02 April 2007

Our Endangered Values

Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values - America's Moral CrisisThe shelves of Waterstones in London display a distinct paucity of books exploring the interconnection of faith and politics. Even with a wider search of books on a political and moral values debate, they are still thin on the ground. However, just a cursory glance at the vast shelves of books on politics in any branch of Borders in America reveals the fascination, or at least the sincere engagement, of the faithful with politics. Whether from a predictable right-wing commentator such as Ann Coulter or the manifesto-like declarations of Barack Obama, there is no shortage of narrative.

Outside of either category lies Our Endangered Values by former president Jimmy Carter, a man whose humanitarian work still has an immense effect on people’s lives, and whose faith is an integral part of his decision-making. With chapters on faith and fundamentalism, homosexuality and humanity, peace and proliferation, it reads very much like a creed – a response to issues of the day in the light of faith, with a declaration of belief and associated actions. From the outset, however, the book is a paradox. While on the one hand it holds out a Biblical perspective on the issues Carter faced while in the White House, his own accounts of his actions while president show how he consistently forced his beliefs into submission to the will of the people. Despite all the Biblical window-dressing, the book leaves a lasting impression of a presidency where principle crumbled before popular opinion.

That is not, in any way, to downplay Carter’s considerable achievements from the Oval Office. The delicate diplomatic juggling acts that were no doubt performed in order to maintain leadership amid such pivotal events as the Iranian kidnapping and the case of Roe v Wade are testament to his abilities as a leader. However, his deference to the philosophy of pragmatism at the expense of a commitment to Biblical truth is hard to reconcile with his frequent assertions that his Christian faith was the bedrock of his leadership. The “life” issues are perhaps the topics where Carter most explicitly acknowledges the potential for compromising the tenets of faith, when he states that he “never believed that Jesus Christ would approve either abortions or the death penalty, but I obeyed such Supreme Court decisions to the best of my ability”. This elevation of the majority opinion over conviction of faith arises again when discussing divorce: “with a clear majority of Americans condoning divorce … it may be best to leave the US Constitution alone”.

However, this seeming surrender to popular opinion is countered by wise consideration of the political ramifications of building specific moral duty into the fabric of government, especially when the endgame becomes waiting “for the US Supreme Court to give the ultimate answer”. Should the church not more loudly acknowledge that they do not “regard homosexuality as a significant factor in [the] multitude of failed marriages”? Holding on to absolute values via loud condemnation does not excuse the church of its responsibility to find instruments to demonstrate why it believes Biblical guidelines are good not just for them, but good for everyone, the natural position to be taken when believing in a sovereign God who created the world and everything in it.

Ultimate confusion is introduced when the conclusion of a chapter on human rights refers to “ancient and unchanging moral principles”. It’s at this point the coherence of Carter’s worldview begins to falter. How is it possible to hold human rights as “unchanging” but bow to majority opinion on a Biblical pillar of societal cohesion such as marriage? A decision has been taken that certain truths are absolute and others relative; that some values can and should be built into the fabric of law and leadership, and others not. It was this worldview, and its consequences for the formulation of policy and national leadership, that I was searching for but did not find.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of a past leader of a great nation, and does contain important challenges to the wider church. That said, it does not reveal a new or carefully articulated understanding of how to lead a nation by faith. A contribution to the conversation we should all be having? Yes. A foundation on which to work? No.

Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
Review by Mike Causey