Religion and Human Rights: An Interview with Jimmy Carter (Part 1)
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% less for doing the same job as their male counterparts. 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.