Values at Risk: Morals in Crisis

President Jimmy Carter writes about our
endangered values and the crisis in moral leadership in the U.S.

A few weeks ago I promised readers of this blog that I’d try to keep posts short and to the point. Haven’t succeeded, have I? If you’ve hung in there through these last several posts, thanks. I find it hard to boil down some of the complex issues and ideas to a dozen words. No doubt, I’ll not be asked to write catchy bumper stickers. I’d need the side of an 18-wheel truck trailer for some of my briefer notes. Never the less, I’m still working at limiting the length of these posts.

That said, I want to reflect on a couple of points made by President Jimmy Carter in his new book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, and Ronald Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers) then I’ll try to return to the pledge.

First, I’m impressed by the strength of President Carter’s words about fundamentalism. He is not an alarmist, and so when he writes that our values are endangered and lays out both a civic and a biblical rationale for his concern, it catches my attention.

His commitment to justice and compassion after leaving the White House is unsurpassed and his words carry the power of moral commitment and conviction that go far beyond partisan bickering. His strong warning leaves me pondering how to respond.

Our own well-being
would be enhanced
by restoring the
trust, admiration and
friendship that our
nation formerly enjoyed
among other peoples.
–Pres. Jimmy Carter

I hope we can return to the core social values he articulates–concern for human rights, economic and social justice, protecting the environment, addressing global warming, ending hunger and poverty, collaborating globally for peace. I also hope we can look anew at the biblical underpinnings that inform us as people of faith. While his evangelical upbringing is not universally shared in the mainline community, his dedication to open dialogue and pluralism is certainly a foundation for most religious communities in the U.S. and he clearly relies on the Bible as the source for this openness.

I confess that reading his text caused me some pain. I can’t adequately explain how heartbreaking it is to me to see how low the image of the United States has fallen internationally. In my work as a writer and video producer I’ve travelled globally for most of my adult life and I’ve never experienced the widespread disrespect with which this country’s leadership is viewed today. It saddens me because I’ve been in remote villages from Ethiopia to Kampuchea where in the past people spoke to me of their gratefulness for the U.S. as a beacon of justice when their own leaders were oppressive and trampled upon their rights. Today they’re afraid of us. To squander this hope and its attendant goodwill is truly heartbreaking.

Secondly, the former President’s description of the dynamics that led to the leadership change in the Southern Baptist Convention is instructive. He explains how a change in the language of the church’s mission statement opened the door to further changes in polity (see pp. 41-45). Coupled with a creedal statement that has become mandatory, this resulted in the elevation and empowerment of local church clergy and a few leaders as the arbiters of theology and policy in the SBC, according to President Carter.

What is instructive is that the first step toward turning away from historic traditions, including the separation of church and state, once a basic tenet of the Baptist movement, was to change the polity. His point is that polity change is not a matter of small consequence. In fact, he says this has influenced the nation as a whole by melding fundamentalist religious positions with a political agenda. (p. 41)

Finally, when he writes that fundamentalists demagogue emotional issues I think his narrative converges with Heifetz’s assessment of the role of scape-goating. Heiftez writes that it’s tempting (and sometimes it’s a conscious decision) to concentrate on matters that are not central to resolving conflict because it’s easier and less upsetting than tackling the hard issues straight on. Scape-goating deflects attention away from the core issue and onto side issues. It’s a smokescreen.

The danger in this is that while we focus on our differences we don’t attend to the matters that could move us forward.

President Carter writes of fundamentalists who are well-known in the media. They don’t have significant influence in the mainline churches. But the interesting thing to consider is how some of the same issues that are so hot in the wider culture are affecting the conversation in the mainline churches and whether the dynamics that led to change in the SBC are, in fact, transferrable. I am not proposing that they are. But reading President Carter gives me pause to think about the challenges facing the mainline churches and how we will adapt to them. Given the strength of the Baptist position regarding the separation of church and state–this was a founding value of the Baptist movement in the new world, after all–and the short time it took for fundamentalist ideology to turn away from it, one cannot assume that tradition will always inform values in a positive and enduring way.

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