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Jimmy Carter Explains Christian Fundamentalists

John on August 17, 2006 at 3:28 pm

Ex-President Carter was recently interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel. For the record, I like some of Carter’s efforts on behalf of Habitat for Humanity and his work in Africa. I’m not condemning everything he does. Nevertheless, as I read this interview my first thought was “Wow, this guy was President?!”

One of the main topics covered in the interview was the influence of red Christians in American politics. Here’s an excerpt on that topic:

SPIEGEL: One main points of your book is the rather strange coalition between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party. How can such a coalition of the pious lead to moral catastrophes like the Iraqi prison scandal in Abu Ghraib and torture in Guantanamo?

Carter: The fundamentalists believe they have a unique relationship with God, and that they and their ideas are God’s ideas and God’s premises on the particular issue. Therefore, by definition since they are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong. And the next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases — as is the case with some fundamentalists around the world — it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant. Another thing is that a fundamentalist can’t bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality. And so this administration, for instance, has a policy of just refusing to talk to someone who is in strong disagreement with them — which is also a radical departure from past history. So these are the kinds of things that cause me concern. And, of course, fundamentalists don’t believe they can make mistakes, so when we permit the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, it’s just impossible for a fundamentalist to admit that a mistake was made.

I’m honestly not sure this answer makes any sense whatsoever. The only way it could, in my opinion, is if we rather generously fill in some of the lacunae in Mr. Carter’s thought. I’m not sure I’m qualified to do that, but I’m going to try anyway.

First of all, the use of “fundamentalists” here seems to be a stand in for “evangelicals.” The number of self-identified fundamentalists in the US is relatively small and their political influence with Republicans is correspondingly not that great. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are a significant precentage of the US population and had a significant role in the 2004 election. So either the interviewer and Carter are playing bait-and-switch here with the terms or (as I think is more likely) they see the terms as essentially interchangable.

But there is some more subtle shifting of thought going on here that is even more significant to understanding this answer. Note that about mid-way into it, Carter shifts from talking about American fundamentalists to another type of unnamed fundamentalist from “around the world.” This group or groups see their opponents as “sub-human.” We have no indication who Carter is alluding to here, but I know which group came to my mind in light of current events. As it happens, it’s the same group Carter is defending a few paragraphs earlier, i.e. Hezbollah.

With all that said, as I read the broad outlines of both the question and the answer we are meant to understand that Abu Ghraib happened because red Christians — a species of religious fundamentalists — don’t believe other people are equally human. The answer is framed as if we’re talking about something we all know to be true, like the fact that “the sky is blue.” I’m sorry, Mr. President, but when this become common knowledge I must have missed a memo.

About 2/3 in, Carter takes a stab at supporting this idea when his answer takes a jarring shift to the topic of negotiations. Once again, red Christian values are at fault for the President’s reticence to netogiate with “people.” Of course the “people” Bush has refused to talk to would include Kim Jong Il of North Korea and President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Is Carter making a subtle reference to Bush’s axis of evil speech? Is that the dehumanizing influence Carter felt was brought about by red Christian values?

If so, it should be noted that both of these nations are dictatorships. They are not representative governments. Therefore negotiating with them is, at base, tacit support for their illegitemate power. That aside, are we wrong to call them evil? Well, in both nations anyone caught even discussing Christianity would face a death sentence. I’ve written about credible reports coming out of North Korea of men being run over by a steamroller for running a church. My co-blogger Scott noted President Ahmadinejad’s statement that the holocaust was a myth. Are these really just “people” as Carter puts it, or are we right to make some moral judgments about these regimes and their practices toward their own people?

Earlier in his answer, Carter said “since they [red Christians] are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong.” But again, is that really what’s happening in these cases? Have we jumped to an unfair conclusion? Are we judging Kim Jong Il unfairly? Or do we in fact have some good and legitimate reasons for not wanting to prop up his regime (including the fact that last time we negotiated with him, he took our billions and broke his part of the agreement anyway). Is the alternative to the red Christian position Carter rejects the idea that no one is evil or just that we shouldn’t let that get in the way of negotiating with them? I’m not sure.

Admittedly, I’m reading all of this detail into Carter’s answer, but it’s the only way it begins to make sense to me. The more I try to untangle the Gordian Knot of his thought, the more it starts to feel familar. It comes down to a suggestion that red Christians in America are just one step to the left of terrorists on the “fundamentalist continuum.” And Abu Ghraib is somehow both the fruit of this poisonous tree and also — like something out of a Harry Potter novel — the truth that must not be named. Those are pretty big claims. Personally, I don’t think any one of them can be supported by facts, which may be why this statement is so free of them.

I could be wrong, of course. Any blue Christians out there want to parse it for me?

[Cross posted at Red Blue Christian]

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