Our Endangered Values

Jimmy Carter is without doubt one of the most active and influential ex-presidents in American history.

After leaving office, he established the nonprofit Carter Center, tasked with advancing human rights around the world. Through his and the center’s work, Carter has helped monitor more than 60 democratic elections, worked with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to develop sustainable agriculture, negotiated for peaceful conflict resolution in various countries, and worked to eradicate diseases such as Guinea worm and river blindness. For these and other efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Carter–whose presidency was highlighted by achievements in international diplomacy such as the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, the Panama Canal treaties, and the arms-reducing SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union—is also the author of 20 books. The most recent, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, is a wide-ranging critique of how fundamentalism, both religious and political, is influencing American policy at home and abroad.

President Carter recently spoke with Mother Jones from his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

MotherJones: In your book, you talk about the intersection in recent years of religious and political fundamentalism. What is the origin of this merger?

Jimmy Carter: I think it was in 1979, when future fundamentalists took control of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is a very important religious and political factor in this country. After that, the Southern Baptist Convention had almost diametrically opposite basic principles than it had previously followed, and there’s been an evolution within the Convention toward a more and more rigid and strict creed that embodies the fundamentalist principles that I mention in the book.

Now, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the elementary principle of fundamentalism has existed for ages, and it obviously permeates other religions as well, such as Islam and Hinduism and others. But this trend continued and, parallel to it, there was in effect a merger of the fundamentalist Christian leaders and the more conservative elements of the Republican Party. And for the last 25 years or so, that merger has become more pronounced and more evident.

MJ.com: Which of the two strains of fundamentalism do you see as leading the other?

JC: I wouldn’t say leading, but both are influencing each other. In the past, there have been two parallel premises for the separation of church and state. One obviously is what Thomas Jefferson declared, stating that he was speaking on behalf of the other founding fathers, when he said we should build a wall between the church and state. And in the Christian faith, we all remember that Christ said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” This also indicates that there should be a clear separation.

But those premises have been publicly disavowed or challenged by Pat Robertson on the religious side, and even by the former chief justice of the Supreme Court [William Rehnquist]. But nowadays, with the allocation of billions of dollars through what President Bush calls a faith-based initiative, taxpayers’ money is distributed to churches and other religious institutions that will comply with the basic principles of the present political administration. And there’s no doubt that in public conventions and in individual church speeches and sermons, there’s been a prevalent inclination to endorse candidates, primarily Republican candidates.

MJ.com: At this point, 25 years in, do you expect this to remain a permanent situation?

JC: In the last few months at least, I would guess, there has been a reconsideration by many American citizens that that trend was not advisable for our country. This is indicated, at least to some degree, by public-opinion polls. And obviously the popularity in polls of some Republican leaders has deteriorated as well. So there’s been a re-thinking in many ways. I think part of it has been caused by some of the practical political decisions that were ill advised and were supported by the religious fundamentalists.

All of us Christians worship the Prince of Peace, but the fundamentalists I referred to earlier publicly supported what I consider the unjust and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. That was one indication of a very radical departure. The reception of public funds to go into the religious activities of a church is almost unprecedented, at least within the Baptist faith, which I share. Other aspects are the almost complete refusal of the fundamentalist Christian leaders to condemn even the torture of prisoners and the intrusion on Americans’ privacy and rights as protected under the U.S. Constitution. On those kinds of issues, formerly characterized by a separate opinion on public events between the religious community and the political community, the difference has been eliminated.

MJ.com: The definition of fundamentalism you provide in the book includes the unwillingness to cooperate or negotiate with others. Where do you see that tendency as most dangerous at the moment?

JC: The danger comes when those kinds of principles are applied on the international scene. That brought about a whole gamut of things. One, obviously, is the unprecedented preemptive war that President Bush has declared to be a policy of our country. Another is the total abandonment, and often the derogation, of every nuclear-arms agreement that has been negotiated by previous presidents, beginning in the time of Dwight Eisenhower.

At home, it brought about the deterioration of our commitment to environmental quality. Another [effect] is the enormous preference that has been given in tax laws recently to the extremely rich at the expense of working-class and poorer people. Then there’s the implied melding of science and religion, where even the president himself has expressed the opinion that religious beliefs should be taught in scientific classrooms. That’s unprecedented. And there is a unique and special emphasis—which is a recent development too—within the religious community, an obsession with the condemnation of homosexuality. Now, in the bible homosexuality is condemned, but along with divorce and greed and callousness toward poor people. So its elevation to a highest priority among some religious groups has been very disturbing to me.

