Founded in 1981, the Institute on Religion & Democracy has been a voice for transparency, for renewal, and for Christian orthodoxy.
By Matthew Tuininga
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. He said:
“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.”
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