Jimmy Carter: A Sunday Interview

In a wide-ranging interview, the former president calls on Catholics to accept female priests, America to denounce the death penalty and Obama to stay out of the Syrian war

  • Share
  • Read Later
Soe Zeya / Reuters

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivers a speech in Yangon, Burma, on April 5, 2013.

Let’s get right to it. This week the Carter Center’s Mobilizing Faith for Women conference will ask the question, “Can religion be a force for women’s rights instead of a source of women’s oppression?” What’s your answer?

Well, religion can be, and I think there’s a slow, very slow, move around the world to give women equal rights in the eyes of God. What has been the case for many centuries is that the great religions, the major religions, have discriminated against women in a very abusive fashion and set an example for the rest of society to treat women as secondary citizens. In a marriage or in the workplace or wherever, they are discriminated against. And I think the great religions have set the example for that, by ordaining, in effect, that women are not equal to men in the eyes of God.

This has been done and still is done by the Catholic Church ever since the third century, when the Catholic Church ordained that a woman cannot be a priest for instance but a man can. A woman can be a nurse or a teacher but she can’t be a priest. This is wrong, I think. As you may or may not know, the Southern Baptist Convention back now about 13 years ago in Orlando, voted that women were inferior and had to be subservient to their husbands, and ordained that a woman could not be a deacon or a pastor or a chaplain or even a teacher in a classroom in some seminaries where men are in the classroom, boys are in the classroom. So my wife and I withdrew from the Southern Baptist Convention primarily because of that.

But I now go to a more moderate church in Plains, a small church, it’s part of the Cooperative Baptist fellowship, and we have a male and a female pastor, and we have women and have men who are deacons. My wife happens to be one of the deacons.

So some of the Baptists are making progress, along with Methodists. For instance the other large church in Plains is a Methodist church, and they have a man for the last eight years and the next pastor they get will be a woman. They’ve had a woman pastor before, before the Baptists did. And of course the Episcopalians and other denominations that are Protestant do permit women or encourage women to be bishops, as you know, and pastors.

In the Islamic world that varies widely depending on what the regime is in the capital. Sometimes they try to impose very strict law, misquoting I think the major points of the Qur’an, and they ordain that a woman is inferior inherently. Ten year old girls can be forced to marry against their wishes, and that women can be treated as slaves in a marriage, and that a woman can’t drive an automobile, some countries don’t let women vote, like Saudi Arabia.

Others are much more moderate. I would say Turkey is more moderate and Indonesia is more moderate. Some of the countries in which we’ve held elections these last couple years have been more moderate, like Libya and Tunisia, they are trying to reach out to women. Egypt is doing a little bit, not enough, so I think that this ordination, you might say of religious leaders, that women are inherently inferior before God, and also the turning of our society almost all over the world to much more dependence on violence, are the two things that shape the negative aspects of what we are trying to address in this conference.

The Carter Center and I personally are very deeply opposed to the death penalty. But when the United States government and its Constitution says that people can be put to death, that sets an example of extreme violence that very few other developed, industrialized nations would have. There is no country for instance in Europe that would permit the death penalty, but we do.

And I think the other thing is that the United States has been almost constantly at war now for the last 60 years ever since the Second World War. The United States has been almost constantly at war with somebody, and we are now talking about going to war in Syria, or maybe I guess Iran. And we are just coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and we were involved in all kinds of wars in the past, about 14 or 15 of them. The only time that we weren’t by the way, was when I was at president, and I was committed to strength and peace.

But anyway, I say that the emphasis of condoning of violence on the general population, and the denigration of women as inferior, those are the two things we are going to address in this conference.

What Scripture guides your work on women’s rights?

The one that I look on most is the Letter from Paul to the Galatians, when he says there is no difference in the eyes of God between a man and a woman, and between a slave and a master, or between a Jew and a Gentile, they are all created in the eyes of God equally. That’s a primary verse.