One point I believe is important, looking at the political side once more, is that this is not a Democratic-versus-Republican or a liberal-versus-conservative concern. This is a departure in all those points, compared to all previous Republican presidents—compared to George Bush Sr. or Ronald Reagan, compared to Gerald Ford or Dwight Eisenhower, as well as the Democratic presidents. It’s a radical departure.

MJ.com: As you know, the Bible stresses the need to help the poor, and yet the government appears to have moved away from that notion in recent years.

JC: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And one point that is made openly by some so-called neoconservatives is that we need to drive the nation into debt – which they’ve done grossly – to prevent future administrations from having the funding flexibility to increase government services to the poor. Whether in the field of housing or education or health care or social services, there’s a deliberate idea there that is quoted quite freely in some of the right-wing political periodicals.

MJ.com: Do you think the Hurricane Katrina disaster has changed that dynamic at all?

JC: If it is, I haven’t seen the results of it. There has been some verbal recognition of the plight of the poor, but when you look at the total commitment and the sending out of the poorest people in the Katrina region, help has been pretty well absent. I think this has been a scandalous thing for the Bush administration, something that has been acknowledged not just by critics like me but by the Congress itself. The reaction of FEMA – which used to be a sterling organization – and the neglect of the poorest people suffering in New Orleans and other places has been a complete embarrassment.

MJ.com: You mentioned the Iraq war, and you were an early critic. Given the situation as it stands now, are you at all hopeful about the prospects for a stable democracy emerging?

JC: Well, I’m hopeful. I pray that there will be a successful democratic system established in Iraq that can keep the country together and avoid further violence. I think what we should do is get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, and this can be done in a number of ways. I think one of the best ways would be for us to surreptitiously ask the new leaders of Iraq to publicly request that the U.S. troops withdraw. Then, instead of taking the initiative and saying we have failed in Iraq, we could say that we are honoring the new democracy established in Iraq. That’s one scenario that could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. troops within a year. But my own belief is that no one in the top levels in Washington now intends to ever pull all the American troops from Iraq. I think there was a strong motivation to go into Iraq to establish a permanent military presence there of some kind. And I don’t believe there’s anyone in the top levels in Washington who’s willing to relinquish the privileged position we have in the acquisition and marketing of Iraqi oil, to open it up to France or Russia or China.

So I think there’s still a strong feeling in Washington to retain a strong permanent military and economic presence in Iraq. My belief is that a lot of the violence that continues in Iraq right now between different religious groups is caused in part by the continued presence of American troops. I believe that if American troops withdrew, almost immediately the level of violence would decrease.

MJ.com: Having monitored many elections yourself, what other conditions do you think must be in place for a viable democracy to work in Iraq?

JC: I don’t think we can start the election procedure all the way over. Now I think the decision is going to be up to the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds to try to work out some sort of arrangement among themselves based on ethnic and religious backgrounds, similar to what has existed for several generations in Lebanon. There the president comes from one group, the prime minister comes from another group, and you have some degree of autonomy depending on whether people live in a certain place or have a certain ethnic or religious background. That’s what we still hope for. Based on the previous election held in Iraq last December, that’s still a hopeful possibility, and it would certainly be my preference.

MJ.com: As you note in your book, the situation in Iraq poses a conflict of American values, in the sense that promoting democracy could, for example, lead to an elected government that takes away things such as women’s rights. How does America walk that line?

JC: We can’t completely control what the Iraqis prefer in their social policies. Obviously, we saw the terrible circumstances in Afghanistan when the Taliban made women almost complete servants and debased them. Under Saddam Hussein of course, and even under the former Shah of Iran, there was a more enlightened treatment of women, as there is in Egypt and some other Muslim countries. What I understand, though, is that the strong inclination of the Shiite plurality – they don’t quite have a majority – in the new government is to implement sharia law as far as women’s dress is concerned and the subjugation of women to an acknowledged male domination. From what I understand, that’s under consideration in the draft of the new constitution. Unfortunately, we can’t just go in and order the Shiites to change their basic beliefs that women should wear veils or shouldn’t be educated and so forth. I deplore this, but it’s not something the United States can control.

MJ.com: There’s been a somewhat similar conflict in the Palestinian territories, where a democratically held election led to the victory of Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization. What can the United States do in this case?

JC: The Carter Center monitored that election, as well as the two previous Palestinian elections. They’ve been open and safe elections, as good as any we’ve seen in the world. [The Palestinian election in January was the 62nd one the Carter Center had monitored.] We’re familiar with the situation there, and most of us expected that Hamas would win a plurality, but the fact they won a majority was a surprise to everyone.

