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A Former President Warns of 'Endangered Values'

Nov 4, 2005 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Blurring the line between church and state threatens civil liberties and privacy, says former President Jimmy Carter. That's the case he makes in his new book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, which draws on Carter's experiences as a president and a Christian.

Carter was the 39th president of the United States. In addition to his work to help ensure the fairness of elections around the world, he founded the Carter Center, a conflict resolution organization. In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end violence and spread human rights.

Those achievements have come to overshadow the difficult years of Carter's presidency, which was marked by a Republican resurgence culminating in his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The final year of Carter's term in office saw him institute a boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow, and he struggled unsuccessfully to resolve the Iran hostage crisis, in which 55 people were seized along with the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Despite his success in brokering a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, an overwhelming number of Americans became frustrated with Carter. Since then, he has been able to remake his legacy by dedicating himself to causes from international peace efforts to domestic projects like Habitat for Humanity.

Carter has written a number of best-selling books, including An Hour Before Daylight; Christmas in Plains; Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President; and Talking Peace: A Vision for the Next Generation.

Two of Carter's most popular books are Sources of Strength, a compilation of his favorite meditations drawn from the Sunday school class he still leads, and Always a Reckoning, a collection of poems published in 1995.

Read an excerpt from Our Endangered Values:

Chapter 1

The most controversial issues being addressed within our nation will be discussed in the following chapters. It will be helpful to understand the prevailing personal opinions of American citizens, their differences and similarities, how they have been modified or remain the same, and whether they are compatible with the profound political changes taking place in our country.

Stronger and sharper partisan differences have evolved among Americans in recent years, quite a departure from when I was in the White House. In those days, I had a good "batting average" in having my proposals accepted by the Congress, and the political divisions were based much more on issues than on whether members were Democrats or Republicans. As a Southern moderate and former career naval officer, I espoused a conservative fiscal policy and a strong defense. A commitment to human rights came, I guess, from my personal knowledge of the devastating effect of racial segregation in my region of the country.

Soon after arriving in Washington, I was surprised and disappointed when no Democratic member of Congress would sponsor my first series of legislative proposals — to reorganize parts of the federal bureaucracy — and I had to get Republicans to take the initiative. Thereafter, my shifting coalitions of support comprised the available members of both parties who agreed with me on specific issues, with my most intense and mounting opposition coming from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. (One reason for this was the ambition of Senator Ted Kennedy to replace me as president.)

Nowadays, the Washington scene is completely different, with almost every issue decided on a strictly partisan basis. Probing public debate on key legislative decisions is almost a thing of the past. Basic agreements are made between lobbyists and legislative leaders, often within closed party caucuses where rigid discipline is paramount. Even personal courtesies, which had been especially cherished in the U.S. Senate, are no longer considered to be sacrosanct. This deterioration in harmony, cooperation, and collegiality in the Congress is, at least in part, a result of the rise of fundamentalist tendencies and their religious and political impact.

Fortunately, this degree of rigidity and confrontation has not yet taken hold among the general public. In preparing this book I have searched for the best assessments of American public opinion, so that I could understand the reasons for, and the extent of, agreements and divisions among our people.

A strong majority of both Democrats and Republicans agree that our country is more politically divided than at any time in living memory, a fact that is partially explained by the doubtful presidential election of 2000 and the almost unchanging split during the following years between "red" and "blue" states. Partisan differences of support and disapproval of our two most recent presidents are quite clear, with the personal popularity of President Bush among Democrats lower than was President Clinton's among Republicans while his impeachment proceedings were under way. The ongoing Iraqi war is especially indicative, with diametrically opposite opinions on whether the conflict is going well or has improved national security.

These sharp disagreements might be written off as just partisan wrangling, but their impact on our nation's present and future international policies is significant. Among Republicans, the percentage endorsing diplomacy in preference to military action is minimal, while Democrats take the opposite point of view. In the approach to combating terrorism, two-thirds of Republicans believe that use of overwhelming force is best, while an even larger proportion of Democrats think that, although our armed forces should be used when our nation's security is threatened, excessive use of military action tends to increase animosity against our country and breed more terrorists. This sharp and growing difference over the issue of whether international disputes can be better resolved by diplomacy or by military action is now the most accurate predictor of party affiliation — more important than gay marriage, homosexuality, or abortion.

It is encouraging that Americans overwhelmingly agree on several important questions: the value of religion in individual lives, the power of personal initiative to realize human potential, the need to protect the environment even if that is costly, doubt about the integrity of big business, and a desire for federal obscenity laws against hard-core pornography to be enforced vigorously.

