Carter’s Fundamentalism

Former president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders issued this statement: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on … Continued

Former president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders issued this statement: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.” What’s your reaction to these statements? Are ‘male interpretations of religious texts’ to blame for the ‘deprivation of women’s equal rights?’

Jimmy Carter should be praised for his condemnation of patriarchy and for calling attention to the hegemony that males have exercised over the interpretation of scripture in many religious traditions. But Carter has a fundamentalism of his own that manifests itself in some unexpected ways.

In the full text of his letter, Carter makes a distinction between the “eternal truths” of religion that affirm the equality of men and women and “carefully selected verses” of scripture that justify the superiority of men. Carter emphasizes his point with the observation that doctrines that privilege men “owe more to time and place.”

But all serious students of scripture understand that “time and place” are essential parts of the message. Indeed, the scandal of Christianity is the historical specificity inherent in its claim that a Jewish carpenter was uniquely the Son of God. Of course, Carter himself uses a historically specific lens through which to view scripture. While notions of equality and human rights might seem second nature to many of us, they are not just abstractions from ancient religious texts, but the intellectual products of modernity.

Another view would argue that since all religious texts are situated so firmly in their own historical context, a discernment of their meaning evolves over time. For this reason, many religious traditions have authoritative interpreters or interpretative bodies that weigh varying interpretations of texts and the doctrines derived from them. What matters then is the interpretative frame for understanding scripture and its often divergent claims. In fact, this is what Carter is doing when he refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a touchstone for evaluating the treatment of women.

Carter begins his letter with a series of Bible verses that we should take literally, yet he dismisses other passages that seemingly conflict with the principles he believes to be so fundamental. But the question remains how to deal with scripture in its totality. As I read his letter, it strikes me that Carter still wishes to affirm the inviolability of scripture. Conflicting messages or divergent claims are not an integral part of the text as it stands. If this is indeed Carter’s implicit point, then he is intellectually closer to his fundamentalist opponents than he might be willing to admit.

Carter’s own fundamentalism is most clearly expressed in his fixation on a particular understanding of the word “discriminate.” If discrimination is taken to mean the act of making distinctions then this is precisely what scripture is supposed to do. Of course, Carter’s argument is that inequality is an inevitable result of discrimination. With regard to the treatment of women, everything I have learned tells me to agree with Carter’s assessment of the position of women in Christianity and other religious traditions. Not only is it clear that various male elites have reserved scriptural interpretations to themselves, but it is also undeniable that various understandings of gender “difference” have, more often than not, meant “inferiority” in practice.

My training in Comparative Religions has also taught me that gender itself is a rather nebulous or problematic category when seen cross-culturally–a recognition that can sometimes stand in tension with the assumptions of my own Catholic tradition. Having said this, it is also clear that conflating difference and inequality under the category of discrimination owes more to our own time and place. The question remains whether nuanced understandings of male and female differences can be integrated into a religious vision that also affirms mutual equality. Many religious traditions claim to be doing exactly this and Jimmy Carter would presumably challenge such claims. The difficulty is whether he would substitute an equally restrictive religious vision that has no room for difference and diversity in its advocacy of the fundamental value of equality.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • twsoundsoff

    “Jimmy Carter should be praised for his condemnation of patriarchy and for calling attention to the hegemony that males have exercised over the interpretation of scripture in many religious traditions.”For Christians, this issue is only one about equality if Man’s foolish pride comes into play. The Bible clearly defines what roles men and women are to fulfill respectively. God see’s these roles as being completely equal in importance as He is the one who instituted them. However, that does not mean that men and women are to fulfill the same roles. Some roles are given only to men just as some are given only to women. Paul makes this argument time and again throughout his letters. All Christians believe every human being is equally made in God’s image and is as such worthy of respect. All Christians believe that all Christians are fully equal in Christ. This has never been indispute except in those fringe groups wrongfully calling themselves Christian. However, this equality does not mean the roles are the same. And one can only call the roles God has given to women degrading or less than mens if they are viewing them from a human point of view and not as God sees them. And those that do this are essentially looking God in the face and declaring “You’re not judging these roles correctly, let me correct you on that…because I know better than you do.”I suggest this is not the proper route to take with God.

