Former President Jimmy Carter, America's first evangelical Christian president, still teaches Sunday school at his Baptist church in Plains, Georgia, and he and his wife, Rosalynn, continue their human-rights work in developing nations through the Carter
Center at Emory University. In recent months, the Carters toured Togo, Ghana, and Mali to raise awareness of the public-health needs of those nations. In February, Carter spoke about the role of evangelical Christianity in democratic politics with Prospect writing fellow Ayelish McGarvey.
Republicans have been extremely successful at connecting religion and values to issues like the fight against terrorism, abortion, and gay rights. Democrats have been far less adept at infusing our issues -- compassion, help for the poor, social justice -- with any sense of religious commitment or moral imperative. Why do you think that is?
When I was younger, almost all Baptists were strongly committed on a theological basis to the separation of church and state. It was only 25 years ago when there began to be a melding of the Republican Party with fundamentalist Christianity, particularly with the Southern Baptist Convention. This is a fairly new development, and I think it was brought about by the abandonment of some of the basic principles of Christianity.
First of all, we worship the prince of peace, not war. And those of us who have advocated for the resolution of international conflict in a peaceful fashion are looked upon as being unpatriotic, branded that way by right-wing religious groups, the Bush administration, and other Republicans.
Secondly, Christ was committed to compassion for the most destitute, poor, needy, and forgotten people in our society. Today there is a stark difference [between conservative ideology and Christian teaching] because most of the people most strongly committed to the Republican philosophy have adopted the proposition that help for the rich is the best way to help even poor people (by letting some of the financial benefits drip down to those most deeply in need). I would say there has been a schism drawn -- on theology and practical politics and economics between the two groups.
What has attracted conservative Christians to a party that protects corporate interests and promotes an aggressive foreign-policy agenda? How do those square?
There is an element of fundamentalism involved, which involves the belief on the part of a human being that [his or her] own concept of God is the proper one. And since [he or she has] the proper concept of God, [he or she is] particularly blessed and singled out for special consideration above and beyond those who disagree with [him or her].
Secondly, anyone who does disagree with [him or her], since [he or she is] harnessed to God in a unique way, then, by definition, must be wrong. And the second step is if you are in disagreement with [his or her] concept of the way to worship, even among the Christian community, is that you are inferior to [him or her]. And then the ultimate progression of that is that you're not only different and wrong and inferior but in some ways you are subhuman. So there's a loss of concern even for the death of those who disagree. And this takes fundamentalism to the extreme. This is an element of the fundamentalist cause in this country. If you are a wealthy white man, then you are naturally inclined to think that the poor are inferior and don't deserve your first consideration. If you are a wealthy white man, then you also take on the proposition that women are inherently inferior. This builds up a sense of prejudice and alienation that permeates the Christian right during these days.
What issues do you see galvanizing moderate evangelicals as they go to the polls in November?
I've been involved in national politics now for more than 25 years. But this year we will see the Democratic Party more united than ever before in my memory, and even the earlier history that I studied before my life began. I think we're completely united with a determination to replace the Bush administration and its fundamentalist, right-wing philosophy with the more moderate qualities that have always exemplified what our nation is: a nation committed to strength in the military. I served longer in the military than any other president since the Civil War except Dwight Eisenhower. I was a submarine officer. I used the enormous and unmatched strength of America to promote peace for other people and preserve peace for ourselves.
Now it seems as though it is an attractive thing in Washington to resort to war in the very early stage of resolving an altercation; a completely unnecessary war that President Bush decided to launch against the Iraqis is an example of that. And I think that a reaction against that warlike attitude on the part of America to the exclusion of almost all other nations in the world -- and arousing fear in them -- is going to be a driving issue.
I think that the abandonment of environmental issues even endorsed by President Nixon when I was governor (as well as virtually all of the Republicans and Democrats) has been notable under the Bush administration. One of the things I learned as a young Baptist boy was to be a steward of the world that God blessed us to enjoy. And I think the abandonment of basic environmental standards by the Bush administration rallies us.
