Americans cherish the greatness of our homeland, but many do not realize how extensive and profound are the transformations that are now taking place in our nation's basic moral values, public discourse, and political philosophy.
Our people have been justifiably proud to see America's power and influence used to preserve peace for ourselves and others, to promote economic and social justice, to raise high the banner of freedom and human rights, to protect the quality of our environment, to alleviate human suffering, to enhance the rule of law, and to cooperate with other peoples to reach these common goals.
With the most diverse and innovative population on earth, we have learned the value of providing our citizens with accurate information, treating dissenting voices and beliefs with respect, and accommodating free and open debate on controversial issues. Most of our political leaders have extolled state and local autonomy, attempted to control deficit spending, avoided foreign adventurism, minimized long-term peacekeeping commitments, preserved the separation of church and state, and protected civil liberties and personal privacy.
All of these historic commitments are now being challenged.
Most of the crucial and controversial issues that we confront were debated long before I became president. These controversies are natural, and most are unavoidable. They involve abortion, the death penalty, science versus religion, women's rights, the separation of religion and politics, homosexuality, America's foreign policy and our global image, civil liberties, the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the prevalence of guns, the choice between war and peace, environmental quality, and justice for the poor.
More recent debates over these same issues have caused almost unprecedented divisions within our country, with both Democratic and Republican Parties relying on vituperative commercials to win elections, congressional deliberations increasingly characterized by partisan animosity, and our entire population having adopted "red" and "blue" as habitual descriptive phrases within and between states.
What has aroused these sharp disputes and, at the same time, engendered such profound departures from America's traditional values? One factor is our nation's reaction to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, as we realized the intensity, permanence, and global nature of terrorism. Another change is that massive sums of money are being injected into the political process, with unprecedented influence of special interests within the increasingly secretive deliberations of government.
The most important factor is that fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree. At the same time, these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state. This has empowered a group of influential "neoconservatives," who have been able to implement their long-frustrated philosophy in both domestic and foreign policy.
The influence of these various trends poses a threat to many of our nation's historic customs and moral commitments, both in government and in houses of worship.
Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party. Powerful lobbyists, both inside and outside government, have distorted an admirable American belief in free enterprise into the right of extremely rich citizens to accumulate and retain more and more wealth and pass all of it on to descendants. Profits from stock trading and income from dividends are being given privileged tax status compared to the wages earned by schoolteachers and firemen. To quote a Christian friend, the new economic philosophy in Washington is that a rising tide raises all yachts.
The irresolvable differences of opinion on abortion, homosexuality, and other sensitive social issues have been exacerbated by the insistence of intensely committed hard-liners on imposing their minority views on a more moderate majority.
Our nation has declared independence from the restraints of international organizations and has disavowed many long-standing global agreements, including judicial decisions, nuclear arms accords, controls on biological weapons, environmental protection, the international system of justice, and the humane treatment of prisoners. Even with our troops involved in combat and America facing the threat of additional terrorist attacks, we have neglected alliances with most of the very nations we need to have join us in the long-term fight against global terrorism. All these political actions have been orchestrated by those who believe that the utilization of our nation's tremendous power and influence should not be constrained by foreigners. Regardless of the costs, some leaders are openly striving to create a dominant American empire throughout the world.
Based on these premises, it is no longer considered necessary to observe restraints on attacking other nations militarily, provided often uncertain intelligence sources claim that their military or political policies might eventually be dangerous to the United States. When branded an "axis of evil," they are pariahs no longer acceptable as negotiating partners, and the lives of their people tend to become relatively inconsequential.
Fortunately, these national policies and this disharmony have not yet become permanent, as many members of the general public, legislators, federal judges, Christians, and other believers are still searching for harmonious answers to most of the controversial religious and political questions. It is in America's best interests to understand one another and to find as much common ground as possible.
After a lifetime of involvement in religious and public affairs, I can understand how sincere are those who have promoted these recent changes. I have experienced the intensity of patriotism as a submarine officer, the ambitions of a competitive businessman, and the intensity of political debate. I have been sorely tempted to launch a military attack on foreigners, and have felt the frustration of having to negotiate with allies or even former enemies to reach a consensus instead of taking more decisive unilateral action.
It has been a struggle for me to withstand pressures from cherished constituents in my political decisions as a state senator, governor, and president. Despite what I consider to be a constitutional and biblical requirement for the separation of church and state, I must acknowledge that my own religious beliefs have been inextricably entwined with the political principles I have adopted.
As a private citizen, I will deliberately mix religion and politics in this book. In part of the text I will analyze moral values from a religious point of view, and then include my assessment of the adverse impact of recent political decisions on these same values. I will express my opinions as frankly as possible, as a "born again" evangelical Christian and a former political leader. In the religious realm, I shall depend on the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the words and actions of Jesus Christ. On political issues, I shall rely as much as possible on my own personal experiences and observations.
I realize that many readers, even those who share a similar religious and political background, will find some of my opinions to be different from their own. Quite likely, many of them do not realize what is happening in America, and it may be beneficial to raise the issues to the level of increased debate.
Copyright © 2005 by Jimmy Carter Chapter 1: America's Common Beliefs — and Strong Differences
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 consi-der 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 manu-facturers 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.
Copyright © 2005 by Jimmy Carter