  • twsoundsoff

    Biblically speaking, Equality has nothing to do with the unique roles God has instituted for men and women to fulfill. It is a fundamental category error to say that because God has given specific roles to men and specific roles to women that they are somehow unequal. God sees these roles He has given as equal in honor and all other respects. It would only be by sheer arrogance that any person, even the infamous Universalist Jimmy Carter, would say that they are unequal. This arrogance is directed at God, essentially saying to His face “You are not judging these roles correctly, God, let me show you how they are not equal because I know better than you.” God has instituted very specific roles for men and women to accomplish. Viewing them as unequal can only be done if one is viewing them from the worlds point of view. If one is viewing them from God’s point of view, then equality does not even come into view.

  • bluester

    “The difficulty is whether he would substitute an equally restrictive religious vision that has no room for difference and diversity in its advocacy of the fundamental value of equality.”I mean,…what?”no room for difference and diversity”How much psycho-babble can be packed into one sentence?Differences and diversity….umm….simply are givens. Women are different than men, blacks are not white, etc.It seems like the writer is doing his best to allow for situations in which discrimination is acceptable.”roles”, in essence a patriarchal word, are permissible in this writer’s view of “equality.” Simply ridiculous.

  • US-conscience

    The person who invented the eraser sure knew what he was doing because humans sure make a lot of mistakes and all the people who think that God does not exist or that the Bible is not His inerrant word are mistaken.But lets disregard the Bible for just one moment and examine men and women from a natural view point. Men and women are different in many ways ( take reproduction for one example ) yet we compliment each other perfectly. Taken in each others natural roles we combine to make new life, a child. Ours roles are different, one is not less important than the other, only different and used properly or in a complimentary fashion, they combine together perfectly. This is the model in nature. One is not better or more important than the other but our roles are different and complimentary. This is where true joy is found, in finding our naturally formed roles and letting them compliment each other to form a whole. This is what the Bible affirms: complimentary roles, each of equal importance, significance and value yet still undeniably different. We are not the same and yet we compliment each other in perfect harmony. If we would embrace our differences and revel in our complimentary nature then we will find true fulfillment in our roles in perfect alliance with the natural order.

  • bebahru1

    Human understanding of sacred Scripture can evolve if one has an open mind. Those interested in this Op Ed column should consider reading “How God Changes Your Brain” by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman.

  • abu_ibrahim

    President Carter, he is following in the footprints of the first Christians, the first Muslims, the first Mormons. There was an old Scripture with old prophets and old commandments. Then Issa (Jesus) came, «you have been told so-and-so» in Scripture, «but I say unto you . . .» A new god revokes the commandments of the old Scripture. Then Prophet Muhammad (PBUH!) came, explained how old Scripture had been distorted, he was to be last of the Prophets, disregard old rules, follow new Muslim rules. Then prophet Joseph Smith came, new doctrine & covenants, corporeal (= has body) god replaces old incorporeal (= no body) one.

  • kjohnson3

    “Ours roles are different, one is not less important than the other, only different and used properly or in a complimentary fashion, they combine together perfectly.”If this were literally true, then God would have made women without brains and men without the ability to cry.All this “complementary” crap is an oversimplification. Men and women aren’t simply two parts of an electrical connection (plug and receptacle). This narrow kind of thinking, while appropriate for electronic engineering, has nothing to do with human beings.It’s not as if there were a finite number of “roles” — a master list, let’s say — to which God assigned either one gender OR the other. Clearly, since both genders have brains — pretty darn good ones — God must have wanted both genders to think. Since both genders have the capacity to feel emotions, God must have wanted both genders to be empathetic — or at least capable of love and kindness.The continuing absurdity of the fundamentalist (as well as Catholic and Mormon) insistence on “separate but equal” roles is a reminder of all the other human injustices in our history that used the “separate but equal” justification to maintain social superiority.In these cases, there was always “separate” but never “equal.”

