The New York Review of Books
Volume 53, Number 2 · February 9, 2006
Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death
By Garry Wills
Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis
by Jimmy Carter
Simon and Schuster, 212 pp., $25.00
In 1972, I was asked by New York magazine to survey Southern reactions to the attempted assassination of George Wallace. On my list of people to call was Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. When I called his press secretary, Jody Powell (a name I had never heard before), I was told it would be better for me to come to Atlanta than to talk on the phone. (Powell was drumming up attention for his man, with a view to his running for president.) When I arrived there, Powell had arranged for me to fly with Carter in his little state prop plane to Tifton, a small South Georgia town where there was a meeting with local sheriffs. The sheriffs were unhappy with Carter's liberal racial policies, and Powell obviously thought it would be good for his reputation nationally to be seen as standing up against regional prejudice.
Carter used all his local ties to defang the critics—the sheriffs did not openly turn against him—and I was impressed. On the flight back, he said he wanted to drop off in the town of Plains and see how his peanut business was doing—a homey touch the press would be treated to ad nauseam over the next two years. I do not remember any mention of his local church while we were in Plains. In fact, I cannot recall that religion was brought up in all our hours together. Perhaps he thought that was not something New York magazine readers would respond to. At any rate, I was surprised when, four years later, so much was made of his religion as he ran for president. It began when he was asked, while visiting Baptist friends, if he thought of himself as "born again." He answered yes—not surprisingly, since the Gospel of John (3:5) says that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, and Saint Paul says that baptism is being reborn into Christ (Romans 6:4). Reporters did not know this as a basic belief of Christians—they treated it as an odd cult claim.
That led to his second-most-famous remark of the 1976 campaign. Carter was asked in a Playboy interview if he thought he was a holier-than-thou person because he was born again. He answered that, no, in fact he had committed lust in his heart—again quoting the New Testament (Matthew 5:28). That did it. For much of the Carter presidency, the line of some in the press (and, as I know well, in the academy) was that he was a religious nut. I followed him in the 1976 race and heard a reporter ask Carter why he constantly brought up religion. He replied that he had made a determination never to bring up religion in the campaign. But the reporters kept asking him about it, and he had to answer them or be criticized for dodging the issue.
His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves. Carter is an old-fashioned Baptist, the kind that follows the lead of the great Baptist Roger Williams—that is, he is the firmest of believers in the separation of church and state. Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.
Carter rightly says in Our Endangered Values that the norms of religion and politics are different. His religion, at any rate, places its greatest priority on love, of God and one's neighbor, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But a president cannot make his nation sacrifice itself—that would be dereliction of duty. The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers—the great majority of Americans—derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.
In his new book, Carter addresses religion and politics together in a way that he has not done before, because he thinks that some Americans, and especially his fellow Baptists, have equated the two in a way that contradicts traditional Baptist beliefs in the autonomy of local churches, in the opposition to domination by religious leaders, and in the fellowship of love without reliance on compulsion, political or otherwise. In 2000, these tenets were expressly renounced by the largest Baptist body, the Southern Baptist Convention, which removed a former commitment to belief that "the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ, whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures." What was being substituted, Carter writes, was "domination by all-male pastors." As a leading spokesman, W.A. Criswell, put it: "Lay leadership of the church is unbiblical when it weakens the pastor's authority as ruler of the church." The Southern Baptists, Carter laments, have become as authoritarian as their former antitype, the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Southern Baptist Convention has severed its ancient ties with the Baptist World Alliance.
The marks of this new fundamentalism, according to Carter, are rigidity, self-righteousness, and an eagerness to use compulsion (including political compulsion). Its spokesmen are contemptuous of all who do not agree with them one hundred percent. Pat Robertson, on his 700 Club, typified the new "popes" when he proclaimed: "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist." Carter got a firsthand taste of such intolerance when the president of the Southern Baptist Convention visited him in the White House to tell him, "We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion."