And I think the third thing is the obvious orientation of the Bush administration toward Halliburton, Enron, and other major corporations. You see this in the enormous tax reductions that have been granted to people that make more than $200,000 a year. That is another issue on which the Democrats will rally a common goal.
Do you think that Democrats will be able to attract Bible-believing Christians in a year that gay marriage will be used as a smokescreen to distract attention from those issues?
I think so. There isn't a major candidate who has endorsed gay marriage; they are in favor of equal protection through a civil-union arrangement. I personally, in my Sunday-school lessons, don't favor the religious endorsement of a gay marriage. But I do favor equal treatment under the law for people who differ from me in sexual orientation.
What about abortion? How would you speak to moderate evangelicals who withhold support for Democratic candidates on that single issue?
This was an issue that I had to face when I was campaigning 25 years ago. I have always been against abortion; it's not possible for me in my own concept of Christ to believe that Jesus would favor abortion. But at the same time, I have supported the Supreme Court ruling of our country as the law of the land. And the present arrangement, whereby a woman is authorized to have an abortion in the first trimester of the pregnancy, or when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest -- these are the things that moderates who have beliefs like mine can accept as the present circumstances in our country. The liberality of abortion is anointed by the laws of our country, including the ultimate ruling of the Supreme Court.
How do you think the fundamentalist Christian right has misrepresented Christianity, as well as the democratic process?
Well, what do Christians stand for, based exclusively on the words and actions of Jesus Christ? We worship him as a prince of peace. And I think almost all Christians would conclude that whenever there is an inevitable altercation -- say, between a husband and a wife, or a father and a child, or within a given community, or between two nations (including our own) -- we should make every effort to resolve those differences which arise in life through peaceful means. Therein, we should not resort to war as a way to exalt the president as the commander in chief. A commitment to peace is certainly a Christian principle that even ultraconservatives would endorse, at least by worshipping the prince of peace.
And Christ reached out almost exclusively to the poor, suffering, abandoned, deprived -- the scorned, the condemned people -- including Samaritans and those who were diseased. The alleviation of suffering was a philosophy that was enhanced and emphasized by the life of Christ. Today the ultra-right wing, in both religion and politics, has abandoned that principle of Jesus Christ's ministry.
Those are the two principal things in the practical sense that starkly separate the ultra-right Christian community from the rest of the Christian world: Do we endorse and support peace and support the alleviation of suffering among the poor and the outcast?
You spent so much of your career working toward a reasonable, peaceful solution to violence and strife in Israel and Palestine. Increasing attention has been paid to traditionalist evangelicals' strong support for Israel, based on the New Testament prophecy that the reconstruction of the ancient kingdom of David will usher in the “end times” and the Second Coming of Christ. As a believer and a peacemaker, how do you respond to this?
That's a completely foolish and erroneous interpretation of the Scriptures. And it has resulted in these last few years with a terrible, very costly, and bloody deterioration in the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. Every president except for George W. Bush has taken a relatively balanced position between the Israelis and their enemies, always strongly supporting Israel but recognizing that you have to negotiate and work between Israel and her neighbors in order to bring about a peaceful resolution.
It's nearly the 25th anniversary of my consummation of a treaty between Israel and Egypt -- not a word of which has ever been violated. But this administration, maybe strongly influenced by ill-advised theologians of the extreme religious right, has pretty well abandoned any real effort that could lead to a resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. And no one can challenge me on my commitment to Israel and its right to live in peace with all its neighbors. But at the same time, there has to be a negotiated settlement; you can't just ordain the destruction of the Palestinian people, and their community and their political entity, in favor of the Israelis.
And that's what some of the extreme fundamentalist Christians have done, both to the detriment of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Ayelish McGarvey, who writes a biweekly online column about religion, is a Prospect writing fellow.
Think all evangelicals are right-wingers? Just as many are politically
moderate. Read more about them in Ayelish McGarvey's piece, "Reaching the
Choir", from the print edition.