Jimmy Carter's New Book About Women, Religion, Violence and Power
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN
FOR THE ECONOMIST
JIMMY CARTER, the 39th president of the United States, is known for staunch opinions on matters ranging from peace in Palestine to poetry and peanuts. He is a prolific author with more than two dozen books to his name since he left Washington in 1981. The latest, “A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power”, examines gender-based violence and religious persecution of women—something he calls “the most serious challenge facing us now”.
Mr Carter’s theory, that these attitudes result from the male desire for power, is not groundbreaking. In “A Call to Action” he examines the same laundry list of worthy issues around which the global-development community has rallied in recent years, including sexual discrimination, human-trafficking, institutionalised rape and child marriage. Indeed the book follows on the heels of a string of similar tomes, including “Half the Sky” (2009), by two New York Times columnists, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and “Lean In” (2013), a workplace manual by the operations chief of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. Yet Mr Carter’s entry stands alone in its scolding of male religious leaders—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and members of his own Christian faith—who he says misappropriate sacred texts to protect their self-interests and the unequal status quo.
“Christians can take any one of 36,000 verses in the Bible, and if they want to prove men are superior, they can find one verse that, when distorted, can do so,” Mr Carter told The Economist. “But Jesus Christ never deviated from one standard—and that was that women are equal to men in every way. He never insinuated that women were inferior to men.”
He has done his homework. The book describes discrimination and abuse on five continents, where offences run the gamut from the grudging to the gruesome. It is eye-opening to discover how poorly the US ranks on charts that measure salary equity and women’s participation in public office. More disturbingly, figures from India show that in 2012 there were over 8,000 reported cases of “dowry deaths”–murder of or cruelty to young brides by their husbands because of dissatisfaction with the amount of money or jewellery paid in the marriage exchange. Mr Carter offers solutions to some of the problems: a case in point is his work with a programme called Girls Not Brides, which brought together nearly 300 nongovernmental organisations around the world in an effort to reduce the number of child marriages.
Mr Carter calls the treatment of women and girls “worse than any war we’ve had in history”. The Carter Center, the organisation he founded in 1982 to promote peace and improve global health, has focused initiatives on women’s issues in recent years. “To see what was being done to women and girls [around the world] was just shocking and horrendous to me,” he says.
In the book’s more personal chapters, Mr Carter emphasises the longevity of his support for women’s rights. He writes of his decision to break ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 after it voted to exclude women from pastoral leadership; the work of his wife, Rosalynn, during his tenure in the White House; his admiration for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified in 1948; and his 1920s childhood in Georgia and the women he idolised there, his mother and Rachel Clark, a family employee and friend who taught him to fish and pick cotton.
He never expressly names the “action” that his book is demanding, apart from a wish to “marshal a more concerted effort to address the profound problem” of persecution, violence and inequality. But Mr Carter’s plea goes beyond the campaigns to increase awareness that one might expect of a journalist or corporate author. “A Call to Action” espouses the ideas that equality and human freedom are “inextricably linked with peace and nonviolence” and that “violence is contrary to the will of God” in all faiths. Mr Carter credits Martin Luther King and Pope Francis as originators of these notions, and does a fine job of supporting and exemplifying them through references to his own life experiences.
The most convincing argument the book makes comes at the very end. It is not based upon statistics, but rather upon Mr Carter’s belief that political and religious leaders share a responsibility for alleviating the suffering of women and girls. “The fact is,” he writes, “all of us can act within our own spheres of influences to meet the challenges.”