The Magazine

Pious the First

McNuggets of wisdom from the 39th president.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Our Endangered Values
America's Moral Crisis
by Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $25

IT IS DIFFICULT, WHEN confronting the miasma of tired bromides strung together in this book, to point to a single childlike sentimentality that fully expresses the smallness of Jimmy Carter's soul, but this one comes close: "[Rosalynn and I] have been amazed at the response of people to these new latrines, especially in Ethiopia, and to learn that the primary thrust for building them has come from women."

If Carter merely confined himself to digging latrines in countries that lack the common sense to dig them for themselves, he would deserve many of the public accolades he receives. But he trades on his humanitarian good works to burnish his image as an elder statesman, brimming with oracular profundity. The result, as in his current book, is as empty and embarrassing as the naked emperor's new clothes.

What Garry Wills once called Carter's "willed narrowness of mastery" is on full display in Our Endangered Values, which offers a complete inventory of current liberal clichés. But it is so weakly executed that, had the manuscript come across the transom from an assistant professor named John Smith instead of St. Jimmy of Plains, it could only have found print with a vanity publisher. Our Endangered Values makes Al Gore's Earth in the Balance read like the Critique of Pure Reason by comparison.

That Carter gets away with passing off his jejune axioms as serious political thought is a barometer of the senescence of liberalism. Liberal Intellectuals once looked askance at Carter. When Carter first arrived on the national scene in the mid-1970s, his superficial references to Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and other thinkers set off alarm bells among LIs such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger, who had been close to Niebuhr, could detect none of Niebuhr's hard-headed realism in Carter's use of Niebuhr's words, causing him to wonder "whether Mr. Carter can really have understood Niebuhr." Schlesinger was not alone among LIs, who grasped immediately Carter's essential fraudulence and warned that he would be a disaster for the Democratic party. Yet now liberals look the other way as Carter fetes Michael Moore in the presidential box at the Democratic National Convention.

Carter's previously meager theological reflections shrivel to nothingness in Our Endangered Values. He equates fundamentalist Christianity in the United States with radical Islamist fundamentalism, as though Southern Baptists were about to sign up for flight school. He purports to respect diversity of theological views within different Christian denominations, but then attacks those conservative denominations that won't ordain women. He charges that "religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state," though he offers no specific examples or any extended analysis of the contentious constitutional aspects of this issue.

Carter criticizes government aid to religious organizations--the "faith-based initiative"--because these religious efforts are inferior to "more broad and equitable government programs that address the wider needs of the poor for economic justice, with access to training for jobs, affordable housing, health care, sound education, and a livable wage." No doubt the poor share his enthusiasm for all those highly successful government programs that church organizations can't match.

Carter's warnings against blending religion and politics represent a breathtaking hypocrisy and lack of shame from the person who paraded his "born-again" faith as a cornerstone of his presidential campaign in 1976. But this should not surprise us from the person who embraced George Wallace on his path to the Georgia governorship, but later accused Ronald Reagan of race-baiting.

Carter's confusion over foreign affairs matches his confusion over religion and politics. He doesn't like missile defense. He doesn't like John Bolton. He doesn't like the Patriot Act. He doesn't like "neocons." He admits that he doesn't quite understand what neoconservatism is, though he somehow knows it is allied with religious fundamentalism. He thinks we should have "increased development assistance with fewer strings."