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Archive for Saturday, December 24, 2005

Carter debates like Southern gentleman

December 24, 2005

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Jimmy Carter is the kind of Democrat most people think no longer exists: an evangelical Christian, a white male from a "red" state (Georgia) and a military man whose Annapolis days are among his proudest.

The former president (1977-1981) seems to know that he is now considered an unusual mix. His earnest manner - overly so, his critics would say - make him seem even more out of touch with today's divisive political environment.

As "out of it" as Carter seems, his latest book captures the zeitgeist perfectly. In "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis," Carter argues that fundamentalist ideology is becoming the dominant thought for the most powerful politicians and religious leaders.

This "you're-with-us-or-against-us" philosophy makes people like Carter - a gun owner who also is an avid environmentalist - left out in the cold because it's difficult to pin them down to a single slate of positions.

But Carter's ideological mix didn't seem so unusual a generation ago. He has not changed much, but the Democratic and Republican parties have. A similar thing has happened in his religious life, as the devout Baptist finds his church's governing body increasingly laying down church doctrine on political issues.

Carter defines fundamentalists as those who "have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree."

About the book

"Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis," by former president Jimmy Carter, is published by Simon & Schuster and costs $25.

Carter clearly sees Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as Christians who need religion, but with his extremely evenhanded style he never takes a cheap shot. He merely uses their own words against them: citing Robertson's quote likening Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists to the Antichrist; and reminding readers of Falwell's post-Sept. 11 comments pinning blame for the attacks on "the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle."

Carter sees fundamentalism at work politically in the Bush administration's unilateral approach to foreign policy, its disenchantment with the United Nations and other long-held international relationships, and its impatience with diplomacy, exemplified by the "axis of evil" rhetoric and the invasion of Iraq.

Looking at the substance of his arguments, Carter is hopping mad about what he sees as steps backward for the United States. But you'd never know it from his workmanlike style, ticking off lists of reasons why rigid fundamentalism is ruining our government and our churches. He keeps the outrage out of it, plodding along with stark, simple prose that wouldn't be out of place in a high school textbook.

The one topic that comes closest to making Carter's blood boil is the Southern Baptist Convention, the ruling body for churches in the South.

Carter charts the rise of fundamentalism in both Christianity and politics by describing his dealings with the group, whose political clout has increased dramatically during the past 30 years.

During Carter's childhood, Baptists distrusted central authority - it was a little too much like Rome - and individual churches were run with autonomy.

Carter was president when he first realized things were changing. The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention came to the White House for a meeting and told him he was praying for him to "abandon secular humanism as your religion."

In 2000, the group removed a clause from its doctrine that assigned sole authority for faith and practice to Jesus Christ, "whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures." To Carter, this meant that the Southern Baptist Convention was trying to come between Baptists and Christ by interpreting biblical Scripture.

He withdrew from the group, but he still considers himself a Baptist and continues to teach Sunday school.

On the political side, Carter disagrees with almost every major policy of the Bush administration. In the case of fiscal and environmental policy, he calmly charts the potential ruin if the current course is not altered. Carter clearly sees himself as an abandoned man, in both religion and politics.

But if we are in a "crisis," as the book's subtitle states, where's the passion? Why isn't he shouting this from the rooftops, as his ideological opponents often do?

Maybe Carter is too conscious of his status as a man with one foot in each of the "two Americas," as John Roberts characterized the nation, and he is trying to keep both sides at the table.

Or perhaps Carter's betting that the best way to be heard above the din is to speak softly to force people to listen closely.

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