  • jitl

    posted by BEBAHRU1: Human understanding of sacred Scripture can evolve if one has an open mind.

  • gwcross

    Much as I respect Mr Carter, he is defending the indefensible himself. No one can respectably defend the Christian Bible without addressing the unquestionably nasty parts. The war crimes that Mr Carter’s God orders in the book of Joshua, for example, aren’t a matter of selectively quoting out of context. they are there, they are very clear, and they are contemptible.Until we all grow up and realize that ALL of the old monotheistic scriptures contain things that no thinking person should take seriously, then we are doomed to endless, pointless, and ridiculous arguments.

  • US-conscience

    The person who invented the eraser sure knew what he was doing because humans sure make a lot of mistakes and all the people who think that God does not exist or that the Bible is not His inerrant word are mistaken.

  • coloradodog

    kjohnson3 wrote:’Ours roles are different, one is not less important than the other, only different and used properly or in a complimentary fashion, they combine together perfectly.'”If this were literally true, then God would have made women without brains and men without the ability to cry.”In my father’s warped biblical world, men were not able to cry because he would beat the sh!t out of me with his belt if I ever did “to give me something to cry for.” Proof of his success was at his funeral where, although I grieved for him and forgave him for everything, I didn’t shed a single tear.Fundamentalists have the same ideas about women. Although God made them with brains, in the warped biblical world of the fundamentalists, their purpose is not to think but be subservient, take care of the house, cook, have sex and make babies.Carter is to be applauded for pointing out the hateful ignorance of these scriptural cherry-pickers. Maybe someday, someone famous will do the same for gays.

  • Chops2

    “doctrines that privilege men “owe more to time and place””Time and place” means that it is a human document. It was not written by god or any supernatural deity. Carters problem is also Christianities. The bible is picked and chosen like a salad bar. The author has it right, “notions of equality and human rights…. [are] the intellectual products of modernity”. Hence, we need to move on from stoneage superstitions. Please.

  • tphishs

    For all Christians, keep in mind your hypocrite leaders and remember Jimmy Carter, like him or not, he is the only President who was a Christian, before politics, before he was president, during his presidency and after his presidency … he put your Bushes to shame and the Bushes should be ashamed for masquerading as Christians!

  • ripvanwinkleincollege

    The important thing to understand about Christianity, and Islam too for that matter, is that everything said about women was recorded after the two prophet’s own lifetimes- by others. It is evident that of the two religions, Islam is probably the most faithful in recording the original and reasonably unedited sayings of their prophet. And it is evident from even a casual reader of the New Testament that Saint Paul had a very different take on a number of subjects from what little remains of Jesus’ actual sermons and sayings. The same might be true of the Prophet Mohammed himself vs. those who came after him. But given these facts, let’s face it- women of the ancient and medieval era were likely to die in or after childbirth and were therefore not held to be of as high worth as men unless they had survived the birth of numerous children. That’s pretty much the way things were in the pre-modern era, and that’s a fact irrespective of any religious interpretation.

  • morryb

    ALL RELIGIONS AMOUNT TO EFFECTIVELY ENDOCTRINATING CHILDREN INTO BELIEVING SUPERSTITOUS NONSENSE AS FACT BEFORE THEY ARE OLD ENOUGH TO QUESTION ANY OF IT.Be honest with yourselves and if you are one with “faith” ask yourself how you came about it.Ask yourself how it is that people, who lived 2,000 years ago or more who were ignorant about virtually everything in the natural world, somehow had anything significant to contribute except for superstition in an after-life. Humanity went from worshiping many gods to just worshiping one. Its time to make the next leap and realize that there is no god.Jimmy Carter should think about this too.

  • cmauritzen

    A professor of mine in college–who, like I, grew up in the midst of heavy fundamentalism in Oklahoma–made a simple, but important point: We are all fundamentalists. Our fundamentals just differ from others.

  • donclarke1

    President Carter speaks of “discrimination” (against females). Is this the same man who used to attend a “White” church whereas fellow believers attended a “Black” church, although nominally adherents of the same so-called “Christian” denomination?

