Redeeming Jimmy Carter – By Andrew R. Murphy

Andrew R. Murphy on Randall Balmer’s Redeemer

Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Basic Books, 2014, 304pp., $27.99
Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Basic Books, 2014, 304pp., $27.99
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Just in case readers might miss the significance of the title emblazoned across the book’s front cover, Randall Balmer has prominently featured the words of John 1:11 — “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” — in the book three separate times: on its frontispiece, and in the titles of its fourth and seventh chapters. Of course Balmer is neither the first nor the last to use provocative words of Scripture to describe political phenomena. One might recall President George W. Bush invoking the prologue to John’s gospel on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, for example. Nonetheless the use of words originally referring to Jesus in relation to a president of the United States ought to give us pause. It does, however, highlight a series of questions that frame this account of Carter’s life, faith, and political career. Who or what does Balmer consider to be in need of redemption? Southerners, who struggled to overcome the legacies of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow? Evangelicals, so often associated in the contemporary media with exclusionary politics and nostalgia for the days of “Christian America”? Or perhaps Carter’s own tenure in the Oval Office, widely remembered (fairly or not) as a grave disappointment marked by stagnation and indecision at home and impotence abroad?

Whichever of these options we pick, one thing seems clear: Jimmy Carter had a lot of redeeming to do. Balmer, an accomplished scholar of American religion, Episcopal priest, and frequent public commentator on the intersection of religion and politics, provides a warmly appreciative sketch of the major events of the Carter era, viewed through the lens of his evangelical faith. The book offers a timely reminder, nearly forty years after his election to the presidency, of the remarkable convergence of Carter’s unique persona as an honest man of faith and the post-Watergate hunger for integrity in the nation’s public officials that together catapulted him to the highest office in the land.

Balmer also reminds twenty-first century readers of the robust agenda that occupied Carter’s attention during his time in the White House. The Camp David accords were undoubtedly President Carter’s proudest accomplishment, while arms-control talks with the Soviet Union and his attempt to craft an effective response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to say nothing of the national humiliation that was the Iranian hostage crisis, often overshadowed his attempt to inject respect for human rights into American foreign policy.

Domestically, Carter vocally supported energy conservation, environmentalism, and the exploration and development of alternative energy sources like solar and wind power. And the furor over the Equal Rights Amendment and the rise of abortion and homosexuality as contentious public issues presented him with a difficult balancing act, since the uneasy coexistence of conservative and progressive impulses within his own mind reflected larger divisions within American evangelicalism. For example, Balmer reports that Carter told federal employees that if they were “living in sin, they should get married”. This from a man who was apparently taught from a very young age about the separation of church and state.

From Carter’s early years in rural Georgia to his time in the Navy, from his return to his home state and entrance into public life through his meteoric rise to the presidency, Redeemer ably recreates the signal developments of the 1960s and 1970s, and the ways in which the trajectory of a resurgent, politically conservative evangelical Protestantism both made Carter’s presidency possible and ultimately doomed his re-election prospects. He rightly points to the IRS attempt to revoke Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status due to the institution’s racially discriminatory practices (and not the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision) as the galvanizing spark that set in place the Christian Right’s rise to national prominence. Although the movement came to be associated with anti-abortion politics and a virulent anti-communism, its origins lay in the much more prosaic issue of tax exemptions for segregated educational institutions. (On this point see Balmer’s brief piece at the Politico website.)

As is to be expected, Redeemer views the tumultuous events of the 1960s and 1970s largely in light of their relevance to the story of Jimmy Carter and his particular brand of evangelical politics. But Redeemer can profitably be read alongside a number of other recent works, including Rick Perlstein’s meticulous explications of the time period (Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge), Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Benjamin Lynerd’s Republican Theology, and Philip Jenkins’s Decade of Nightmares.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book — besides, of course, its bringing Jimmy Carter to life for a new generation of Americans, as the former president approaches his ninetieth birthday — is Balmer’s excavation of the tradition of progressive evangelicalism, which bears “a striking resemblance to the social ethic of nineteenth-century evangelicals.” He links this strand of American evangelicalism, associated today most closely with a smattering of progressives speaking out against the near-total stranglehold of conservative voices in the American evangelical fold — with reform movements such as abolitionism, temperance, and suffrage. Though he does not draw attention to the fact, Balmer himself has been one of the most eloquent exemplars and spokespersons of this progressive evangelical approach; see his 2006 book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament and frequent contributions to online platforms and in public speeches. Jimmy Carter’s brand of evangelicalism represents, in Balmer’s telling, a road not taken, or at least a road not taken by the majority of American evangelicals, who tend to show enormous concern about fetuses in the womb but far less about those living in poverty, facing discrimination based on sexual orientation, or living in war-torn regions of the world.