Such attitudes are far from the ones recommended by Jesus in the gospels as Carter has studied and taught them through the decades, and their proponents have brought similar attitudes into the political world, where a matching political fundamentalism has taken over much of the electoral process. Such dictatorial attitudes defeat the stated goals of the fundamentalists themselves. On abortion, for instance, Carter argues that a "pro-life" dogmatism defeats human life and values at many turns. Carter is opposed to abortion, as what he calls a tragedy "brought about by a combination of human errors." But the "pro-life" forces compound rather than reduce the errors. The most common abortions, and the most common reasons cited for undergoing them, are caused by economic pressure compounded by ignorance.
Yet the anti-life movement that calls itself pro-life protects ignorance by opposing family planning, sex education, and informed use of contraceptives, tactics that not only increase the likelihood of abortion but tragedies like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The rigid system of the "pro-life" movement makes poverty harsher as well, with low minimum wages, opposition to maternity leaves, and lack of health services and insurance. In combination, these policies make ideal conditions for promoting abortion, as one can see from the contrast with countries that do have sex education and medical insurance. Carter writes:
Canadian and European young people are about equally active sexually, but, deprived of proper sex education, American girls are five times as likely to have a baby as French girls, seven times as likely to have an abortion, and seventy times as likely to have gonorrhea as girls in the Netherlands. Also, the incidence of HIV/ AIDS among American teenagers is five times that of the same age group in Germany.... It has long been known that there are fewer abortions in nations where prospective mothers have access to contraceptives, the assurance that they and their babies will have good health care, and at least enough income to meet their basic needs.The result of a rigid fundamentalism combined with poverty and ignorance can be seen where the law forbids abortion:
In some predominantly Roman Catholic countries where all abortions are illegal and few social services are available, such as Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, the abortion rate is fifty per thousand. According to the World Health Organization, this is the highest ratio of unsafe abortions [in the world].A New York Times article that came out after Carter's book appeared further confirms what he is saying: "Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions."[*] This takes place in countries where churches and schools teach abstinence as the only form of contraception—demonstrating conclusively the ineffectiveness of that kind of program.
By contrast, in the United States, where abortion is legal and sex education is broader, the abortion rate reached a twenty-four-year low during the 1990s. Yet the ironically named "pro-life" movement would return the United States to the condition of Chile or Colombia. And not only that, the fundamentalists try to impose the anti-life program in other countries by refusing foreign aid to programs that teach family planning, safe sex, and contraceptive knowledge. They also oppose life-saving advances through the use of stem cell research. With friends like these, "life" is in thrall to death. Carter finds these results neither loving (in religious terms) nor just (in political terms).
Carter finds the same rigid and self-righteous—and self-defeating—policies at work across the current political spectrum. The pro-life forces have no problem with a gun industry and capital punishment legislation that are, in fact, provably pro-death. Carter, a lifelong hunter, does not want to outlaw guns and he knows that Americans would never do that. But timorous politicians, cowering before the NRA, defeat even the most sensible limitations on weapons useful neither for hunting nor for personal self-defense (AK-47s, AR-15s, Uzis), even though, as Carter shows, more than 1,100 police chiefs and sheriffs told Congress that these weapons are obstacles to law enforcement. The NRA opposed background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists and illegals, and then insisted that background checks, if they were imposed, had to be destroyed within twenty-four hours. The result of such pro-death measures, Carter writes, is grimly evident: "American children are sixteen times more likely than children in other industrialized nations to be murdered with a gun, eleven times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die from firearms accidents." Where are the friends of the fetus when children are dying in such numbers?
Carter observes that "the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research reports that the rate of firearms homicide in the United States is nineteen times higher than that of 35 other high-income countries combined" (emphasis added). In the most recent year for which figures are available, these are the numbers for firearms homicides:
Great Britain 197
United States 30,419
Once again, Carter finds no support for the policies that make such a result possible in the US, in terms of either a loving religion or a just society.
Capital punishment is also a pro-death program. It does not protect life. It aligns us with authoritarian regimes: "Ninety percent of all known executions are carried out in just four countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia—and the United States" (emphasis added). Execution does not deter, as many studies have proved. In states that abolished it, Carter writes, capital crimes did not increase:
The homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any European country, none of which authorizes the death penalty. The Southern states carry out over 80 percent of the executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region. Texas has by far the most executions, but its homicide rate is twice that of Wisconsin, the first state to abolish the death penalty. It is not a matter of geography or ethnicity, as is indicated by similar and adjacent states: the number of capital crimes is higher, respectively, in South Dakota, Connecticut, and Virginia (all with the death sentence) than in the adjacent states of North Dakota, Massachusetts, and West Virginia (without the death penalty).How can a loving religion or a just state support such a culture of death? Only a self-righteous and punitive fundamentalism, not an ethos of the gospels, can explain this.
