On Jimmy Carter’s “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.”

A  nation’s life is like that of a person: it has its ups and downs, successes and defeats, days of glory and of shame, times for jubilation and times for grief. These contrasting states may arise from external factors that tilt one’s fortunes, but equally from the decisions one makes, consciously or unwittingly, with wisdom or with short-range benefits in mind. Even a positively inclined observer will recognize that in addition to a growing paucity of resources, the Unites States is facing as seldom before immense problems in a great many spheres.  The nation has lost much of the high regard it enjoyed from people and governments all over the world, though the ideals it stands for are still much respected in most places. The scene within the country is not any better. Political debates have degenerated in quality, special interest groups secretly or overtly tamper with Congressional decisions through blatant financial inducements, ideological opponents resort to ad hominem attacks, and the country is more deeply divided in many ways than ever before in the past hundred years.

Our endangered values: America’s moral crisis is an insightful book on these issues. It is written by a man who needs no introduction, for he was once President of the United States and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Jimmy Carter has gone through the length and breadth of this country, traveled to many parts of the world, interacted with leaders and common people, with businessmen, educators, scientists, economists, and more. The book’s thesis is simple: While we have made progress in science, technology and industry, we have been gradually losing the values and ideals that made this a great nation: a nation that could be depended upon for help and assistance, as well as for international cooperation and leadership, one that has often stood for peace and  cared for its own poor. Many of those ideals and values are eroding. The book gives myriad examples of this, and discusses how they came about.

Carter explains that ironically a major cause of the erosion of America’s moral values is to be found in the very institution that should nurture moral behavior, namely, religion. More exactly, it is not religion which disfigures the face of a nation, but a perverse parody of it: religious fundamentalism. Carter incisively describes its principal traits as “rigidity, domination, and exclusion.” Fundamentalism is any ideology that leads to intolerance and exclusion, and is insensitively blind to other perspectives. [Incidentally it can manifest itself in science as scientism and in politics as communism and fascism.] When such a system comes to power anywhere, it could spell disaster. That, says Carter, is what has been happening to America in recent years.Carter has no problems with fellow Christians who may believe in a six-day creation of the world six thousand years ago and in such other matters as one reads in holy books. He respects every individual’s right to religious beliefs and sincerity of heart. However, when people who take mythopoesy literally insist that it should be part of the science curriculum in schools, it does not bode well for the country.

Then again, when sectarian ethics is used for formulating national policies, such as those relating to abortion, gay rights, and capital punishment, matters can become contentious in a nation which has grown out of its moral and epistemic infancy. Unfortunately, Carter points out, “leaders of the highly organized Christian Right have successfully elevated into American political debate some of the most divisive social questions.” In a world where science and enlightenment are still struggling to emerge as emancipated worldviews, efforts to return to the narrowness and  values of a by-gone age  are not in the best interest of civilization.

Aside from his career as a political leader, and as  man of faith, Carter is also an informed scientist. He is concerned about the scant attention the government pays to environmental issues, favoring the oil industry and energy producers over efficiency and ecological wisdom. As a reflective thinker who understands the role and relevance of both science and religion in a civilized world, he argues well for his position that there is no conflict between science and religion, fully convinced that the splendor and wonder in the world “is not all an accident.” In our current state of ideological polarization it is hard for some to grant that there is nothing unscientific in this position. Indeed, all through this book Carter speaks as a Christian. He admits he made a tactical blunder in 1976 when he told someone in the presence of reporters that he was a born-again Christian. As a result, it was quickly reported that Jimmy Carter was hearing messages from heaven, and that according to him God had made him a candidate superior to others. Through this anecdote Carter reveals how unwise it is in this secularist  age for a politician to confess his or her faith in public, but he also exposes how headline-seeking reporters bring to ridicule any public figure who mentions faith or God.

Carter talks about his cordial interactions with Pope John Paul with whom he frankly disagreed on liberation theology and the role of women in the Church. He says quite simply that “The government and the church are two different realms of service, and those in political office have to face a subtle but important difference between the implementation of the high ideals of religious faith and public duty.” It is sad that this principle, on which the United States was founded, needs to be reiterated after more than two centuries of its successful practice.

All through the book, whether he is talking about homosexuality or divorce, about abortion or the death penalty, Jimmy Carter is consistent in his adherence to the principle of separation of church and state. As president, whenever he saw a conflict between his own religious values and his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the latter was always more sacred to him. He reveals that he used to pray regularly in the White House for “patience, courage, and the wisdom to make good decisions,” as also “for peace – for ourselves and others…” Carter is amazed by the lack of sensitivity towards gays and lesbians on the part of supposedly religious people. He reminds us of the irony that those who are overly concerned about the unborn are for state-sanctioned murder which is what death penalty is. And he argues that Christ would be against the death penalty.

