A review of The Blood of Abraham, by Jimmy Carter
Four hundred years ago, religion was becoming discredited-at least in the eyes of some European observers-for its excessive militancy. Religious piety has always been a virtue capable of making enemies. To treat anything as more important than life frustrates the purposes of those who use coercion to achieve their ends. The threat of death does not frighten the potential martyr.
Today, however, the religious sentiment can be criticized for the opposite reason, that is, for its excessive and dangerous civility-at least in the West. Piety, in the original sense of the term, is being preempted today by "niceness." There is nothing in this modern religiosity which would prompt anyone to resist coercion. While religion may once have glorified resistance and endurance, it now celebrates reconciliation, peace at any cost, peace even at the cost of belief.
Our contemporary attitude about religion is imbued with William James's belief that "religion is something a man does with his privacy." This has undoubtedly made life more bearable in a theologically pluralistic society. Yet we have gradually come to believe that the only legitimate, public expression of religious piety is "respect for the beliefs of others," regardless of whether those beliefs are themselves disrespectful.
Former President Jimmy Carter's book, The Blood of Abraham, reflects this peculiarly modern view. The Blood of Abraham,consisting of Carter's insights into the current troubles in the Middle East, begins with his appreciation of the origins of the "three great monotheistic religions." As a believing Christian, Carter accepts as a premise the fact that God had a definite plan for the Jews. Yet he fails to take seriously the agonizing political demands which that mission placed upon them. He reports the fact that Joshua led the Israelites' across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. But he fails to report the fact that God had previously laid upon them the stern injunction:
And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shall smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shall make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them. (Deut. 7:2)
It is not clear whether Carter recognizes the possibility that a higher purpose can require measures which are decidedly "not nice." Perhaps he thinks that such stern measures are something other than religious. But this leaves unanswered the question, what is religious?
In one of the more startling passages of his book, Carter explains,
Islam also is more than a religion. The words of the Prophet Mohammed are a guide for tribal and family existence-how to treat friends and enemies, guests in one's home, those who harm their neighbors or who have a legal dispute. (p. 9)
If laws of conduct are "more than religious," perhaps the religious per se is merely the set of beliefs concerning the superhuman origin of human existence, which beliefs are presumably neutral as regards conduct. Could beliefs which have no bearing on the conduct of life still be politically relevant?
In the course of the many interviews which fill the book, Carter seems to suggest to his interlocutors and readers that the vague similarities in the piety of Christian, Moslem, and Jew can provide the loving understanding needed to bring peace to the troubled region. In one of the passages on which the book is most poignant-albeit unintentionally so-Carter relates with approval Sadat's observation that "[w]e all share the blood of Abraham." It appears that Sadat came to accept Carter's view that religious differences are less significant than human similarities. Is it any wonder that Sadat did not survive long as the leader of a Moslem country?
The whole thrust of The Blood of Abraham is that, in some sense or other, religious differences are the source of conflict in the Middle East. Just as the branches of trees compete for a place in the sun, so the three great religions compete for spiritual hegemony. The little metaphor, "the blood of Abraham" seems designed to suggest that we are all brothers, all having the same roots. Carter's pervasive, pan-religious civility can thus be thought of as a sort of pruning of the branches for the sake of the health of the roots. Unfortunately he seems intent upon hacking away at the roots as well.
In the simplest terms, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a struggle between two national identities for control of territory, but there are also historic, religious, strategic, political, and psychological issues. . . . (p. 112)
What is the national identity, if not the "historic, religious, strategic, political . . ."? And how can these be separated from the land? What Carter fails to make clear is that the Palestinians want and the Israelis need the same territory. If the Israelis fail to hold the territory of Palestine, they risk either assimilation or eradication elsewhere. Neither does he point out that Israel was a nation prior to its efforts to hold that land; the Jews could not assimilate elsewhere without losing everything. The Palestinians, on the other hand, risked nothing by being transplanted. Before Israel was formed, they were nothing but Islamic families, and they could have pursued their way of life anywhere in Islam. They have been granted a fictitious "peoplehood" simply as a consequence of the ambitions of their own propagandists and of Islamic leaders in other underpopulated states.
