Monday, June 22, 2009

Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter

A couple of weeks ago I signed onto Facebook and saw that one of my friends had voted in some poll as to who was the worst president in recent history. My friend had cast his voted for George W. Bush. Now my friend grew up in the same conservative Christian circles that I did, but much like myself, finds himself somewhere outside these circles. The first comment came from an unbelievably opinionated and obnoxious person--who we both know: "Are you kidding me Josh? What about the peanut farmer from Georgia?" Josh unsuccessfully tried to brush this off with a bit of a joke. Twenty comments later people are referring to Carter as a "disaster," and some crazy man who inexplicably capitalizes the first letter of every word is ranting about Obama and the end of the United States as we know it. These are Christian people...I suppose. Carter is a Christian. How is it that these people could harbor such negative feelings toward arguably the most active ex-President? Well, as luck would have it, this book offers at least a partial answer to this question.

The first thing to note about this book is its overtly Christian perspective. As he has for most of his life, Carter speaks candidly about his religious beliefs in this book. He does not shy away from the fact that he is a Christian (a Baptist, to be more precise) or that Christian values inform much of his thinking. You would think this would appeal to Christians.

Our Endangered Values addresses the rise of fundamentalism and the threat that it poses to our values. That's right, Facebook wackjobs: you are the insidious threat to our nation! Ex-President Carter and I say so, so it has to be true. Carter is a good person to address this, since his personal life was directly affected by it. In the book he talks about how in 1979, fundamentalists essentially took control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their "with us or against us" approach drove many thinking people away, while at the same time it bolstered their prominence on the political scene. Their intransigence no doubt informed the definition of fundamentalism that Carter uses in this book. "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."

This book begins in the late 1970s, with the rise of such religious zealots as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Jerry Fallwell. But Carter levels criticism at those who were in positions of power at the time when this book was written (2006). He criticizes Bush II on issues such a "faith-based" initiatives, torture, his economic policies, and the war in Iraq. His criticisms rest on sound Christian and American principles, such as the Separation of Church and State (I can capitalize first letters too), Christ-like love, and the redistribution of wealth that runs like a current through the New Testament. However, Values does not devolve into some Olbermann-esque screed against Bush, or a listing of his blunders. Far from it, Carter is composed and cool in his criticisms. (But does he set them to a sweet Coldplay song?)

While not its intent or purpose, this book provides a two-fold answer for why fundamentalist Christians dislike President Carter so much. Firstly, they are as he describes them: openly hostile toward negotiation, alternative ideas, and entire groups of people (I am paraphrasing). Secondly, he calls them out on it. Why would a Christian support the invasion of Iraqi? How could a Christian possibly be okay with torture? Should not Christians be good stewards of the planet? But fundamentalist are not about self-reflection. They are not about loving others. They are about attacking those who do not believe exactly like they do. So it doesn't matter that Jimmy Carter worked to reduce the need for abortions, what mattered was that he did not attack the judiciary for the decision in Roe v. Wade. The religious right loves attacking the Judiciary. Separation of church and state be damned! And while were at it, let's get rid of the separation of the powers of government as well. It doesn't matter that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. To these religious ideologues, Carter is a total sellout, a lukewarm Christian that will ultimately be spewed out of God's mouth.

It is comforting to know that amongst all the Christian wackos out there, Christians like President Carter exist. Principled people who use their lives to effect positive change on the world are much preferred to people who wake up every morning, pull on their waxy costume of Christianity, plaster a televangelist smile over their cesspool of hatred, and start shouting.

The Private Faith of Jimmy on American Public Media
"Just War -- or a Just War?" by Jimmy Carter
Interview about this book with Mother Jones


Nihil Novum said...

I'm guessing this review was written a sort of an open letter to me, since I'm pretty sure I'm the only 50 booker who knows who your Facebook nemesis is.

Nihil Novum said...

Upon re-reading this review, it appears that my comment makes no sense.

Carlton Farmer said...

One of your two comments it accurate, I'll let you guess which.

Christopher said...

I have a book signed by President Carter. I have never read it.

Also, I think one of your comments--how can you hate the most active ex-president--actually answers its own question. It seems to me that even controversial presidents seem to re-gather good will once they're out of office and out of the spotlight; Carter never faded away quietly and so people never really had a chance to see him as a personally admirable guy. In fact, I think a lot of the stuff he's done since being president--I am thinking particularly of the really crappy job the Carter Center does of monitoring elections--is obnoxious.

By contrast, Clinton, Reagan, and Bush I seem to have spent their post-presidency years engaged in a lot of high-profile charity work. Bush II seems like he wants to disappear from the limelight completely.

Sylvia said...

It's interesting to see different views on this. I didn't think Bush was the best president we have ever had, but I definitely wouldn't say he was the worst. I think that the Presidential position has become too powerful, and that our government is getting too power hungry. More power for the people, less government. But if that happens, we as a nation need to put on our "big girl panties" and step up to the plate and be responsible and accountable for decisions.

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