Primary Sources: Reading President Carter’s talk at the AAR

Every year, over the weekend before Thanksgiving, scholars of religion gather for the annual American Academy of Religion (and concurrent Society of Biblical Literature) meetings. It is usually a zoo: networking, papers, panels, interviews, plenary sessions, reunions, and more for nearly 10,000 scholars, whose expertise varies from Biblical hermeneutics to critical theories to Islam to post-secular ritual and more. Despite a long history, and many important moments in scholarly production, this year marked a true first: a former president of the United States addressed the conference attendees. As a historian who deals, in bulk, with archives and documents, President Jimmy Carter’s talk turned out to be a fascinating, rich, and valuable primary source.

President Carter has a new book out–A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power–and ostensibly, found the AAR/SBL annual meetings a good place to talk about (and sell the results of) his findings. He presented a talk entitled “The Role of Religion in Mediating Conflicts and Imagining Futures: The Cases of Climate Change and Equality for Women.”

As a scholar of Islam, I was suspicious of this talk, to be honest; I wanted to see a former president speak, but I wasn’t sure what, if anything, would come of it. After all, a Sunday school teacher, an active and evangelical Christian, and, yes, former POTUS talking about religion and violence against women (with an addendum of climate change) reeked of a certain paternalism, perhaps even a lurking Orientalist set of assumptions–we Americans know about the appropriate treatment of women; those (Muslim?) foreign folks, in far-flung lands, do not.

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POTUS Carter, as seen on screen from the crowd.

My suspicions weren’t entirely grounded, it turned out. Carter did espouse a particular set of paternalist and patriarchal assumptions–i.e., he called for the protection of women by men, and called for men to step up to this specific challenge, without citing women or girls who already do this work or whose movements we might look to for models.  And, yes, he opened his talk by discussing violence against women “over there,” by an assumed Muslim population: genital mutilation, the Taliban’s ban on girls attending school, child marriage. But then, bluntly, he addressed this crowd of scholars by saying: “If you think these aren’t our problems, you’re wrong.”

With that and what immediately followed, he proved that I was wrong to have assumed a monolithic dismissal of non-American or non-Western cultural practices or an abundantly rosy view of America or the West. He listed statistics about sexual assaults on university campuses and in the military. He cited women’s unequal pay for equal work. He blasted Atlanta, where his own center is located, as the nation’s largest hub for human trafficking. He lingered on human trafficking, though Carter refused to call it by its “euphemistic label,” and instead called it slavery. And then, President Carter claimed that there are more slaves–more trafficked humans–in today’s America than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With oratory aplomb, he let that sit; and then, he continued on to link what he called the degradation of women and girls to issues of race and racism, briefly mentioning the then-unfolding decision in Ferguson.

While Carter did not address climate change or the environment at length in his prepared (though, for the record, extemporaneously delivered) remarks, the Q&A that followed focused on his (religious) sense of environmentalism, highlighting policies he created in office and asking him to reflect on the relationships between violence against women and nature. He suggested that women and girls would be hardest hit by climate change, as they tend to be in most natural or man-made crises.

Women, girls and the environment. But, what about religion, you ask? That’s the most fascinating part of all. President Carter asked for action not on the basis of American superiority, though that was part of it. He asked, in this talk anyway, for action on the basis of reading scripture correctly. His talk was a primary source document: it demonstrated world problems, to be sure, but then asked the audience to solve those problems using appropriately read and meaningfully interpreted theology. It was a lived exercise in progressive evangelism and liberal theology. To use the language of pedagogy, President Carter described problems but prescribed (generally) a solution: rereading scripture and correcting misinterpretation.

To his eye, misinterpretation of holy scriptures–Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, here–was at fault for systems that support violence against women, girls and the environment. Carter was asked if religion might be an obstacle to achieving his stated goals; couldn’t religion and religious texts be used to prop up the systems he critiques? And in reply, he offered classic theological interpretation, saying, “They [opponents] can find some verse in the Bible to support their misinterpretation.”

Of course, he doesn’t see his own interpretations–that women and girls are equal, that the environment is entrusted to humanity by God–as misinterpretation. He sees them as accurate, based upon deep reading, deep commitment, and, as he put it, his sense that he “serves the Prince of peace.”

His talk begs countless questions. What Christianity or textual interpretation does he envision as especially correct–is it just his, is it his community’s, or something else altogether? Does he envision limitations in non-male, non-white, non-Christian settings to an approach that values (Christian) liberal theology? If climate, gender, sex, race, class, and religion are so imbricated–as he suggested at various points–how might his solution(s) address these both various and intersecting sets of issues? How might his suggestion of “reading better” work against his calls for peace, environmentalism, equality, and justice?

It was a scholarly treasure trove, as primary source texts often are, which is why his talk was exciting: as a scholar of religion, I had the opportunity to listen to the former leader of the United States actively offer biblical exegesis in light of current issues, and do so in such a way that critiqued various (American) political administrations, (largely Christian) textual interpretations, and ethical and moral commitments (of political and religious institutions and persons). And reading his talk as a primary source is crucial. By doing so, analyzing what he says in its contexts leaves room to critique issues in his comments like paternalism, heavy-handed prescriptive Christian religion, and privilege of various stripes, while also preserving his talk as an example of a set of discourses.