In a chapter entitled the Distortion of American Foreign Policy, Carter discusses the deterioration of our interactions with other nations, like Cuba, North Korea and Latin American countries. He lists the disastrous consequences of short-sighted, insensitive and bungled foreign policies in virtually every region of the world, which has cost our country much in many ways, especially in terms of the goodwill of billions of people. In this context he refers to the popularization of Biblical prophesies about the coming of the Messiah through the myths of the Left Behind series. These books speak in dead seriousness about the coming occupation of the Holy Land by Christians, the final conversion of Jews to Christianity or their immolation, and about the en masse transportation of all Christians to Heaven where they will watch the torture of others who are left behind. Incredibly, even in this age of space exploration, unified field theories, and computer technology, millions of Americans and others are seduced into such stories by persuasive Bible-quoting writers. This may be depressing to enlightened Christians who have not fallen into the Fundamentalist trap, and amusing to Non-Christians. But what is alarming, says Carter, is that people with such views have gained influence in the higher echelons of American government.

Carter admits it was “especially unpleasant” for him to write about the American government’s reaction to 9/11 which has included curtailing human rights and due process, deportation of immigrants, detention without trial, prisoner abuse, acceptance of torture, and other practices that painfully deviate from the highest ideals for which this country has always stood. The government which is charged with the responsibility of protecting its citizens from ruthless terrorists is no doubt under great stress. Its spokesmen argue that the war on terror is unlike any other war, and that our enemies do everything they can to take advantage of the American system of fairness and justice, and that in this context it is not always possible to adhere to international treaties and conventions.  But civilized behavior demands that under no circumstances should we deviate from justice and the rule of law, human rights and humane treatment of prisoners.

Carter talks about our dismal failure in putting  brakes on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Our offensive characterization of nations which are already on the defensive only tends to make them react irrationally and belligerently. Intelligent leadership should bring them around through statesmanship and reassurance rather than by provocative and threatening proclamations.

Carter is very clear about military service, war, and his conscience as a Christian. He sees nothing wrong in a war to defend the country from foreign aggression. Prompted by terrorism and anti-American rhetoric, the current administration has announced a policy of preemptive attack. Carter deplores this because it “has forced the United States to renounce existing treaties and alliances as unnecessary constraints on our superpower’s freedom to act unilaterally.” He speaks out openly against the war in Iraq which he regards as hasty, unjustified, and based on misinformation. He stops short of describing the excuses given for this war as lies.

Carter is unhappy with the meager foreign aid given by Washington these days compared to other industrially advanced nations. “Sharing wealth with those that are starving and suffering unnecessarily is a value by which a nation’s moral values are measured,” he writes. He calculates on the basis of our $11 trillion gross national income that the U.S. government and people together give as aid about 22 cents for every hundred dollars in aid. Just as civilized religion can engender a fundamentalist wing, productive capitalism can sire greed, selfishness, and heartless exploitation. When capitalism morphs to such monstrosity, it too undermines the moral framework of nations. In this mode, caring for the poor and concern about the health-care of the less fortunate are not as urgent as the bottom line for shareholders. In Carter’s analysis, the heartless side of capitalism has entered the body politic of America.

The book concludes with a brief and thoughtful statement on the role and responsibility of a superpower. As such, Carter’s book and his concluding statement should be regarded as a wake-up call for America.T his book may be seen as a scathing indictment of President Bush and his advisors. But in a deeper sense it is an analysis of the crucial contexts where, because of forces seen and unseen, the country has moved away from her inherent decency and historical ideals. Jimmy Carter’s reflections may sound like a tirade by a mindless America-hater of which there are millions all over the world. But it is in fact a sad and cool-headed analysis of some of the ways in which America has been erring in the recent past. And it is written beautifully by someone who loves this country and has served it with distinction in a hundred ways, who is a devout and enlightened Christian, who is a humanist and  humanitarian,  who is deeply committed to international understanding and peace.

Jimmy Carter is respected all over the world his for honesty and decency. He knows what he is writing about, and he writes with simplicity and clarity, with truthfulness and passion. The contents of this book should be an eye-opener for those who are still oblivious to the dangers that lurk within the country from misguided patriots, religious zealots, and blundering politicians. It is a beacon of hope for America that it has thinkers like Jimmy Carter with depth of understanding, enlightened religious sensitivity,  and the courage to write books of this kind.


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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