January 23, 2006
-- Martin E. Marty
In weekly Sightings and biweekly "M.E.M.O" and Context, my regular outlets, readers may have noticed that I very rarely "do" presidents, especially sitting ones. Today an ex-president comes into periscope range, since it's exactly a quarter of a century since Jimmy Carter left office. It would seem to be a safe time to get distance on him. Still, this "best ex-president we ever had" stirs slurs—as in the weeks-ago Wall Street Journal's trashy trashing of his new bestseller, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis. Carter the pol knows that politics is not a sport for the timid, and is used to the give-and-take of criticism, some of which he gives in his new book.
Having just finished co-directing a project at Emory University in Atlanta, I had several chances for close-up views again on this fellow retiree. On two occasions he made public appearances to advance our project, so one might say I "have an interest." My main interest, however, is to say that if I don't speak up once, in measured admiration and immeasurable gratitude, I'd be an ingrate.
Let his detractors say what they wish; Mr. Carter strikes me as someone who can be at ease with himself. Millions of voters in scores of nations are better off for his (and his team's) monitoring of their elections. Literally hundreds of thousands of the poor, especially in Africa, are alive and healthy, thanks to Carter-inspired ventures (for example, against river blindness and guinea worm infestation).
This is not the place to review Carter, but a review of Carter's book by Gary Wills, which concentrates so much on religion (as it has to if it wishes to "catch" the man), inspires some quoting and commenting. Wills compares religion-in-politics in 1972, when he first tracked Governor Carter in Georgia, with politics-in-religion today. One unavoidable theme, for Carter and Wills, is the 180-degree turn by the Southern Baptist Convention majority since Carter's younger years. Such Southern Baptists "have become as authoritarian as their former antitype, the Roman Catholic hierarchy"—something that grieves Carter, who grew up in the Convention back when Baptists were Baptists. Now by their version of pushing religion into the public square they are doing the most un-Baptistic thing conceivable: asking "the state" to do much of "the church's" job. Wills writes in the New York Review of Books, my citing of which will taint me, for "hanging out" with and quoting such sorts. (His indictment, in the February 9 issue, merits reading.)
Wills says better than I could who Carter is, so I will quote from his conclusion: "Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics, and pragmatism."
Happy 25th, President Emeritus and tenured post-retirement public servant.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.