Carter's own eerie rootlessness is betrayed by his continuing portrait of himself as tourist. As he travels through the Middle East, attempting to promote peace through understanding, he seems oblivious to the fact that, in a very practical sense, the Israelis and the Arabs understand each other perfectly.
Much of the book is based upon discussions he had with Middle Eastern leaders during his 1983 ex-president's tour. Flying into Damascus, the travelogue begins, "Abraham's wanderings would have taken him through the land of Syria. . . ." Then, a little later, he blandly reports his conversation with Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad:
He smiled as he observed that the struggle was now viewed by the world as being between little Syria and the mighty American superpower . . . [a little later] . . . he went on to declare, "Our principal enemy is the United States, not Israel," (pp. 77, 81)
Yet Carter, the honest conciliator, maintains that Assad could be "a prime catalyst in achieving an overall peace agreement in the Middle East" (p. 84). One supposes that when the preeminent aspiration is peace, the implications of hostile domination become a secondary consideration.
Finally, we are left with a man indifferent to the distinctive doctrines of religion. Carter seems incapable of appreciating that the Moslem and the Jew cannot dwell upon their common origins in "the blood of Abraham." Yet, something prevents him from reverting to secular loyalty and particularism, from dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the realm of political necessity. He maintains that American aims in the Middle East must include both "honoring the sovereignty of nations" andprotecting human rights, "including those generally recognized in the U.S. Constitution" (p. 203). He fails to ask whether the first might not entail the acceptance of tyrannies, or whether the second might not require the shedding of American blood in the attempt to free those people from their tyrants. Above all, he fails really to address the question, comprehensive for American public officials: What are the interests in the United States in the Middle East? It is astonishing that a man who was once the Chief Executive of the United States appears incapable of answering this question. This inability, however, is the inevitable consequence of his rootless and autonomous civility, with nothing to anchor it and nothing to sustain its life.
This having been said, one might justifiably ask whether the book is really worth reading. It is, for at least two reasons. First, Carter had occasion to converse with a considerable number of world leaders, and he reports his conversations with an embarrassing candor. Second, Americans can discover something of their own national character reflected in the book. While Carter may not be the archetypical American, there is a tendency among Americans to assume the domestic concord of the United States is somehow extendable beyond our borders. In understanding the way in which Carter succumbs to this tendency, we may come to a better understanding of the tensions defining us as a people.
After the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, perhaps nothing has shaped us so much as the "First Amendment," especially in the second half of the twentieth century. During the last generation, the nonestablishment clause has been taken to mean more than that the civil administration must remain neutral to differences in religious creeds in its protection of civil and political rights. It means more than that the rights of Americans cannot be contingent upon some public profession of faith. Rather, the First Amendment is now understood to mean that the civil administration has a positive duty to promote secular humanism (despite the fact that twenty-five years ago the Supreme Court recognized "secular humanism" as a religion). We have not yet become Philistines, but the judges now assure us that the public realm is legalized Philistinism.
In its origins, the American character was defined by the dual allegiance to a universal religion, on the one hand, and to the particular and limited administration of the necessities of life, on the other. Not separated, but distinct, both allegiances were taken to be fundamental to the life of "one nation under God," much as the legislated calibration of timepieces presupposed a global conception of time. Now, we are in danger of turning ourselves topsy-turvy. Carter, for example, assumes the practical extension to the whole world of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Unawares, he is committing himself to the universal administration of justice. Alternatively, he believes that the power of love-contagious niceness-should render the actual administration of world justice unnecessary. Thus, he assumes that the "world community" was "deeply mortified" by the Holocaust, though most of the world, including the Arab world and the Soviet bloc, has seemed restrained in its sympathy.