  • SmokyMountainCarpenter

    This is a thoughtful brief essay that exposes the intellectual inconsistences of Jimmy Carter as a theologian. But it seems to me that it doesn’t squarely deal with the rigidity of the teachings of the Catholic Church. They may be theologically consistent, but they’re pretty appalling to someone who believes that the church’s rigid patriarchal structure in the 21st century does great damage to itself and the women it claims to serve. As to the responsive comments: I’m just a semi-retired carpenter and not a theologian, but I did read the Bible from front to back when I was growing up in my rural Baptist Church. In the responses to this piece, I see echoes of Paul’s injunction that women should submit to their husbands (rather like his insistence that slaves should submit to their masters). But I thought the fount of Christianity was Jesus Christ. And I’d like somebody to point out to me in scripture where Jesus made any similar statements. I must confess I find a lot of the attempts to shoehorn Biblical passages into a justification for women’s subordination eerily reminiscent of slaveowners and white supremacists of earlier generations who piously insisted that all men and women, all races, were equal in the sight of God–but women and black folks were mandated by God to accept a hierarchical structure in which they lived humbly in their subordinate station. (And, yes, calling these separate but equal spheres doesn’t make them any less cruel.)

  • iamweaver

    There are two ways to view these passages – and the OP ignores the background used by Carter and others in viewing Paul’s particular verses about the relationship between, say, a husband and wife.A comparison to the passages regarding the roles of slave and master and husband and wife show striking similarities – and for good reason. At the time that Paul’s letters were written, the marriage contract was in many ways similar to the slave-master relation. Paul’s comments show applying Christian concepts to such patently unequal human institutions.Claims that men and women are “different, but equal”, then claiming that woman are *always* followers and men *always* leaders, are simply logically laughable. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that leaders and follower’s roles are in any way equal – in fact, it’s made quite clear that, due to their very inequality, that more is expected of a leader than a follower. God may love all of us equally, but we are not equal in any real sense of the word, and trying to justify the image that somehow, women are *designed* to be subservient to men will always lead to double-speak and careful quoting of bible verses, because there isn’t a shred of real-world evidence to back up this generalization.

  • gimpi

    God see’s these roles as being completely equal in importance as He is the one who instituted them. However, that does not mean that men and women are to fulfill the same roles. Some roles are given only to men just as some are given only to women. Paul makes this argument time and again throughout his letters.If you’re talking about people being able to choose to live this way, accepting these roles as a matter of religious belief, OK. If, however, you want these “divinly inspired roles” to be mandated in law, and applied to people who don’t belive God has such a thing as gender roles, or who reject the notion of a personal god altogether, no way. Your beliefs and what you do with them are your business, and good luck to you. My life is my own, and I choose to decide the roles I will play . I don’t want to go back to legal wife-beating, no property rights, obsessive modesty standards of dress, and rules refusing me the right to work in many fields. Many people don’t seem to know these restrictions (currently mostly associated with Islam) were the norm all throughout the Christian west up through the early 1900’s.Each of these changes was opposed by religious conservatives in the west, and in the middle-east it’s religious conservatives that are fighting to prevent change now. The specific religion is irrelevent, it’s the conservative aspect that seems to fight to keep oppression of women in place. Perhaps some conservatives could tell me why?

  • telesonic

    It’s interesting to watch people trying to update their Bronze Age superstitions so that they’re completely in synch with modern, liberal society’s values.Bible says to stone homosexuals to death? That’s ok – you can just say that that injunction, like all the other inconvenient stuff in the Bible, is “historically situated” and doesn’t apply to today’s Christians. Or you can employ the True Scotsman fallacy and tell yourselves that people who don’t believe the Bible really does call for complete equality of men and women merely “call themselves Christian.” (Obviously, only people who interpret the Bible your way are the “true” Christians.)Why don’t you just re-write the Bible? Cut out all the nasty stuff that you’re always having to apologize for and re-write the nice stuff so it reflects the modern, fluffy religion you actually practice.

