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A presidential volume worth purchasing?

Garry Wills's review of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis is so favorable that I'm actually tempted to buy a presidential tome. The piece, "Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death" (I'd have swapped the ampersand for a "vs"), appears in the New York Review of Books for February 9, 2006, and it is perhaps the strongest essay yet to contrast true religion with hateful religiosity. What few people knew at the time was that Jimmy Carter was awkward when he made religious statements because he didn't really believe that he ought to be making them, but felt badgered by the press. Mr Carter belongs to the Baptist World Alliance, an organization with which the more fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention has severed ties, the better, in Mr Wills's view, to promote its culture of death.

Mr Wills' deftly argues that the "pro-life," anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right maintains an anti-life agenda. When abortion is illegal, women desperate enough to get them not infrequently die, but that is only one part of a program that focuses on death. By refusing to limit the distribution of guns, this movement makes the United States a world hub of homicide; it is also among the top four sovereignties that inflict capital punishment. It insists on the United States' right to the first use of nuclear weapons; its myopic foreign policies reap a world-wide harvest of contempt for this country. Mr Wills winds up beautifully, with solid praise for the former president:

Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics and pragmatism. That is a combination that once was not rare, but is becoming more so. We need a voice from the not-so-distant past, and this quiet voice strikes just the right notes.

"Punitive, narrow and self-righteous" - a comprehensive description of patriarchs on the defense. I wish that Mr Wills had mentioned the word "patriarchy," but perhaps to do so would have raised an awkwardness. The "not-so-distant past" to which he hearkens was a settled patriarchy, with white men firmly in possession of all executive power,. Not only that, but their possession was not seriously questioned by most Americans. If you wanted a secure place in this patriarchy, you sucked up to it if you were a man and served it if you were a woman. Those who were drawn to alternatives could take their chances (in the big cities), but with no expectation of rescue in case of failure. Welfare wasn't wrong because it was expropriation - that just made it "unfair." What made it wrong was that it rescued folks who had opted out of the patriarchy. PS: It is understood, in a patriarchy, that those who haven't found a place within its structure have chosen not to, at least insofar as they haven't tried "hard enough."

Whether we are living through the patriarchy's last gasp, or whether natural and economic catastrophes will make the patriarchy look like the best chance for survival yet again, remains to be seen.


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