It is in foreign affairs that Carter finds the most self-righteous, rigid, and self-defeating effects of a religio-political fundamentalism. It is the gap between rich and poor in the world that presents the main threat to our future, yet American policies increase that gap, at home and abroad. We give proportionally less money in foreign aid than do other developed countries, and our ability to give is being decreased by our growing deficit, incurred to reward our own wealthy families with disproportionate tax cuts. Carter points out that much of the aid announced or authorized never reaches its targets. This reflects a general smugness about America's privileged position. We are dismissive of other countries' concern with the world environment, with nuclear containment, and with international law. Carter gives specifics gathered from his world travels and from the experts' forums he regularly assembles at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
We have, for example, declared our right to first use of nuclear weapons. We have used aid money to bribe people against holding us accountable to international law. We have run secret detention centers where hundreds of people are held without formal charges or legal representation. We have rewarded with high office men who, like Alberto Gonzales, say that the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners are "obsolete" or even "quaint," or who, like John Bolton, say that it is "a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so."
The result, as Carter writes, has been to turn a vast fund of international good will accruing to us after September 11 into fear of and contempt for America unparalleled in modern times. We undermine the inspection teams of the UN and the IAEA with the result that we blunder into Iraq on bad information gathered from self-serving hacks buttering up our officialdom. On the eve of our attack on Iraq, Carter published an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times arguing in terms of the just war tradition that a preemptive and unilateral invasion was unjustified. Going to war was not a last resort (inspections could have continued to contain Saddam until the proof of WMDs, or the lack of them, could be established). War was not authorized by international authorities for eliminating nuclear weapons, but was an opportunity seized in order "to achieve regime change and to establish a Pax Americana in the region." It did not promise proportional violence with a clear hope of providing better conditions than the ones it was remedying. Carter's was a calm and moral judgment about the war, which most Americans now believe was the right one. In retrospect, a majority think the war was a mistake. We should have listened to Carter.
We pretend we are against nuclear proliferation, yet we spur it on when others see our disregard for the very international agreements that promote it:
The end of America's "no first use" nuclear weapons policy has aroused a somewhat predictable response in other nations. Chinese major general Zhu Chenghu announced in July 2005 that China's government was under internal pressure to change its "no first use" policy: "If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons."We attack terrorism not by cooperation with other countries' security teams, which often have better information on worldwide terrorist activities than we do, but with unilateral and preemptive uses of force that just increase terrorism. This is a new culture of death: "The US National Counterterrorism Center," Carter writes, "reported that the number of serious international terrorist incidents more than tripled in 2004. 'Significant' attacks grew to more than 650, up from the previous record of 175 in 2003."
We claim to be spreading democracy in the Middle East, but a Zogby international poll in 2005 showed that an overwhelming majority of Arabs did not believe that US policy in Iraq was motivated by the spread of democracy in the region, and believed that the Middle East had become less democratic after the Iraq war. The approval rating of America plummeted at the very time we were supposedly bringing the blessings of freedom there—it stood, Carter notes, at "2 percent in Egypt, 4 percent in Saudi Arabia, 11 percent in Morocco, 14 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 15 percent in Jordan, with a high of only 20 percent in [our friend] Lebanon." These developments have taken place as America enacted a retreat from earlier commitments, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, that parallels what Carter describes as the retreat of evangelicals from earlier fidelity to gospel values such as life, compassion, tolerance, and inclusiveness.
Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics, and pragmatism. That is a combination that once was not rare, but is becoming more so. We need a voice from the not-so-distant past, and this quiet voice strikes just the right notes.
[*] Juan Forero, "Latin American Women Mount Campaign to Legalize Abortion," The New York Times, December 3, 2005, page A8.