Summary of "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis"

Summary of

Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis

By Jimmy Carter

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Carter, Jimmy. Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

In the introduction of Jimmy Carter's book, Our Endangered Values Carter states, "...[E]xtensive and profound are the transformations that are now taking place in our basic moral values, public discourse, and political philosophy." This is essentially the thesis of the book, in which he "deliberately mixes religion and politics" to critique the current political landscape and its implications. From Carter's perspective, contemporary politics has taken a dangerous turn from traditional political and religious values. According to Carter, this turn is a result of fundamentalist intrusion into American politics and religion, as well as the melding of the two.

In explaining fundamentalism, Carter recalls his childhood in which many in his Southern Baptist congregation referred to themselves as "fundamentalists," in that they clung to the "fundamental elements" of their faith, such as a dedication to truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness and love. By this definition, Carter views himself as a fundamentalist. Indeed, Carter recalls Reverend Cruz's declaration -- that "you only need two loves in your life: for God and for the person in front of you at this particular time" -- as one of the most influential statements of his life. To Carter, the underlying knowledge and wisdom embodied by the example of Jesus Christ (as opposed to specific dogmatic beliefs) is the "truth" embodied by Christianity. But the fundamentalism Carter addresses in this book is distinctly different from this sort of fundamentalism.

Carter explains that the contemporary fundamentalists, to which he attributes recent political divisions, are identified by their rigidity, domination and exclusion. These fundamentalists believe they, alone, are aligned with God (as opposed to Carter's fundamentalism in which everybody is aligned with God in their own way), and thus their beliefs should prevail over others. Contemporary fundamentalists, says Carter, believe others are wrong and inferior and thus essentially sub-human (which allows one to engage in atrocities against these "others"). Ironically, this fundamentalist attitude is in direct conflict with the basic (or fundamental) elements of faith identified by Carter (such as compassion, justice and the like). According to Carter, this process is taking place in some sects of many major religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism (he does not specifically mention Buddhism, Shinto or other religions).

Though widespread, this trend towards fundamentalism is thought to be a minority movement within religion. Yet despite their relatively small numbers, fundamentalist movements tend to have a disproportional influence on society, because as Carter puts it: "The intensity of feeling about controversial issues is often much more important than the numerical divisions." Carter provides various examples of this principle, including the debates over abortion and gun control, in which a passionate minority of Americans have largely shaped debate and policy. According to Carter, such divisive issues have been "successfully injected" into the contemporary American political landscape, by the fundamentalists he is most concerned with in this book -- the so-called Neoconservatives or "Neocons."

Carter spends some time addressing several of these divisive social issues, focusing on abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage. Ideologically, he is against all of these, but he stresses that these are secular, not religious, decisions. In fact, the separation of church and state (as a way to protect each from the other) is one of Carter's most cherished values. Thus, while theologically against abortion, he accepted Roe v Wade as the law of the land. He discusses some of his personal feelings regarding these issues in depth, but concludes that these are essentially non-issues, as, from his perspective, they will never be resolved. He points out that, even theologically, there are no clear answers. In regard to many of these divisive social issues: "There is no need to argue about such matters, because it is human nature to be both selective and subjective in deriving the most convenient meaning by careful choices of the 30,400 or so biblical verses." Thus, he points out that scripture can be (and often is) used to justify both sides of these issues.

As a result of this calculated and highly organized campaign to inject divisive social issues into politics, American politics has become more fractured and partisan over time. Yet there is a schism between public opinion, which has not changed significantly with the rise of the "Neocons" into power, and public policy, which has changed dramatically. One of the most significant recent changes to public policy Carter identifies is aggressive and unilateral intervention in foreign affairs. This includes the rejection of major international treaties (such as the Kyoto Protocol and parts of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) as well as military campaigns such as the U.S. war in Iraq.

In relation to the Iraq War, Carter specifically challenges the policy of "preemptive war," which he believes is a catalyst to a cycle of escalating violence. Preemptive war is thought to be both illegal under international law and a blatant rejection of war as the last resort. While Carter is against the Iraq war, he also rejects what he calls "blind pacifism." According to Carter, war is sometimes necessary; to be justified, though, it must meet the following criteria:

  • Last resort after other options have been exhausted,
  • Discrimination between combatants and non-combatants is possible,
  • Violence used is proportional to the injury suffered,
  • Attackers have legitimate moral authority, and
  • The peace to be established is a clear improvement over what currently exists.

Carter does not believe the Iraq War meets these standards and, as such, he identifies what he sees as a loss of American moral authority in the international community.

While Carter sees such policies as damaging, he identifies poverty as "our greatest challenge." In particular, he is concerned with the widening gap between the rich and poor, both within and between nations. He in part blames this trend on current "Neocon" economic policies, such as tax cuts primarily for the richest Americans. In fact, from Carter's perspective, "virtually every decision the current administration has made has been to benefit the wealthy."

There are many problems identified in Our Endangered Values, but Carter does not view these as permanent or hopeless. He is quick to point out that individuals acting in concert can make a big difference. However, he is afraid that fundamentalist ideology is systematically changing political policy and theological philosophy in ways that are destructive. This fundamentalism is present in all religions and is embodied in the U.S. by "Neocons" whose ridged, dominating and exclusive polices are threatening the fundamental political and religious values of the United States.