Not surprisingly, former President Jimmy Carter is finding few fans of his latest book among leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In Our Endangered Values, his 20th book, the 39th president of the United States bemoans changes in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as a warning against Christian fundamentalism that he says is influencing public policy in unprecedented ways.
While internal Baptist disputes over biblical inerrancy, the role of women in church and society and the separation of church and state might seem irrelevant to many 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.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a longtime critic of Carter, called the book “a broadside attack on conservative Christians, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, and those who believe that abortion, homosexuality, secularism and a host of other issues represent clear and present challenge to the witness of the church.”
Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee and a former SBC president, wrote in Baptist Press that Our Endangered Values “espouses values that are not mine, likely not yours, or those of a majority of Americans in general or Southern Baptists in particular.”
“Jimmy Carter makes one central argument in this new book, and that is that America (indeed civilization itself) is under attack by a sinister force,” Mohler wrote in a column that also appeared in Baptist Press. “In effect, he argues that a new specter now haunts civilization–the specter of Christian fundamentalism. After tracing a series of crises faced by the United States and the larger world, Mr. Carter places the blame squarely upon conservative Christians.”
“Some of the most vitriolic language in Our Endangered Values concerns Mr. Carter’s criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention and its leadership,” Mohler continued. “Understandably, Mr. Carter blames conservative evangelicals in general–and the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in particular–for his devastating loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Indeed, the very evangelicals who had celebrated Mr. Carter’s election in 1976 abandoned him in 1980–and for what they saw as compelling reasons.”
Responding to Mohler’s column as carried on the Web site The Christian Post, Carter said Mohler’s statement about him blaming his loss to Reagan on evangelicals “deserves correction.”
“I have never believed such a thing nor expressed this opinion,” Carter said. “The American hostages being held in Iran, extremely high inflation rates and a divided Democratic Party were some of the important factors, and the only ones I have ever discussed publicly.”
Carter also corrected Mohler’s statement that he blames conservative Christians for crises facing the United States.
“The primary world crises I describe are unwarranted and unjust conflicts, violations of American civil liberties and the torture of prisoners, extreme favoritism of the rich at the expense of poor and working families, violation of international agreements to control nuclear weapons, and a derogation of protection of the environment,” he said. “These are, as I explain, due to radical and unprecedented changes in our government’s basic policies, as contrasted to policies of all previous administrations including those of Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, as well as Democratic presidents. In none of them do I implicate ‘conservative Christians’–a group of whom I consider myself to be a member.”
Both Mohler and Chapman challenged Carter’s statements about abortion. “I am convinced that every abortion is an unplanned tragedy, brought on by a combination of human errors,” Carter said, “I have never believed that Jesus Christ would approve” of abortion.
“(H)is public record doesn’t match his private beliefs,” Chapman wrote, citing Carter’s support of family planning and hiring of the lead attorney who argued for Roe v. Wade for his White House staff.
“Clearly, his stated beliefs don’t match with his public practice, and his de facto support of abortion rights certainly doesn’t reflect the values of most Southern Baptists,” Chapman said.
Mohler disputed Carter’s assertion that Jesus would not approve of capital punishment. “Jesus Christ never condemned the death penalty,” he said. “In forgiving the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered no blanket prohibition against capital punishment. Furthermore, the biblical support for capital punishment is based on a multitude of passages in both the Old and New Testaments. The biblical interpretations Mr. Carter offers are facile, simplistic and intellectually dishonest.”
On the issue of homosexuality, Chapman recalled Carter telling a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gathering that it is one of several issues that “in God’s eyes fade into relative insignificance, as did circumcision in the first days of the early church.”
“If they could speak,” Chapman observed, “I don’t think the former residents of Sodom and Gomorrah would agree.”
Both Chapman and Mohler disagreed with Carter’s description of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message as a “creed” and defended removal of a phrase from an earlier version making Jesus Christ “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted.”
“Carter and other liberals use this language as a means to deny the truthfulness of certain passages, by stating, ‘My Christ would never …,'” Chapman said, “as if Christ was someone other than revealed in the Bible, or that Jesus could be someone different for each of us depending on how we choose to define Him.”
“I was a member of the committee that proposed the revision, and I would be glad to clarify for Mr. Carter what exactly the revisions represent,” Mohler said. “Nevertheless, Mr. Carter’s chief complaint is that the confession of faith was ‘imposed as a mandatory creed on all convention officers, employees, deans and professors of colleges and seminaries, and even missionaries who were serving in foreign countries.’ He insists that this was ‘unprecedented’ as the convention sought to fulfill its responsibility to assure the churches of the doctrinal integrity of convention employees.”
“Of course, this action was anything but ‘unprecedented,'” Mohler continued. “As a matter of fact, the convention had advised its agencies to establish personnel policies in accordance with the confession of faith as far back as 1969. If the moderate convention leaders Mr. Carter prefers had fulfilled the explicit directives of the convention, the conservative resurgence that Mr. Carter so laments would never have happened in the first place.”
Carter said Mohler “is correct in describing my concerns about the changes that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention, including the mandatory imposition of the rigid creed that he says he helped draft, the subjugation of women, withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance and exclusion of others who express slight differences, and the increasingly overt decisions to break down the historic barrier between church and state.”
“I define the extreme form of fundamentalism that I deplore, which has been adopted by just a very small number of Baptist leaders and has resulted in a severe schism within our denomination,” Carter said.
“My book’s primary expression of hope is for reconciliation of all Christians so that we can work as brothers and sisters in Christ,” Carter said. “As Paul admonished the Galatians, we should remember that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not permit the insertion of contentious social issues to separate us from one another.
“On a more personal note, I have not met Mr. Mohler but delivered the graduation address at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary prior to his becoming president. I am sure that he and I agree on more religious and political issues than is indicated by this brief exchange of views.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.