberate change in U.S. policy, abandoning or lowering our long-standing commitment to protect fundamental human rights within our nation and throughout the world.”
But the 39th President saves his strongest words for the Iraq war. “It became apparent after the presidential election in 2000 that some of our new political leaders were determined to attack Iraq. With false and distorted claims after 9/11, they misled the U.S. Congress and the American public,” he writes. Labeling the war “unjust and unnecessary,” he opines that our policy in Iraq has increased the likelihood of another terrorist attack. However, Carter doesn’t say what we should be doing. He concludes, “There is no doubt that America must accomplish its fundamental objectives before withdrawing.” This illustrates the weakness of the policy section of the book; Carter dislikes what the Bush administration is doing but doesn’t respond to their mistakes with positive alternatives.
In fact, when it comes to George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter is too tactful to state what seems painfully obvious. That the attitude of “rigidity, domination, and exclusion” associated with Christian fundamentalists is the dominant characteristic of the Bush White House. That the foreign and domestic policies that Carter criticizes are the result of Administration dogmatism and arrogance. When Democrats deplore the attitude of George Bush and cronies, they are making a statement about fundamentalism in America. Democratic leaders, who seem to regard taking strong position against Christian fundamentalism as a violation of the separation of church and state – when it is actually a defense of that principle – overlook this.
Carter holds a largely ceremonial position within the Democratic Party. Yet, the former president still has a lot to offer. He’s the party’s most visible progressive Christian at a time when Democrats are desperately trying to shake their “secular humanist” label. More than that, he is one of the few party elders who combine experience, wisdom, and tolerance. For these reasons, Our Endangered Moral Values is a disappointment. Carter could be enumerating what progressive moral values are, and proposing a positive Democratic agenda. Instead, he seems content to complain about how badly things have gone since he left the presidency.