It seemed to be a simple enough question requiring an even simpler answer. While running for President in 1976, Jimmy Carter responded to a political supporter who—in front of some reporters—asked if he was a born again Christian. “I truthfully answered ‘Yes,’ assuming all devout Christians were born again, of the Holy Spirit” Carter writes in his new book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. “This was the first time that this religious characterization had been injected into the political arena, and there was an immediate furor, with media allegations that I claimed to be receiving messages directly from heaven…making clear to me that injecting religion into politics was a mistake.”
My how times have changed; thirty years later politicians are crawling over each other to announce the depth and sincerity of their Christian faith to anyone who will listen. What was once considered a political liability is now an asset. Because he drew so much criticism for his own public declaration, one might think that President Carter would now welcome such candor about faith in the public square, but he doesn’t. The devout Baptist—who still teaches Sunday Bible classes at his church in Plains, Georgia—considers the relationship that conservative Christian groups have with the Washington power elite to be far too cozy. Carter believes the sort of fundamentalism that is currently in vogue in American politics—especially with regard to foreign policy—has created a crisis in which the United States has isolated itself from the world community and our moral credibility and leadership around the globe is dangerously low.
Over the course of the previous nineteen books he’s written, Carter has developed a distinctive writing style that combines a country farmer’s plain-spoken-ness with a statesman’s elegance and the intelligence of a Nobel winner. This makes sense, of course, because our 39th President (1977-1981) is all of the above (Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002). Our Endangered Values differs from his earlier books however in that it is the first time he addresses the current political landscape. But, unlike so much public discourse today, Carter refuses to engage in hyperbole and hysteria.
He has nothing to prove. Jimmy Carter, who was criticized by many as a weak President, has accomplished something far greater in his 25-year ex-Presidency, he has become a true leader. Though he has no constituency, his extensive peace and humanitarian work—inspired by his deep Christian faith—lend his insights and analyses a moral weight that few world leaders will ever possess. His reflections on the state of our nation’s soul challenge us all, liberal and conservative alike; and whether we agree with them or not, it is important that they are heard.
President Carter, now 81, was on the West Coast portion of a publicity tour for his book when he called early one morning just before Thanksgiving to speak with BustedHalo. Neither managing editor Mike Hayes nor I had ever spoken to a President before and, admittedly, we were both somewhat anxious about the call. As soon as we picked up the phone however, and heard “Good morning, Bill and Mike” in that famously mild, southern tone we were instantly put at ease.
BustedHalo: Good morning President Carter, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Jimmy Carter: Well I think you all do some fine work.
BH: Mr. President, you talk about the rise in fundamentalism in this country, how that rise has taken over the political landscape of our country. Could you share your reasons about why that causes you concern?
JC: Well, fundamentalism in politics is a very serious affliction on our country because it causes serious divides, animosity, even hatred between people who are supposed to be governing our country. A fundamentalist by my definition which I include in the book believes that they are absolutely aligned with God and anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong and therefore inferior. It’s against their principles—ever—to admit that they’ve ever made a mistake or to compromise with anyone is a violation of their principles. So there is an element of domination, of exclusion of others and of rigidity that now is permeating Washington and has caused us to even separate our own country from the alliances and the cooperation that existed after 9-11 when the whole world was with us as partners in fighting against terrorism. So these are the kind of things that shift from religion into politics but I think in the last five years or so, there’s been a greater breakdown in the separation of church and state then we’ve ever seen in the history of our country.
BH: A major factor in the last Presidential election was the candidates talking overtly or not overtly about their own religious faith. This was something that actually hurt you in your campaign for President when you said you were “born-again” but it seems to have worked well for President Bush’s campaign? What’s the difference in the opinion of the American people with regards to this between then and now? How has that changed?
JC: Well there’s no doubt in the last 25 years that there’s been more of an inclination to speak overtly about one’s religious faith and even to brag about it in order to try to get votes from a particular voting group. But I think the last election was much more heavily flavored or determined by the fact that nine or ten percent of all the American population state that they are inclined to support an incumbent president, even when they disagree with him or his policies. If he happens to be the commander in chief at that time responsible for the future of our young men and women who are fighting overseas. So that strong patriotism effect was a very powerful factor in the 2004 election. And as you probably know, the 2000 election, there’s still a lot of doubt about who actually won the most number of votes. I happen to think that Al Gore not only got clearly 250 thousand more votes in the whole country but I think he got more in Florida, but that’s beside the point. But the last election was much more heavily flavored by patriotism because we seem to be at war than by whether a person incumbent was professing a certain religious affiliation in the campaign.
BH: You were able to speak with such candor and so forcefully about your faith in a political context. Can politicians make a difference or are private citizens like yourself and moral leaders like a Martin Luther King, the ones who truly can help change our country and move us in a better direction?
