One of the greatest theological achievements of the 20th century—at least within the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches—was the affirmation of the “ministry of the laity.” Over time, it became clear that more difficult than calling for new understandings and patterns of ministry has been demonstrating the powerful, if often invisible, connections between the world of the local congregation and the world of daily life. The influences of faith outside the congregational door have proved hard to track.
A recent book by Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, provides an important exception to that general pattern. Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (Simon and Schuster, 2005) provides an amazingly clear picture of how this connection has been lived out in the life of one individual, in this case a leader of faith who has made an impact around the world for more than three decades.
One way to read Carter’s book is as a checklist of his moral positions. Carter tells us very clearly where he stands on issues ranging from abortion to pre-emptive war, and he offers a devastating critique of what he calls the unprecedented and dangerous shifts in policy and values that have taken place during the presidency of George W. Bush. If one takes the checklist approach to Carter’s book, it becomes easy to get into the praise/blame game. For some, Carter will be wrong on many things, and readers will angrily put the book aside and be unchanged. Other readers may think he is right on many things, or everything. They, too, can too easily put the book aside, perhaps feeling vindicated for their moral correctness, but also remaining unchanged.
I suggest reading this book another way—seeing it as a moral autobiography rather than a moral checklist. Carter makes clear that his Christian faith is what roots and grounds the things he says and does. Championing human rights, fighting to eradicate killer diseases, confronting the U.S. for being the world’s leading polluter—all of these actions trace their way back to a Southern Baptist family and congregation. But beyond naming the roots of his actions, Carter demonstrates how he has worked his faith when faced with an unfolding set of moral issues. Like all of us, he lives in a swirl of moral challenges, many of which—like stem cell research and Star Wars—were unimagined just a few decades ago. But, unlike most of us, he engages in disciplined theological reflection on what he has done and what he should do. Few of us can state with such clarity where we stand—and why—on the host of moral questions we face. Yet here is an exemplar of serious faithful grappling on what it means to find congruence between what one believes and what one does. All of us could benefit from such a disciplined effort to take moral stock of our own lives.
A second way to view the book is to see it as an astonishing moral gestalt of life in our times. The book touches on so many moral issues—and such global ones—that the temptation is to become overwhelmed and throw in the towel. But, as Carter demonstrates from his own story, it is important to see our moral issues not as isolated decisions but as parts of a larger whole. The issues he enumerates are the shared moral agenda of our time—and they will be so for the foreseeable future. Without question, Carter’s international prominence allows him to engage these issues in ways that most of us cannot—at least by ourselves. But we can take action, whether it’s to pick up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, vote, write our representatives and senators, or change our patterns of consumption.
A third way to make use of Carter’s testimony is to look for traces of how congregations and denominations support or hinder faithful leaders. Carter is unhesitating in his affirmation of the importance of teaching Sunday school in his local congregation. Since his days as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter has taken his place every week as a Sunday school teacher. In a day when Sunday schools are often derided by religious leaders for their irrelevance, it is stunning to see how important at least one believer finds the practice of teaching the faith. On the other hand, Carter is equally clear that the Southern Baptist tradition of his early years has narrowed itself so much that he had to leave it in order to be faithful. He warns of the dangers of religious fundamentalism that are alive and increasingly powerful in our own country.
Not too long ago, as I was speaking with a group of pastors about Carter’s book, one pastor blurted out in frustration, “Our congregation cannot even talk about a book like that.” The book’s contents were too hot for his church to handle. The painful irony in that outcry—that a community of faith grounded in such a powerful moral tradition today finds itself unable to discuss the great moral issues of our time—is a sign both of our predicament and our urgent calling to be faithful.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute