Influence by religious fundamentalism on American politics has created a “moral crisis” that endangers the nation’s values, former President Jimmy Carter says in his newest book, which hit bookstores this week.
In Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, the 39th president of the United States cites frequently changes in the Southern Baptist Convention to illustrate what he argues is a fundamental shift in U.S. values.
The first time Carter felt the impact of fundamentalism in government, he says, was when the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership of Iran, branded the United States “the Great Satan” and encouraged followers to hold 52 Americans hostage for 14 months.
About the same time, he writes, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Carter’s own denomination, closed a traditional visit to the White House with the comment, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.”
Shocked and not understanding what he meant, Carter turned to his pastor at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who told him that a small group of conservative Southern Baptist leaders had marshaled political support to elect the new president, a development of which he had been only casually aware.
Over time, however, the change became more personal for him. The SBC made changes to the Baptist Faith & Message in 2000, removing a previous phrase that “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ, whose will is revealed in Holy Scriptures.” Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, decided to sever their personal relationships with the denomination, while continuing to practice their beliefs through their local church.
“In effect, this change meant substitution of Southern Baptist leaders for Jesus as the interpreters of biblical Scripture,” he said. The new statement quickly came to be used as a “mandatory creed” used to determine employment of convention officers, deans and professors at theology schools and even missionaries serving in foreign countries.
The most recent move, he said, was the decision by convention leaders to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance, an international group, claiming it had grown too “liberal” for their continued association. That claim, he said, is “deeply resented by heroic European Christians who fought the oppression of Soviet Communism and endangered their lives by clinging to their traditional religious heritage.”
While events of his particular denomination might not seem interesting to some readers, Carter says, they in fact have “a profound impact on every American citizen through similar and related changes being wrought in our nation’s political system.”
“During the last quarter century,” he writes, “there has been a parallel right-wing movement within American politics, often directly tied to the attributes of like-minded Christian groups.” He blames the alignment on a multitude of sins. The list includes “special favors for the powerful at the expense of others, abandonment of social justice, denigration of those who differ, failure to protect the environment, attempts to exclude those who refuse to conform, a tendency toward unilateral diplomatic action and away from international agreements, an excessive inclination toward conflict and reliance on fear as a means of persuasion.”
Carter identifies several “prevailing characteristics” of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist movements, he said, are almost always led by “authoritarian males,” who consider themselves superior to others, subjugate women and dominate fellow believers.
Fundamentalists view themselves as true believers and being right, and anyone who contradicts them as ignorant and possibly evil. They tend to demagogue emotional issues and view negotiation and other efforts to resolve differences as sign of weakness.
“To summarize, there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism,” Carter says: “rigidity, domination and exclusion.”
Fundamentalist influences being felt in public life, Carter says, include an “entwining of church and state.” Christian fundamentalists during the last two decades “have increasingly and openly challenged and rejected Jesus’ admonition to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.'”
“There is obviously a widespread, carefully planned and unapologetic crusade underway from both sides to merge fundamentalist Christians with the right wing of the Republican Party,” he writes. “Although considered to be desirable by some Americans, this melding of church and state is of deep concern to those who have always relished their separation as one of our moral values.”
Carter says fundamentalists have polarized the country over abortion and homosexuality, both issues of which he personally disapproves, while overlooking divorce, which is also denounced in Scripture, and supporting the death penalty, which he believes contradicts Jesus Christ.
One of the most bizarre mixtures of religion and politics, he says, is influence by fundamentalists on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Based on theology made popular in the “Left Behind” novels, these believers desire to hasten the coming “Rapture” to fulfill biblical prophecy. Their agenda, he says, includes a war in the Middle East and Jews taking over the entire Holy Land. This is to lead up to a Rapture, when all Jews will either be converted to Christianity or burned.
Based on these premises, Carter says, some Christian leaders have been at the forefront of promoting the war in Iraq and Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The fundamentalist characteristic of viewing negotiation or discussion to resolve differences as weakness, he says, also fueled a move away from the time-tested principle of using aggression only as a last resort. In a chapter titled, “Worshiping the Prince of Peace, or Pre-emptive War?” Carter contends, “The most telltale distinction between Republicans and Democrats is their preference between ways of resolving controversial international issues–reliance on force, or diplomacy.”
Carter faults fundamentalists, meanwhile, for lack of concern about protecting the environment and for reducing poverty, which he calls “a direct attack on American moral values.”
Carter says he is glad the nation has a strong defense, but size and physical prowess aren’t the only attributes of a superpower. They also include “a demonstrable commitment to truth, justice, peace, freedom, humility, human rights, generosity and the upholding of other moral values.”
The book is likely to draw criticism from leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, who have already expressed disdain for Carter’s decision to switch loyalty from the SBC to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate breakaway group.
Writing in 2000, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary observed, “The sad reality is that Carter has been estranged from the Southern Baptist Convention for decades.”
Richard Land of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has been quoted as saying he shared more in common with Pope John Paul II than he does with Carter.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to order Our Endangered Values from Amazon.com.