Jimmy Carter’s book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis is an examination of the Republican and Religious Right’s agenda by the ex-President along with an explanation of his understanding of his Christian faith and the values Christians should have. The book really has the parts: (1) a walk through his own Christian background and experience, including his explanation for leaving the Southern Baptist convention, as well as an authoritarianism by fundamentalists that has led to greater division in America; (2) an examination of issues of concern to the Religious Right (evolution and ID; the Judiciary and our pluralistic structure; homosexuality and a comparison with how divorce is treated; abortion and the death penalty; the role of women, including discussion of texts from Jesus and Paul); and (3) a look at more traditional political issues (our current foreign policy in terms of Cuba, North Korea, Israel; human rights and the Patriot Act; Nuclear proliferation policy; the issue of preemptive as well as just war and its misapplication in Iraq; Oil reserves and global warming in a look at environmental issues; the ignoring of the growing gap between rich and poor with a look at both Africa and domestic policy). This book is frank and direct of its criticism of the Religious Right as not being consistent nor necessarily as biblical as it claims. It is very much a kind of political manifesto framed by the morality discussion. Evangelicals are labeled as fundamentalists, a use of language that does not honor the scope of variety within evangelicalism. Nonetheless, the book does allow for one to reflect on the entire range of issues that have moral dimensions to them and about which Christians should be concerned about as they make a series of moral judgments about what Christians should be concerned about as Christians and as citizens. At a theological level, Carter is quick to favor the treatment of Jesus over Paul (something that is becoming more common all the time in treatments of the Bible, and I say this as one who has seen the teaching of Jesus deemphasized in the evangelical church in places. The pendulum is now swinging the other way as readers play one portion of Scripture over another). For example, in quite correctly making the point that Jesus opened things up for women in a way that affirms equality of benefits and was revolutionary in the culture, Carter treats the Pauline passages as driven by contextual factors that limit their applicability. This is a move I would like to be able to make, but seems very much less than likely to me given the rationale Paul gives in these passages. Paul’s appeals to the angelic observation of our worship (1 Cor 11) or to Adam and Eve (1 Tim 2) look to be appeals to cross-cultural rationale. Carter is right to highlight the fact that women are affirmed as able to do much more than some evangelicals often think the Bible permits (so he is right to note Priscilla’s reputation as a teacher even of Apollos and to speak of the affirmed ministry of the women noted in Romans 16 in a variety of ministry roles, but he ignores the seeming limitation of a role for women as elders. He is right to note women can be affirmed for a whole range of ministry (some roles that might well suggest ordination for them to those roles), but does not treat adequately other texts where limits are in play. Instead he moves quickly to Gal. 3 and plays on theological trajectory in a manner that seems to me to cancel out restrictions that are affirmed for women in certain roles in the text. Perhaps the most important point both sides should be able to affirm is that when the Scripture discusses gender, it often does use balanced statements that make it clear that the function of those “in authority” is not primarily about the exercise of power (where the discussion of the entire church tends to get sucked into the world’s way of looking at the question), but as servants for others (see the emphasis on the husbands love in Eph 5 or the call by Jesus to the 12 to lead by his servant example and not as the world leads). Such lessons on the exercise of power among and by Christians might be a lesson to all sides in this debate. The book is valuable in the most part for its tone and the scope of what it covers. It does lead to reflection about what Christian values apply to a wide array of areas. Its treatment of the Right is one-sided, but it does point out a tone that is not sensitive enough to the pluralistic structure of our government and society. You may not always agree with Carter at numerous points, as I do not, but one can respect the fact he presents his rationale clearly and seeks to engage us on the substantive points of the issues in question with a first hand experience of them most of us sorely lack.
Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, by President Jimmy Carter - Oct 7