When former President Jimmy Carter told news reporters covering the 1976 presidential campaign that he was a "born again" Christian, some listeners reacted as if he'd said he was from Mars.
The phrase was alien to many but familiar to Carter. "To me it was like breathing, " said Carter recently. "Christ told Nicodemus, right before John 3:16, that you have to be born again, so all of us [Southern Baptists] considered ourselves to be born again."
Voters took the exotic term in stride, and Carter became the 39th president of the United States. These days he's introduced as the first man to use the presidency as a steppingstone to bigger things. Active in disease eradication in Africa and promoting fair elections around the world, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 and has also become a regular political commentator at newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
His critiques rise to a new level of vehemence in his new book, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis" (Simon & Schuster, $25).
In this, the quickest-selling of his 20 books, Carter takes aim at fundamentalism, environmental decay, the Iraq war and the Bush administration's record on human rights.
During a recent interview in his sunny office at the Carter Center, the 81-year-old part-time Atlantan sat in a hand-carved rocking chair and spoke with alarm about his concerns for the country. The interview encompassed such topics as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Vice President Dick Cheney's defense of torture and Carter's infamous 1976 interview with Playboy magazine. "This was the largest-selling issue of Playboy, " he marveled, with some degree of pride. "That's what they tell me."
Carter's recent conversation began with his memories of his 1979 White House meeting with the late Adrian Rogers, Southern Baptist Convention president, who surprised the "born again" president by questioning his faith, asking him why he'd abandoned Christianity.
Q: He said you were a secular humanist?
A: Yes. . . . He and his fellow conservatives were able to appoint new leaders throughout the convention in colleges and seminaries who were very conservative, who shared with him their philosophy. For a few years, the moderates challenged that, at first unsuccessfully, and then after a period of time, most of the moderates just gave up and quit attending the conventions.
Q: The result has been that the church has generated enormous political power.
A: Yes. Well, I would say that 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, certainly the Southern Baptist church potentially had enormous political power. When I was a child, throughout the South the Southern Baptist Convention was dominant. But there was a proscription within the hearts and minds of religious leaders . . . not to become involved in trying to shape the outcome of political campaigns. We believed in separation of church and state. To follow Thomas Jefferson's admonition: Build a wall between the church and state. . . . [But the new SBC administration decided] Let's use our political clout and help shape the outcome of elections, and that was the advent of the breaking of the wall.
Q: Why are conservatives so successful?
A: "Moderate" is a --- it's not a derogatory word, but it has connotations that are quite different from fundamentalist.
Q: They [moderates] don't have the fire in the belly?
A: No, they don't, and they have never felt that they had to crusade, or organize politically or marshal supporters to go to conventions. [Moderates have] an inclination to [temper] one's own beliefs, and to negotiate with other people and be accommodating to those who have different points of view and to be flexible.
Q: It turns out not to be a successful tactic.
A: No. Quite often it's not that way in politics as well, for someone to have a moderate point of view, because it gives the appearance of being, maybe, weak. . . . And that's why there hasn't been a fervent outpouring of opposition to the merger of church and state, which I think violates one of our nation's basic values that we've cherished since the formation of our country.
Q: Do the changes in the country's actions reflect a change in the morals or values of the citizens?
A: I don't say that at all, and I don't believe I insinuate that, and I've been very careful in this book not to have any personal references to the president. That's not the point. The point is that under this administration, there's been a drastic and dramatic and unprecedented change in the basic values of our country, and the basic policies of our government. They relate to a wide range of measures of what America is. In the case of peace, we've always had a philosophy in this country --- certainly in the last 100 years --- that we don't invade another country, we don't attack another people with bombs or bullets or missiles, unless our own security is directly threatened. That was the policy of Ronald Reagan, that was the policy of George Bush senior, that was the policy of Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, of Democrats and Republicans. Now we have a new, startling policy, in my opinion, of pre-emptive war. Where the president announced publicly, from now on our policy will be, we reserve the right to attack another country . . . that's a dramatic change.
Carter had more to say.
On human rights:
I feel that our country has been the champion of human rights, for generations. . . . After the Second World War, the U.S. was in the forefront of evolving what became the Geneva accords . . . The whole community of nations came together and said, we don't torture prisoners. . . . Now the United States is debating: Is this legal or not? And the president is saying he supports [Vice President Dick] Cheney, who's trying to get members of Congress to approve the CIA to torture prisoners. To me, that's a dramatic and unprecedented change in the basic moral values of our country.
On the environment:
We've always had, at least since the word 'environment' was invented, a strong commitment from our government to protect the environment, to protect the national parks, and to try to prevent the deterioration of the quality of our air and water. President Nixon is the one that signed the air and water quality protection bills, and created the EPA and so forth. Now this administration makes no bones about the fact that the environment is playing second fiddle.
On how citizens should respond to the change in government values:
In any democracy, and certainly in ours, the ultimate decision on a nation's moral values has to be shaped by the collective voice of the people in the country, primarily on election day, but even subsequent to that, by public opinion . . . And I think that recent public opinion polls --- in the last month, there's been an overt expression of deep concern about these issues that I just described to you.