But there are a lot of them, for instance if you look at some of the verses I think in Romans, I can’t remember exactly, maybe Acts, or Romans in the 16th chapter, Paul delineates a lot of top leaders in the church and about a third of them are women. So I think in the original status of the Christian church, women played a very important role, even in the leadership role. And then after about the third century when men took over control of the Catholic Church, then they began to ordain that women had to play an inferior position, not be a priest.

How can mobilizing religious communities for women’s rights produce results?

To repeat myself in a way, I think that what the major religious leaders say is used by others who discriminate against women as justification for their human rights abuse. For instance if an employer, who might be otherwise enlightened, if he is a religious person and he sees that, he might be a Catholic, and a Catholic does not let women be priests, then why should he pay his women employees an equal pay [as men]?

In the United States that prevails all over. We have an average now of about 70% that a woman earns compared to a 100% that a man earns for doing the same job. And very few of the corporate boards have I think 50% women. Very few of them. And of course we have a very few percentage of women in our House of Representatives and in our Senate. We never yet had a woman president, but I think that’s going to come in the near future. But I think in general terms this is a very derogating thing.

It is much worse in some of the third world countries where genital cutting is condoned and girls are forced to marry when they are as young as 8 or 10 years old and they have no voice in who their husband might be or when they get married. And you see the extreme case with Al Qaeda and particularly with the Taliban in Afghanistan. So these are the kind of things that permeate society in a very general way and it afflicts almost every single community in America and almost throughout the world. There is a sense that women are not quite equal to men both politically and economically and in religious terms.

You mentioned Syria. What do you think President Obama, who is an avowed Christian, should be doing regarding the crisis in Syria?

Well, what I advocated 18 months ago was that we not go to war in Syria, but that we try to ordain an election and let both sides enter the election and let the Syrian people make a choice of who they want to be their president. As you know this is the position that the United Nations has taken, it is the position that the Arab League took early on, it is the position that Russia and China still take, and it is the position that our two Special Envoys, who I know quite well, [Former U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan, and Lakhdar Brahimi, have tried to put forward.

But the United States has taken a position from the very beginning, 18 months, almost two years ago, that the first step in this process had to be Assad stepping down and he’s not about to step down. So we have blocked any other move toward a peaceful resolution until last month, when John Kerry met with the foreign minister of Russia, and they decided to have peace talks. But we have not been very enthusiastic about that and I doubt if they are going to take place.

I noticed the conference draws participants from all over the world and no one is coming from Syria or Iran. I’m wondering with respect to Iran, what do you think Iranians could learn from this conference?

In general the Shia religion, which is Iranian, has been more progressive on women’s rights than some of the Sunni countries.

But I don’t know that the Iranians would come to a conference that I sponsored or that is in the United States. I doubt it, but I would like very much to see our country and Iran heal wounds between us. As a matter of fact when the shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, I immediately established diplomatic relations with Iran, and that lasted until they captured, as you know, our hostages, who were diplomats.

Do you think there is such a thing as an Iranian moderate today?

Oh sure, I am sure there are. As a matter of fact you have seen the news reports that of the six candidates that the Ayatollah permitted to run, this was the most moderate who was chosen, and it’s because he knew the West and he had been making some reasonable statements at the conferences on the nuclear issue.

So I think the Ayatollah is very careful not to let any liberals or extreme moderates get on the voting list, but at least this was the most moderate, which shows that there are a lot of moderate voters in Iran, that when they had the choice between hardliners and so-called moderates, even if it is a comparative statement, they went for the moderate.

One last question. You mentioned hopefully we’ll get a woman president soon–


What about Hillary Clinton in 2016?

I’m not going to comment on that. We supported Obama in the last election. Good luck to you.

Thank you so much, Mr. President.

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States. The Carter Center’s Mobilizing Faith for Women conference will be held in Atlanta from June 27 to June 29.