Sunday, December 11, 2005

Carter on our Fundamentalist brethren, including Bush, etc.

Ex-president takes on fundamentalists, Bush

By Paul Prather
posted December 11, 2005

Among the more thought-provoking books I've happened across this year is Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.

Whatever your political or religious leanings, you ought to read it.

In meticulous detail, Carter takes on the combined wisdom of the "fundamentalist" (Carter's word) leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the present Bush administration, arguing that both groups' policies, despite being cloaked in the Christian and American flags, are in fact neither Christian nor traditionally American.

He also argues that the Bush administration's actions are unwise diplomatically and economically. He offers a blizzard of statistics to buttress his criticisms.

Historians and political pundits tend to view Carter as a mediocre president. Yet he has become, in the 25 years since he left office, our finest ex-president. He's founded the Carter Center, which helps resolve international and sectarian disputes and provides humanitarian support to starving people abroad. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize. He's championed Habitat for Humanity.

Carter always has maintained that his political tenets and good works are propelled by his lifelong Baptist faith and diligent study of the Bible.

He's been a Sunday school teacher in rural Georgia churches for decades, both before and after his term in the White House. He describes himself as a "conservative" (again, his word), born-again, evangelical Christian.

I'll give him this. He knows the Scriptures inside out. I'd hate to engage him in a Bible debate. He not only quotes from the Sermon on the Mount, he cites with equal facility the Old Testament's obscure minor prophets.

In Our Endangered Values, Carter writes in favor of -- surprisingly, considering he's a Democrat -- a principle dear to conservative Republicans. He says the values passed down to him by his evangelical ancestors and the values historically espoused by the U.S. government are in essence not only compatible, but nearly identical.

Carter believes in the peaceful resolution of disputes whenever possible, the choosing of war only as a last resort, and the merciful treatment of prisoners. He's for the separation of church and state; equal rights for all humans regardless of their nationality, religion or gender; the freedom of individuals to work out their own relationships with God; programs that feed and educate the poor.

He praises the commitments of past Republican presidents to many of these same ideals: Eisenhower, Reagan, the senior George Bush.

But he's unrelentingly critical of two prominent groups.

First, he says, fundamentalists who seized the Southern Baptist Convention have abolished its basic premises. They've replaced the Baptists' old dogma that in matters of faith people answer only to God and their own consciences with a narrow, man-written creed to which professors and missionaries must swear allegiance if they hope to keep their jobs. They've made women second-class Christians. They don't tolerate dissent.

Carter and his wife have left the Southern Baptist Convention in protest.

Second, this same worldview, he believes, fuels the larger Religious Right, which now effectively controls the White House -- and thus dictates America's domestic and foreign policies. The Bush administration, he says, sneers at negotiations and wise compromises, believing it carries a mandate from God and the people to act as it pleases.

Carter is galled by what he says is our new doctrine of pre-emptive war, which holds that the United States will attack other nations unilaterally if it perceives them as even a possible threat. That, Carter says, is a major rupture with biblical teachings and 200 years of American practice.

He's similarly disgusted by the administration's having embraced brutal interrogation methods for prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, this violates Christian admonitions and longstanding U.S. policy, he says.

Carter addresses other issues: anti-poverty programs, the death penalty, abortion, tax cuts. His arguments are at the same time passionately religious and coolly logical.

Ultimately, he seems to think that a truly Christian philosophy of leadership (or his interpretation of what Christian leadership should look like) is also the most effective in navigating the real-world problems of national and international politics.

I doubt you'll agree with everything the 39th president says. I didn't. But if you take your faith seriously -- or take your government seriously -- you'd do well to read Our Endangered Values, ponder it and debate it.

Former Herald-Leader religion writer Paul Prather is a Mount Sterling minister and author of three books. Reach him at


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