Although the number is small, four times as many Republicans as Democrats think that tough environmental laws hurt the economy. There has been a substantial increase in the number of Republicans who have confidence in government, with little difference now between the parties in that regard. Americans also increasingly support more government assistance for the poor and needy, but one remaining difference is that many more Republicans than Democrats believe that poor people have easy lives. It is encouraging that this prejudice against the poor is decreasing significantly among all Americans.

There are strong differences about social issues, but many opinions are changing and most of them have little clear impact in the political arena. The intensity of feeling about controversial issues is often much more important than the numerical divisions. This is especially apparent when the subject of debate is abortion or gun control, where the opinion of a persistent majority of Americans has had little effect in the political world.

A majority of Americans think that abortions should be legal in all or most cases, and only one in six believes that all abortions should be illegal. The fervor and activism of this small minority greatly magnify their influence, especially within the U.S. Congress.

Concerning gun control, an overwhelming majority believe in the right to own weapons, but four of five Americans prefer modest restraints on handguns, including a background check, mandatory registration, and a brief waiting period before one is purchased.

A disturbing change in government policy has involved the firearms industry. Supported by succeeding Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, legislation was passed by Congress in 1994 that for ten years prohibited the manufacture, transfer, and possession of nineteen specific semiautomatic assault weapons, including AK-47s, AR-15s, and UZIs. None of these are used for hunting — only for killing other humans. More than eleven hundred police chiefs and sheriffs from around the nation called on Congress and President Bush to renew and strengthen the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, but with a wink from the White House, the gun lobby prevailed and the ban expired.

This is not a controversy that involves homeowners, hunters, or outdoorsmen. I have owned and used weapons since I was big enough to carry one, and now own a handgun, four shotguns, and two rifles. I use them carefully, for harvesting game from our woods and fields and during an occasional foray to hunt with my family and friends in other places. We cherish these rights, and some of my companions like to collect rare weapons.

But many of us who participate in outdoor sports are dismayed by some of the more extreme policies of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and by the timidity of public officials who yield to their unreasonable demands. Heavily influenced and supported by the firearms industry, their primary client, the NRA, has been able to mislead many gullible people into believing that our weapons are going to be taken away from us, and that homeowners will be deprived of the right to protect ourselves and our families. There are no real threats to our "right to bear arms," as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. If so, the NRA efforts would certainly be justified.

In addition to assault weapons, the gun lobby protects the ability of criminals and gang members to use ammunition that can penetrate protective clothing worn by police officers on duty, and assures that a known or suspected terrorist is not barred from buying or owning a firearm — including an assault weapon. The only criteria that the NRA has reluctantly accepted are proof of a previous felony, mental derangement, or being an illegal immigrant. Deeply concerned when thirty-five out of forty-four men on the terrorist watch list were able to buy guns during a recent five-month period, the director of the FBI began to reexamine the existing law and asked some U.S. senators to consider amendments. The response of top officials in the NRA was to criticize the watch lists — not the terrorists — and to announce support for legislation that protects gun manufacturers and dealers from liability if a buyer uses an AK-47 in a terrorist attack. They also insist that background information on gun buyers be discarded within twenty-four hours, precluding the long-term retention of data that might reveal those who are plotting against our nation's security.

What are the results of this profligate ownership and use of guns designed to kill people? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American children are sixteen times more likely than children in other industrialized nations to be murdered with a gun, eleven times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die from firearms accidents.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research reports that the rate of firearm homicide in the United States is nineteen times higher than that of 35 other high-income countries combined. In the most recent year for which data are available, handguns killed 334 people in Australia, 197 in Great Britain, 183 in Sweden, 83 in Japan, 54 in Ireland, 1,034 in Canada, and 30,419 in the United States. The National Rifle Association, the firearms industry, and compliant politicians should reassess their policies concerning safety and accountability.

When asked if they personally believe it is acceptable for gays and lesbians to engage in same-sex behavior, a majority of Americans respond affirmatively, which is a strong shift in opinion since twenty years ago, when responses to the same question were the reverse. There is some indication that this change of public opinion has had an impact among state and federal judges.

The views of Americans have also been changing regarding the death penalty, with support for "life without parole" now at about half and only one-third believing that the death penalty deters crime. In a nationwide poll, only 1 percent of police chiefs thought that expanding the death penalty would reduce crime. This change in public opinion also seems to be having an effect, both in state legislatures and in the federal courts.

These figures paint an overall picture of the beliefs of American citizens, surprisingly unchanged during the past five years. However, revolutionary changes have taken place in our government's domestic and foreign policies, affecting the definition and protection of "moral values."

As an American who has been deeply involved in the political life of our country, I find these statistics to be very interesting. As with almost all other citizens, however, my private life has been the major factor in shaping my own opinions and my personal reactions to the collective views of others.

Excerpted from Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter. Copyright 2005 by Jimmy Carter. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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