Emory Report
May 1, 2006
Volume 58, Number 29


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May 1 , 2006
Carter says U.S. values eroding, endangered

BY michael terrazas

In just three years, the Emeritus College has set the bar fairly high for its annual Sheth Distinguished Lecture: The inaugural speaker was former Emory President Jim Laney, followed last year by William Foege, professor emeritus and former Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health.
It’s hard to guess where the event’s organizers will go from here, as last week former President Jimmy Carter delivered the third Sheth Lecture at the Miller-Ward Alumni House, using the opportunity to elaborate both the message and the reasons behind his latest (and 20th) book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.

“Jim Laney used to introduce me by saying I used the presidency as a stepping stone to greater things,” Carter said, recalling that he used to stay at Houston Mill House “back when I was working for” the former Emory president. “Of course, Jim wasn’t talking about me; he was talking about my being a professor at Emory.”

After arriving at the luncheon event, Carter sat down and enjoyed a sandwich with his “old boss” Laney, Emeritus College Director Eugene Bianchi and the event’s namesake (Goizueta Business School Professor Jagdish Sheth, in attendance along with his wife, Madhuri) before taking the podium to deliver an unflinching critique of a “remarkable and unprecedented [shift] in basic private and public values over the last quarter century.”

Those changes centered around two facets of American life: religion and politics. “I’ve always felt uniquely qualified to write about those two issues with some degree of perspective and authenticity,” said the nation’s 39th president, who still teaches Sunday school at his church in Plains, Ga.

Carter said he was reluctant to write the book at all. As a former president, he realized it might have been “not completely appropriate” to appear to be so critical of the current White House occupant. But he said he was careful not to personally criticize George W. Bush, a fact he said even the book’s most ardent critics have grudgingly acknowledged.

A chief characteristic of the cultural shift has been the merging of religion and politics, Carter said, detailing his personal break with the Southern Baptist Convention, a national congregation of some 17 million people. Carter said the convention went against its own historical values when it officially adopted a creed (impinging on the autonomy of local churches and excluding women from leadership positions within the church) and began venturing more and more into the political realm. He said there has been an “inexorable merger” of the Southern Baptists with the “conservative wing of the Republican party.”

Carter read from his book his own definition of religious fundamentalism, which he said is led by authoritarian males; believes the past is better than the present but reserves the right to retain self-serving ingredients of both; is completely convinced of its own morality and unequivocally casts the opposition as morally wrong and possibly evil; and makes its own self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted.

“There are three words that summarize [fundamentalists]: rigidity, domination and exclusion,” Carter said. “The Southern Baptist creed is completely compatible with this definition, which is deeply disturbing to me.”

The former president then turned his sights on America’s foreign policies, which he said have cost the United States most of the respect and admiration it once enjoyed around the world. He cited public opinion polls in Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan, where only 4 percent and 2 percent of people respectively “look with favor” on the U.S. political situation. The United States, Carter said, has “abandoned or derogated every single nuclear arms agreement negotiated since Eisenhower,” and at the same time has reserved the right to attack countries it considers a threat.

“I worship the Prince of Peace,” Carter said, “not the Prince of Pre-emptive War.”

Carter said the shifts in the political winds over the last five years not only blow against Democratic party values, but also those of former GOP presidents such as George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower. But, even as he was critical, Carter ended his address with a note of optimism.

“There is one saving grace here: America has a remarkable, historical, proven history of self-correction, and I believe that correction is already taking place,” he said, citing the Joseph McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s as an analogous situation. “Slowly but inexorably, the American people saw that [McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign] was a mistake.”