At the same time, Carter ignores the fundamental distinctions between religious creeds. In disregarding the divisions of sympathy and policy resulting from these distinctions, he is assuming that the contradictions between creeds are no more significant than distinctions in cuisines. It is as if someone could assume a kind of wholesale subjectivism concerning the calibration of clocks, while nevertheless assuming that the whole world is running on the same timetable.
It is precisely in the realm of religious legislation that we can begin to appreciate what a difference this all might make. Although he mentions it only in passing, Carter cannot overlook the intimate connection between religion and government for the Jew and the Moslem, especially for the Moslem. In Islam, the distinction between Church and State is a distinction impossible to sustain, in that the Koran is taken to be the comprehensive legislation. Christianity first introduced the distinction between "the things which are Caesar's and those which are God's," while still insisting that a rendering must be made to both.
When the distinction becomes a dogmatic separation, as it has over the last two generations, the administrative neutrality or secular humanism toys with self-annihilation. The neutral administration must stand by idly, watching the spread of superstitions inimical to the health of the Republic. What is worse, the administration dutifully promoting "humanism" infects the land with a sort of spiritual vacuity, leaving the coming generation prey first to gross sensualism, and then to the most intransigent and intolerant sorts of religiosity. If we accept that there is great sanity, both politically and religiously, in distinguishing between political rights and religious devotion, can we remain indifferent to the spread of Islam or Marxism within the Republic? For that matter, can any religion be tolerated if it would entail the eventual eradication of this distinction?
One of the great mysteries of our generation is America's continuing adherence to the cause of Israel. Our support for the cause of Israel is deeper than ever was our support for that of Poland, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Carter admits that this sustained commitment is "not easily explained to non-Americans" (p. 54). He might have added that it is not easily understood by Americans themselves. The attempted genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany does not suffice to explain it. This century has seen a number of genocides, most of which have been ignored. Israel is an underdog; but Hungary, too, was an underdog, which we had no difficulty abandoning. Indeed, for Americans, the enduring fascination with Israel is unique. The fact that Israel is a Jewish nation is the beginning of the fascination. The deeper religious grounds of the fascination are obscure and difficult to articulate. The key to the phenomenon is that Israel is not only a Jewish nation but also a democratic state, and thus Israel most embodies the sort of tension defining the American republic. Other nations are republican, but their republicanism may seem oligarchical, like that of the Swiss. Other nations may be democratic, but, like the French, their dedication seems to be the preservation of an accidental "ethnic" heritage.
The Jews are a chosen people, a circumcised people, a people attempting to live a timeless allegiance at this particular time and at that place. Americans still appreciate what this might mean. Despite their sentimental cosmopolitanism, pacifism, materialism, and practical isolationism, Americans still respond to the call to govern themselves in accordance with some vision of human sanctity; such a vision is somehow necessarily bound up with the risk of protecting and welcoming the wretched of the world, here and now. So, in Israel, America sees the political tension between a kind of commanding purpose and the necessity of consent, the tension arising from loyalty to a particular, practical administration of a universal principle, the tension of democratic republicanism.
Carter relates the story of one of his visits to the Israeli Knesset, where he was shocked by the "relatively undisciplined exchanges" of the parliamentarians.
Prime Minister Begin seemed to relish the verbal combat and expressed pride in how unrestrained the shouted argument was. During an especially vituperative exchange, he leaned over to me and said proudly, "This is democracy in action."(p. 33)
Democratic acrimony, at its best, is the consequence of taking the issues seriously, and the survival of democratic institutions presupposes more than a personal appetite for their fruits. Republicanism, an adherence to the common purpose and habits of discourse, must prevail over the centrifugal tendencies of the democratic ethos, for the sake of the very survival of those democratic institutions. For this reason, a fuller understanding of the peculiar nature of religious liberty is the issue of ultimate importance for both Israel and the United States.