Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter








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There’s clarity and calmness with each point Jimmy Carter makes in his new book, Our Endangered Values. Whether he’s talking about war, the environment, poverty, civil liberties or the church and state divide, Carter uses examples, illustrations and facts to support his point of view. Accustomed as we’ve become to harsh political rhetoric, Carter’s calmness is welcome relief, whether you agree or disagree with what he has to say. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, “The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism,” pp. 30-35:


In my 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, I said, “The present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” When asked by Christianity Today to explain this statement, I responded:


“There is a remarkable trend toward fundamental­ism in all religions—including the different denomi­nations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasingly, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ulti­mate step is ‘subhuman,’ and then their lives are not significant.

“That tendency has created, throughout the world, intense religious conflicts. Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words ofJesus Christ should encompass people who are dif­ferent from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.

“It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human in­clination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fash­ion with people who are just like us—and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what per­sonifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect ex­ample that Christ set for us.”


There has been, indeed, a disturbing trend toward fun­damentalism in recent years, among political leaders and within major religious groups both abroad and in our coun­try, and they have become increasingly intertwined. I felt the impact of this movement for the first time when Ayatollah Khomeini assumed the leadership of Iran, branded the United States of America “the Great Satan,” and encour­aged his young and militant followers to hold fifty-two of our embassy personnel captive for fourteen months. This shameful action was a direct violation of international law; and his fundamentalist interpretations of the Islamic Holy Scriptures, on which he based his religious leadership, also contravened the traditional teachings of the Koran concern­ing peace, compassion, and specifically the benevolent treat­ment of visitors or diplomats from other nations.

A few weeks before our hostages were seized in Iran, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention came to the Oval Office to visit me. This had been a routine ceremony for many years, especially when the president of the United States happened to be a Baptist. I congratulated him on his new position, and we spent a few minutes ex­changing courtesies. As he and his wife were leaving, he said, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secu­lar humanism as your religion.” This was a shock to me. I considered myself to be a loyal and traditional Baptist, and had no idea what he meant.

Later, after attending worship services at First Baptist Church, I met with our pastor and asked him to explain the troubling comment. He replied that a small group of conser­vative Southern Baptist leaders had marshaled adequate po­litical support at the convention to elect the new president, an event about which I had been only casually aware. With­out knowing how further to answer my questions, he sur­mised that I had made some presidential decisions that might be at odds with political positions espoused by leaders of the newly formed Moral Majority and other groups of conservative Christians. Some of the things we considered were that I had appointed many women to high positions in government, rejected using government funds in religious education, established an independent Department of Edu­cation to enhance the public schools, accepted the Roe v. Wade abortion decision of the Supreme Court, worked with Mormons to resolve some of their problems in foreign countries, normalized diplomatic relations with the Com­munist government of China, called for a Palestinian home­land and refused to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and was negotiating with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms control and other issues.

Both my pastor and I were still in a quandary, but I had no alternative except to ignore the condemnation and con­tinue doing what I thought was best for our country (and also compatible with my traditional Baptist beliefs). At the same time, I began to learn what I could about both Islam and the generic aspects of fundamentalism.

For generations, leaders within my own church and de­nomination had described themselves as “fundamentalists,” claiming that they were clinging to the fundamental ele­ments of our Baptist beliefs and resisting the pressures and influence of the modern world. This inclination to “cling to unchanging principles” is an understandable and benign as­pect of religion, and a general attitude that I have shared during most of my life.

   I soon learned that there was a more intense form of fundamentalism, with some prevailing characteristics:


           Almost invariably, fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.


          Although fundamentalists usually believe that the past is better than the present, they retain certain self-beneficial aspects of both their historic religious beliefs and of the modern world.


           Fundamentalists draw clear distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and that anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil.


           Fundamentalists are militant in fighting against any challenge to their beliefs. They are often angry and sometimes resort to verbal or even physical abuse against those who interfere with the implementation of their agenda.


           Fundamentalists tend to make their self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted, to isolate themselves, to demagogue emotional issues, and to view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness.


To summarize, there are three words that characterize this brand of fundamentalism: rigidity, domination, and ex­clusion.


While the title, Our Endangered Values, anticipates a comprehensive examination of values, this book is more a collection of essays on selected topics than a deep analysis of our American values. Carter’s voice is worth listening to, and Our Endangered Values calls attention to issues that are of concern to most Americans.



Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2005



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