Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis

In the presidential campaign of 1992, George H. W. Bush's family values platform collapsed under the weight of a recession, and to many, the political discussion of morality retreated, taking refuge under the so-called Religious Right. But since the second election of George W. Bush, open talk of faith and morals has reentered the political arena with gusto. This is due partly to the reactive emergence of a Religious Left, such as is advocated in Jim Wallis's bestselling book, God's Politics. The book encourages the political left to use the language of faith and morals to regain the hearts and minds (and votes) of religious Americans. The strategy seems to be “less P.C., more J.C.” But the J.C. who answered the call was Jimmy Carter, whose new book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, fronts as an appeal to our corporate conscience. In effect, the book only masks Carter's public policies beneath religious language. To be fair, Carter is not a poseur, referencing his faith only when politically helpful; he is known to be a man of genuine faith and goodwill. Anyone out simply to baptize the talking points of the Democratic Party would not condemn homosexuality and abortion as Carter does in this book. But even a cursory glance at the rest of the work reveals that Carter is less interested in seriously discussing morality and more interested in propping up a political platform with pseudo-religious platitudes. In the end, the book actually undermines a serious discussion of moral issues.

The book is a case study in one of C .S. Lewis's favorite themes: when secondary goods are sought ahead of primary goods, both are corrupted. Moral prudence might be described as a primary good when compared to the power such prudence renders. We elect leaders because we hope they are qualified to lead. But to use “moral prudence” as a means to political power corrupts both the power and the prudence. There is a fine, but absolutely crucial, distinction to be made here: the discussion of morality most certainly has its place in politics (indeed, the ancients defined politics as social ethics), but this discussion must not be co-opted to serve political ends.

But sadly, it is all too clear that this is what is happening with Carter's book: the moral lexicon is being co-opted to gain votes. And while this phenomenon is not restricted to the political left, it seems that Carter's book is the best example (so far) of an attempt to implement Wallis's vote-getting strategy. In spite of its misleading subtitle, the book offers little substantive analysis of “America's moral crisis.” It contains very few reasonable arguments, relying heavily on non sequiturs and convenient references to “traditional Christian faith.” (Carter does little to unpack this portmanteau, perhaps frightened of what's inside.) Even when a sensible idea pops up—opening trade with Cuba, for example—it is not grounded on a solid ethical foundation. The book seems altogether uninterested in establishing the necessary premises of a reasonable, coherent, moral argument, opting instead to use the moral lexicon to denounce this or that policy of a certain sitting president. Here Carter's political motivations become clear, for it would seem that the sitting president is on the wrong side of almost all of America's “traditional” values: environmental protection, fair treatment of terror suspects, and nuclear disarmament, to name a few.

These and other politically relevant topics supposedly constitute “our endangered values,” a phrase which contains another clue that this book is more political than didactic: the unquestioned use of the term our. This is a common rhetorical slight of hand: build your syllogisms on unstated or unquestioned premises, hoping your interlocutors will overlook any discrepancies contained therein. When Carter refers to our values, he simply takes for granted precisely what that term means (and apparently, things like environmental protection—not freedom, independence, or initiative—are the pillars of the American ideal). This excuses him from having to define clearly the terms values, ethics, and moral crisis. Carter carelessly tosses these concepts about to make his book appear as a serious discussion of the nation's moral fiber when in fact the discussion is threadbare, a cheap appeal to the morally inclined. As result, the subject of this book turns out to be not our endangered values but Carter's engendered ones.