JC: Well I think there has to be a combination of both and it ought to be separated one from another that each one can build on its own strengths. It’s not proper, in my opinion, for a particular religion, whether it’s Protestant Christianity or Catholicism or Islam in other countries to dominate a political system or to use its major influence to align itself with a particular philosophy of a political party like a right wing Christian organization aligning itself with a right wing political organization for those purposes. And also, it’s not proper for any government and certainly in a democracy like ours to show favoritism to a particular religion, because our country was founded on separation of church and state. In fact, Thomas Jefferson who, as you know, helped write the basic premises of our country said very critically that we should build a wall between the church and the state. And I believe even in my Christian faith, that I’ve been influenced since I was a child by Jesus’ admonition with which I’m sure you are thoroughly familiar, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” So it’s not matter of weakening either one. I think religious people are strengthened in their beneficent influence by being separated from government and not dominated from government. On the one hand, the political arena is strengthened if it’s not oriented toward any particular small portion of religion but in a country in that it is administered.
BH: Mr. President, when did you get the inspiration to write this book? There’s something interesting about the way you meld your morality with politics. Is there any particular event that inspired you to go in this direction with this book?
JC: Well this is my 20th book that I’ve written and they’ve all done quite well. This is the first book I’ve ever written that related to current political issues. The rest of them have been non-political in nature. I just became increasingly concerned about the radical changes that have taken place in our government in the last five years—changes in the definition of a justified war for instance. We have habitually believed under George Bush, Sr., under Ronald Regan, under Dwight Eisenhower, under Gerald Ford, and Democratic Presidents as well that our country shouldn’t go to war unless our own security was directly threatened and that’s also international law. This administration has publicly declared that we now have changed that basic policy to pre-emptive war—which means that we now have a policy of invading another country by dropping bombs and launching missiles against another people if we don’t like their leader. Or if they think that some time in the distant future, our security might be threatened. And one of the things that causes me particular concern in addition to that is our violation of basic human rights. Our country was founded on a principle of human rights and we’ve been in the forefront of declaring certain things that are not acceptable like torturing prisoners. Now we see the Vice-president of the United States publicly proposing that the CIA be given the legal right to torture prisoners. We know that 28 prisoners have died as murder victims in the prisons that are mostly secret in foreign countries. These are the kind of things that would be inconceivable five years ago or ten years ago or fifty years ago. And they also have other aspects of them that I don’t have time now to describe but are obviously covered in the book.
BH: You allude to the Left Behind series in your book and about how it’s formed the religious right’s position with regards to Israel—could you talk about the reasons behind their policy towards Israel—and as a follow up—does this position have inherent anti-Semitic overtones?
JC: Well it’s a strange anomaly, the Left Behind series, which has been kicking around, as you know in religious circles for hundreds of years, I think in a twisted analysis of certain chosen verses in the holy scriptures. As far as the Mid-East is concerned, first of all, these people believe that first of all that Israel should occupy the entire holy land all of the West Bank, all of Gaza, without any exceptions. Secondly, they believe that the temple Mount area should be wiped clean and that the original holy Jewish temple should be re-erected where the mosque is located now—which would cause horrendous violence in that area. And the ultimate description is after all this is done, and there’s a rapture, that all the Jews, in the world, either are killed or have to become Christians against their will. This is their ultimate description of what’s going to happen in the future. So these kinds of things are very disturbing, and of course, they have been amazingly influential in shaping our own government’s policy.
BH: Mr. President, you came into office in the mid-70s’ after a very divisive time and your presidency was looked upon as a breath of fresh air in America after the scandals of Watergate. With what’s going on currently with this administration, do you have hope that perhaps we will elect somebody who’s going to unify us in the next election?
JC: Well I believe that the recent public opinion polls that I’ve read, just like you, show an increasing disillusionment with this administration, a very rapid decrease in trust that the administration is telling the truth and exemplifies the moral values that I describe in the book, those things are showing up in the present disapproving polls. And I think that may very well be a predictor of what will happen in future elections. I tried to make sure that the book was not a partisan book. Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. What I tried to show is this particular administration has put forward radical departures from all previous administrations no matter whether they’re democratic or republican. So it’s not a book that’s designed for any approbation of the Democrats or disapproval of Republicans.
BH: Some liberals have espoused the notion that there’s almost been a conspiratorial deception that went on in our lead up to the war in Iraq, do you think that’s correct? Or do you think that the administration truly believed in what they were telling the American people at the time?
JC: Well it’s not only liberals but I think liberals and conservatives have that question in their minds. And as you know, the democrats closed the senate operations a couple of weeks ago to force an analysis of whether, of how to answer the question you just raised. There’s no doubt that the information put forward by the administration was completely erroneous. That there were massive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it would soon place mushroom clouds over American cities. As the Vice-president said hundreds of thousands of American could die in one day and the fact and the claim that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9-11 attacks, all those things proved to be completely false. The question now to be derived in an examination of the evidence was were those statements deliberately made knowing that they were false or was it just a misinterpretation of the intelligence and so far, the investigation if they would answer that question—it’s 18 months overdue. And I think that now there has been a commitment by the congress, forced by the democratic action to finally bring out a report to answer that question.
I’ve enjoyed talking to you all very much and I wish you well in your fine work.