America's Moral Crisis

By Jimmy Carter

Simon & Schuster. 212 pp. $25

Evangelical Christians in this country are familiar with the jeremiad, a sermon rousing the devout to renewed effort by highlighting how far they have wandered from the true and only faith. These days, jeremiads invariably attribute the abysmal crisis in which America allegedly finds itself to liberals and secular humanists. Teenage pregnancy, abortion, drug addiction, homosexuality -- these, we are told, are indications of our fallen state, the product of our mistaken belief that we can get by without the teachings of a just God.

Jimmy Carter's natural affinity is with the jeremiad. But Our Endangered Values, the prolific ex-president's latest book, finds fault not with secular humanists but with Christians, particularly those of the fundamentalist persuasion. Huge gaps between rich and poor, disrespect for human rights, cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners, a despoiled environment and a dangerous foreign policy -- these, for him, are the true indications of how far we have fallen. We used to believe that America stood as a moral beacon to the world. Because of the influence wielded by fundamentalists over our policies, Carter argues, we no longer can.

Carter offers an unusual combination: a man of faith and a man of power. His presidency was marked both by his prophetic witness on behalf of humane values and by his often incomprehensible amateurism in campaigning and governing. No wonder, then, that the best parts of Our Endangered Values deal with his private faith and the worst with his analysis of public policy.

To understand Carter's beliefs, it is important to know something about America's largest Protestant denomination, the Baptists. Baptists have long insisted on the separation of church and state, distrusted religious hierarchies and respected the autonomy of local congregations. The 2000 "Baptist Faith and Message" statement, according to Carter, changed all that; with it, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) created a church that would directly involve itself in politics, made half its members (the female half) subservient and, in Carter's devastating words, brought about the "substitution of Southern Baptist leaders for Jesus as the interpreters of biblical Scripture." Carter may have left the SBC in protest, but he, far more than the ostensible leaders of the denomination, represents the true spirit of Baptist religious liberty.

As president, Carter prayed, and prayed often -- not to ask divine blessing for actions he was about to take but because any action he took would have consequences unknown to him or any other human being. His personal convictions led him to oppose both abortion and the death penalty, but his political duty commanded obedience to the decisions of the Supreme Court. Fundamentalism, Carter writes, has three attributes: "rigidity, domination, and exclusion." As a president and as a Christian, Carter avoided all three.

Now that many of the Christian fundamentalists with whom Carter so strongly disagrees find themselves being courted by the White House (even if their advice is frequently ignored), Carter's criticism of their understanding of religion in politics is as welcome as it is refreshing. Still, there are times when the Jesus talk gets laid on a bit too thick. It is true that fundamentalist Christians have retrograde views about women, but to write in response that "Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women" downplays the role that Christianity played for centuries in assigning women to second-class status. Nor is it always an effective tactic to criticize biblical literalists by citing the Bible against them, as Carter does on behalf of the poor; after all, the Bible so frequently contradicts itself.

Sometimes, in other words, you need a nonreligious argument to confront the theocrats among us. Carter is perfectly aware of this, and when he turns to questions involving the environment or counterterrorism, his wonkish side comes to the fore. Alas, Carter's voice without prophetic urgency is more obligatory than compelling. It is true that nuclear proliferation is a great danger and that the United States is well-served by a strong United Nations, but Carter's breathless rush through the damage wrecked by foreign policy unilateralism offers little that is new and much that is labored.

His deep religious convictions ought especially to inform his policy discussions on the subject of torture of detainees held abroad. Yet here his prose, too vague to be analytic, is also too detached to be prophetic. Prophecy demands holding people who do bad things responsible for their actions. Yet while Carter clearly does not like what Republicans are doing, President George W. Bush does not appear in his book. Neoconservatives do: Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is mentioned a couple of times, and Pat Robertson gets his share of attention. Probably out of respect for the office he once held, Carter is reluctant to point the finger of blame at the man who holds it now. One can admire him for his restraint even while lamenting the dispassion that results.

Fundamentalism has gotten America into a mess, but religion can once again help the country finds its soul. The Republican version of Jimmy Carter, former Missouri senator John Danforth, started an important national discussion when he criticized right-wing extremists in his party for their certainty that God was on their side. By adding his own voice to the discussion, Carter reminds us of a time when religion was tied to such virtues as humility and to such practices as soul-searching. He may not have been one of our best presidents, but he is undoubtedly one of our finest human beings. *

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is writing a book on whether American democracy still works.

Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention last year