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Religion and human rights: An interview with President Jimmy Carter (part one)

President Jimmy Carter discusses women’s rights, President Obama’s performance on these issues, and what he thinks about the afterlife.

The 88-year-old 39th President is leading a conversation on religion and women's rights through his Center in Atlanta, GA - Image courtesy of Zondervan
The 88-year-old and 39th President is leading a conversation on religion and women's rights through his Center in Atlanta, GA - Image courtesy of Zondervan

The 88-year-old and 39th President is leading a conversation on religion and women’s rights through his Center in Atlanta, GA – Image courtesy of Zondervan

When I entered the office of President Jimmy Carter in his Center off Freedom Parkway in Atlanta, I was filled with the anxiety I suppose anyone has when meeting such a person. He sat behind a mahogany desk reading a newspaper. The grandfatherly figure greeted me warmly before we moved to a sitting area for the interview.

I was visiting The Carter Center to attend “Mobilizing Faith for Women: Engaging the Power 
of Religion and Belief to Advance 
Human Rights and Dignity.” The goal of the event was to “educate and mobilize religious leaders from around the world” on the incompatibility of their teachings with gender inequality. In his opening remarks, President Carter called abuses of women “the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violations on earth.”

Eighty percent of slaves are women, and 80% of those are sold for sexual abuse. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women aren’t allowed to drive automobiles or vote in political elections. Though The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been ratified by every major nation on earth, it is often ignored on religious grounds.

There are also more civilized oppressions in addition to the ones that often capture widespread media attention. In the United States, for example, women make about 70% as their male counterparts for doing the same job. Among Christians, Carter said, these injustices are perpetuated when “singular verses are extracted and distorted.”

The 39th President has been open about his Christian faith, even recently authoring a devotional of 366 meditations on the Bible. Here we talk about the intersection of religion and women’s rights, how he rates President Barack Obama’s performance on these issues, and what the 88-year-old former President thinks about the afterlife.

JM: You have forged relationships with world leaders in countries like Saudi Arabia who are some of the worst offenders of human rights. I’m wondering how you reconcile some of the relationships you’ve maintained with the efforts you’re making now?

JC: You can’t screen out from your circle of acquaintances everyone who disagrees with you on a particular issue. Quite often when I was President, the Saudis were strong supporters of me. For instance, when I tried to negotiate peace between Israel and Egypt, the Saudi leadership came and told me that they approved of what I was doing. And the Saudis, when I was struggling with an absence or shortage of oil, increased their production of oil to help the United States’ citizens. So despite the fact that they have not given equal rights to women, there is a legitimate reason for either I or the current President of the United States to form a relationship with them.

Also there are many other countries on earth who don’t have the same basic commitments to basic human rights or democracy or freedom as the United States, and we can’t screen out everyone who has a disagreement with us over an issue.

I also know that the United States has discriminatory actions against women as well. For example, we have the highest number of women serving in Congress ever right now, and it is only 18%. A woman in the United States gets paid 70% of what a man would get for the same work. And in some religious organizations in America, women are not permitted to be priests or deacons or chaplains in their service before God. So there is a lot of reason to encourage the improvement of women’s rights, not only in Saudi Arabia and other countries that are different from us but also in our own country.

JM: You’ve drawn criticism for your comparison between the Catholic Church with their approach to female priests and fundamentalist Islamic approaches in countries like Saudi Arabia. Have you been misunderstood?

JC: No. No, I think in the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention and in some Islamic countries, women are ordained to be inferior to men in their ability to serve God.

My own belief is that the Bible teaches the equality of men and women. In fact, Paul told the Galatians in chapter three that there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and masters, between men and women in their standing before God through Jesus Christ. And in the 16th chapter of Romans, when Paul delineates the leaders of the church in the early Christian era, there is about a third or almost half of those mentioned who were women who serve as priests and apostles and so forth.

So, you can pick out particular verses in the Quran or the Bible to tell women they can’t be ordained or even adorned with jewelry or cut their hair and that sort of thing or to be subservient to their husbands. But at the same time, the Bible says that husbands should treat their wives with the same respect they treat Jesus Christ. So it’s this elective use of verses from the Quran and Bible that permits some male leaders to assert that women are inferior. I object to that no matter who the entity might be.

JM: How would you rate President Obama on women’s rights so far?

JC: Well, I think he’s been one of the leaders who has espoused the equal treatment of all Americans. When I was President, we went through the challenge of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, which was a very simple amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It guaranteed equal rights for women. It was approved by a 2/3rd vote in the House and Senate, but we could not get 3/4ths of the states to ratify it because of local opposition in the state legislatures. I would guess that President Obama, though I haven’t heard him say this, would be in favor of those principles of equal rights for women.

CONTINUE to part two of this interview…