  • paris1969

    The foolishness here is taking a book that has been changed and rearranged throughout its history and attempting to use it to make decisions in 2009. There are revelations in the Bible that transcend time, those speak of the Spirit of men and women, and they are changeless. The rest is culture at a given point in time. That’s all folks, so don’t use the Bible to justify your biases in regards to anyone. To to so would mean that our level of thought, reason and ability to understand, remained stagnant.

  • slim2

    Those who wrote what we consider barbaric tripe in ancient scripture were writing in their “time and place”. Let not hubris take over here and note that many of those things we accept as obvious truths today may seem tripe and even barbaric beyond our “time and place”.

  • jillcohen

    God is not real…it is an out-dated concept that was used to explain the inexplicable.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Jimmy Carter has done excellent work with Habitat for Humanity. Others have also done excellent work, some all here, some abroad, in housing, medicine, etc., and are not so widely praised (nor praise-seeking, filled with self-gratification, in self-awe at their good works) in fact, are largely invisible. Wrong, sad, but true.Further, they spare us endless religious opining, and, yes, there is a Christian fundamentalism in Carter. He is not the person one turns to for questions theological, and would to nonGod, he were not continually sought by some, for “answers.”Religion’s meaning is not, Mr. Schmaltz, “dicerned” over time so much as it is constructed, by those who have the wits, the minds, the wheretwithal.

  • Nosmanic

    I’m stuck that the articule holds Jimmy Carter to the standard of religist expert. That I have found what happens anytime one attempts to talk about religion. And the result is no one except the top echelon can talk about it. No wonder people stop going to church or those that do are thought of any idiots because anyone that goes and has a brian knows you can’t talk about it in the case you find someone that railroads you with doctrines, translation discrepancy and general dogma.

  • DwightCollins

    for carter who lusted in his mind after women and who is friends with the biggest dictators of the world who has done who knows what to women to even comment on this issue is amazing…

  • joe_allen_doty

    All of the Bible is NOT literally true. In the Old Testament there is a fable where trees elect a king.In the Gospels, Jesus used parables to illustrate a moral and/or spiritual truth. A parable is NOT a true story; but, it is a story which probably happened but cannot be proved as happening. When Jimmy Carter mentioned lusting after a woman in his heart, he was actually using what is recorded in scripture. That is spiritual adultery which can definitely be forgiven. Jesus had several women disciples who often went where he did. In the book of Acts, Luke the author of it mentions women: one who filled the role of pastor in a church that met in her home, one who was a co-evangelist with her husband and also one who was (literally) a deacon in her local church.

  • joe_allen_doty

    The Bible-college/university educated ministers who took an “Interpreting the Bible” course as required and claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality actually ignore the hermeneutic principles which were taught as part of the course.If you put them on the spot and asked them to explain the context of those 6 “Clobber Passages” used against those whom we would call “homosexual” during Bible times, they would have to admit none of them have to do with consensual same-gender sexual activity done in private. The man lying with a male in the book of Leviticus has to do with a heterosexually married man who has sexual activity with a male holy person dressed in female clothing to represent the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah. This “holy” person was called a “sodomite” in other books of the Old Testament. But, the city-state of Sodom was not even in the country of Canaan; it was on the East side of the Jordan River. Lot left Uncle Abram (later called “Abraham) when Abram and Lot did not get along and their flocks and livestock herds were too large. Abram told Lot if he decided to stay in Canaan, he would move out of the country. Well, Lot decided to leave instead. And he moved his family, his employees, and his livestock out of Canaan and set up ranching (aka pitched his tent) near Sodom. But, a few chapters before Lot ended up in Sodom, the author of Genesis mentions that Sodom has an evil reputation. But, same-gender sexual activity of the residents of Sodom is NEVER literally nor even figuratively mentioned in the Bible.

  • therev1

    Judging from the comments, perhaps it is true that only theologians should talk about religion. But even then the garbage rises to the surface and the talk devolves into how to clean the pool rather than talking of the pool itself.