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Matthew TuiningaNovember 14, 2012
There is no denying that President Jimmy Carter has spent the years following his presidency admirably. A vocal advocate for human rights who is not afraid to criticize the foreign policy or military efforts of his heirs in the White House – whether Republican or Democrat – Carter has put his time and money where his mouth is, seeking justice and relief for the poor and the sick around the globe. Thanks in large part to his work through the Carter Center the world is on the verge of eradicating Guinea Worm Disease (it would be only the second disease to be completely eradicated, the first being small pox).
In a lecture sponsored by United Methodist affiliated Emory University's Center for Ethics, Religion, and Public Health President Carter spoke about his service in the cause of health care and disease prevention. From his boyhood in Plains, Georgia, when Carter's mother was a nurse who worked so hard her son hardly saw her, to the initiatives he pursued as the Governor of Georgia and in the White House, Carter has acted on the premise that a modicum of health care is a basic human right.
That effort did not stop with Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. In 1982 the former president founded the Carter Center, an institution devoted to promoting peace and conflict resolution around the globe. The Carter Center has spent enormous resources seeking to help solve problems that are not being addressed by other institutions, such as the lack of basic health awareness in poor parts of the world. Efforts to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease are a case in point. Carter said his team has been to every single village in Africa where people are suffering from the disease, teaching and instructing tribes that are largely illiterate and for whom the necessary preventative steps often clash with religious values.
President Carter, a devout Baptist, noted that religion inevitably gets tied up in such efforts. Asked how a place like Emory University should train its students to engage people for whom religion is much more important than it is for many Americans, he reminded the audience that the word 'religion' is an English word. Other people don't have a word for it because for them religion is simply life:
“Don't let religion drive a wedge between you and them, but find the common ground. Because among Hindus and among Muslims and among Buddhists and among Catholics and among Jews and among Protestants – because the basic principles of all the religions are the same. And that is that we are supposed to live in peace and we're supposed to be humble in the presence of others, and to try to serve others. We're supposed to be forgiving, we're supposed to be caring, we're supposed to be dealing with people who are afflicted and are suffering.”
But Carter was not all positive about religion. When reminded of the brutal mistreatment of women going on in the Congo today (he noted that in the Congo 48 women are raped every hour), he acknowledged that around the globe women lack basic rights and protections. But then he went on to argue that often it is religion that is at fault, and that the problem is here in America too.
“In the Southern Baptist Convention, to which I used to belong, a woman can't be a priest or a deacon, and a woman can't even teach boys … in the Catholic Church a woman can't be a priest … Almost every major religion now in some ways either claims officially or insinuates that women are inferior in the eyes of God. They're not qualified to be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, and so forth … That sends a signal to potentially abusive men that a woman is inferior, so they abuse their wives, or employers in the United States pay women an average of 72 cents for every dollar that they pay a man who does the same work.”
Carter was also pressed by questioners about the way in which religion gets in the way of health care when it comes to issues like contraception, abortion, and drugs. He suggested that religious leaders are often the problem:
“Some very devout and sincere religious leaders don't want to deal with the basic problems of, I would say, abortion, or drug addiction and infection, or to deal with the prevention of unwanted pregnancy … And there, I think, they are ill advised because they go on to insist, as some very strict religious universities do, that there can't be any application of health education that might call for contraceptives ... And sometimes if it's a man and woman even, the Catholic Church and others, like I'd say Liberty University, … they don't advocate the use of contraceptives.”
The former president responded to a question on post-colonial criticisms of the West by indicating he did not want to criticize his country, but he then went on to do just that. He suggested that the United States should aspire to be the country to which foreign countries look for help to establish peace when they are in civil war, for leadership in combating global warming, for the protection of human rights, the promotion of education, and the provision of financial assistance. Yet instead of all this, he claimed:
“This is a very important thing for us to remember. It's not a matter of poor countries being alienated against the West, but often they're alienated against the United States because we've become now one of the greatest violators of human rights, and we are the stingiest people among the rich nations of the world, and we have abandoned our previous commitment to promote a solution to global warming, and we are more inclined to go to war than any other country.”
Carter emphasized that he was trying to avoid appealing to specifically Christian teaching but then admitted he couldn't avoid it. He urged the audience to take seriously the example of Christ – here the president invoked his experience as a weekly Sunday school teacher at his Baptist church in Plains – in considering others superior to themselves. “He established a kingdom on earth by doing the kind of things that every one of us can do.” You don't need to be powerful or brilliant or ambitious. If each person served others with a spirit of humility it would make a big difference.
But a member of the audience would not let Carter get away without pressing him on one final point. The Baptist politician had referenced all the great religions when talking about what brings people together for good, but what about atheists or agnostics? Carter quickly set minds at ease:
“We still have within us, I think, a human inclination to treat other people fairly... I don't think you have to be a religious person at all to have the same high ethical and moral standards in your own life as you relate to other people. So I don't think I would stigmatize non-believers in any way.... You don't have to have religious faith to act properly, to tell the truth, to promote justice, to promote forgiveness, and to try to alleviate suffering. I think it's the same thing.”
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