Now, I don’t believe it’s even possible under U.S. law for the United States to deal directly with a government where the ministers and parliament are Hamas members. That’s illegal under our laws. However, the president of the Palestinian government is still Mahmoud Abbas, who represents the Fatah Party. He is a moderate, respected, honest—and was anointed a couple years ago by the United States and Israel as their main interlocutor. He is still in charge of the PLO; since Arafat died, he’s the head of it. The only political organization that Israel has ever acknowledged is the PLO. And I noticed recently that Abbas was in Norway, calling strongly for peace talks to begin immediately with Israel and saying, accurately, that he has the legal authority to speak for the Palestinians as president and as head of the PLO. So there’s nothing that happened in January that prevents the initiation or resumption of peace talks.

MJ.com: In previous interviews you’ve proposed that the United States continue to give aid to the Palestinian people while not dealing with the Hamas government.

JC: That’s what I think the United States should do. We can’t deal directly with the Hamas government. But I think we should have the same degree of generosity to the Palestinian people who are suffering horribly in their own land. This could be done through UNESCO, through the United Nations Human Rights Organization, through UNICEF, or even through the government of Jordan. Just to finance the payment of schoolteachers or nurses or ambulance services or food distribution to people. This could be done almost completely independently of who is in parliament and who the ministers might be. That’s what I’ve advocated, not just for the United States but also for Europe. I hope there will be some modification in the present actions, which will cause Palestinians to suffer even more than they have in the past and maybe even ultimately create a violent reaction from their hopelessness.

MJ.com: Even looking back at Iraq in the 1990s, the sanctions there seemed to hurt public opinion about the U.S. more than they did Saddam Hussein.

JC: That’s true. That was ostensibly focused on Saddam Hussein, but we make the same mistakes in other places. Unfortunately, we do the same thing in Cuba. The animosity against Fidel Castro means we have an embargo against travel, commerce, tourism, and the sale of food and medicine to the Cuban people. This doesn’t hurt Castro; in fact, it hurts the people who are already suffering under his dictatorship. And it tends to make him a hero, where he can blame all of his own self-induced economic problems on the United States. So I think whenever we have a bludgeon to economically use sanctions against people in an attempt to hurt the dictator in charge, it’s counterproductive.

MJ.com: On the flip side, you note in the book that the American public thinks the country spends much more money on international aid than it actually does.

JC: Polls show that Americans think we spend 10-15 percent of our gross income to help other people, and we spend much less than one half of one percent. And we spend less on a per-capita basis, compared to our income, than any other industrialized nation in the world. And in addition to this stinginess with which we allocate government funds to help humanitarian assistance to needy people, we put horrendous restraints on how our own dollars are expended. For example, we’re very interested in trying to control AIDS in Africa, but the Congress puts strings on the money, such as you can’t spend it on family planning or the use of condoms. Anybody in his right mind knows that one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of AIDS is for people who have sex to use condoms.

Another thing is that in the last 20 years or so, beginning with President Reagan, we have shifted to letting almost all the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] funds go to American contractors. It used to be that within USAID, we had experts employed by the U.S. government who made sure the money was spent wisely and efficiently. Now that money goes almost exclusively to American contractors who set up offices in foreign countries. They receive the money and dole it out with enormous waste.

MJ.com: By comparison, what have you found effective in your own work that other organizations could learn from?

JC: One thing is that, since I have been president, I’m able to deal directly with the leaders of African governments. I go into the country and let it be known what we want to do in advance, and I ask the president to meet with me and to have his prime minister there as well as his whole cabinet. I negotiate a contract between the Carter Center and, for example, the government of Uganda or Mali or Burkina Faso. That’s the first thing. Whereas if the World Health Organization or UNICEF wanted to do this, they would probably – through no fault of their own – be limited to dealing with the minister of health. That’s one advantage we have. A second is we have a policy of not sending a large bureaucracy into a country. We usually send in one expert who represents the Carter Center. And all of the workers are local people, Kenyans or Nigerians or Tanzanians. They are the ones who actually do the work in the villages, with us teaching them and providing assistance. And a third thing we do that makes our work effective is I don’t put my name on anything when we deal with these diseases. In Africa for instance, we generally call it Global 2000, so the local village leader can say, “My Global 2000 program eradicated Guinea worm.” Or increased the production of corn or wheat. And the president can say the same thing. I think those three things – dealing with the top leadership, depending on local people we train to do the work, and we don’t try to take credit for it.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist and former editorial fellow at MotherJones.com. He has written for publications including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Daily Herald, Mental Floss, and Women’s eNews.