Balmer’s account in Redeemer is fairly uncomplicated, and one often wishes for more detail and a slightly more critically engaged narrator. When Jimmy Carter pursued the Georgia governorship a second time, Balmer writes, he “decided that the path to victory lay in conducting an aggressive, negative campaign,” in which Carter appealed to voters’ racial prejudices and accepted the endorsement of prominent segregationist Roy Harris. As it turned out, “Carter’s avid courting of disgruntled white segregationists paid off.” But Balmer chooses not to probe the connection between Carter’s racially-charged negative campaign and the fact that “the campaign also provided Carter with his trademark as a populist.”. Balmer’s further explanations, in the following pages, that Carter was ashamed of his conduct and sought implicitly to apologize for the tone of his campaign, ring rather hollow after the fact. For that matter, if the Georgia governorship provided Jimmy Carter with his springboard to the presidency, is there an implicit “end justifies the means” calculus at the core of Jimmy Carter’s pious public career?

Jimmy Carter, Official Presidential Portrait, by Herbert E. Abrams. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Jimmy Carter, Official Presidential Portrait, by Herbert E. Abrams. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, when Balmer writes that “the Carters had barely settled into the governor’s mansion when Jimmy Carter began laying the groundwork for a national campaign,” the obvious question in many readers’ minds would surely be, “Why?” Why was Jimmy Carter, in Balmer’s own words, “running, galloping” toward the White House barely halfway through his term as governor? What would make a one-term governor of a Southern state think of himself as presidential material, years before the Watergate fiasco opened up an avenue for a man of integrity to campaign against the perfidy of Nixon’s misdeeds? Given the centrality of Carter’s religion to Carter’s life the answer must have something to do with his faith.

Might such a view, however, suggest a conflation on Carter’s part of his own political ambition and God’s purposes, a conflation that ought to give all readers, not least American voters, pause? But we get very little sense of Carter’s motivations, and certainly no cautionary tales about the role religious certainty plays in politics. Similar questions arise with Balmer’s account of the 1976 Democratic primaries. Why was it only after defeating George Wallace in the North Carolina primary that “Carter was free to offer forthright statements of support for racial equality”? Especially when, earlier on the same page, Balmer draws attention to Carter’s “moral compass” which, “as a Sunday School teacher, he came by honestly.”

Framing one’s subject as a redeemer, of course, both implies and facilitates the demonization of his opponents. In Jimmy Carter’s case, the list of potential demons is a long one: Ted Kennedy, the national media, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, the Christian Right. Thus Kennedy’s note thanking Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for hosting him at the Georgia governor’s mansion, in Balmer’s narrative, “brimmed with patrician politeness,” when in fact it reads like a fairly conventional recitation of pleasantries. Members of the Christian Right like Jerry Falwell are described as “mendacious,” “spoiling for a confrontation,” engaging in “machinations” and “duplicity,” as having “their own agenda,” and as attempting to “mold every opinion to their political ends.” Far be it from me to minimize Falwell’s mendacity, but the ad hominem attacks on him and other leaders of the Christian Right make it difficult to understand the cultural power of their critique or the deep vein of discontent into which they tapped. And the analogies between Carter and Christ are probably best left to the side.

Some of the difficulty here certainly lies in the amorphous notion of redemption that lies implicitly at the heart of this book’s interpretation of Jimmy Carter’s life and legacy. In what ways can one man offer “an opportunity to redeem the nation”? While it surely may bring comfort to Carter and his admirers to insist, as the former president did, that it was “his willingness to confront difficult issues that eroded his popularity,” others may have different memories of the reasons for Carter’s eroding popularity as president (an erosion that has made his post-presidency career all the more remarkable, to be sure). Carter was, according to Balmer, “unaccustomed to laying out his positions in a systematic way,” an odd judgment to see rendered about an individual who served in public offices including county school board, the State Senate, and the governor’s mansion; who taught hundreds of Sunday School lessons over the course of his adult life; and who was elected to the nation’s highest office with more than 40 million votes.

Balmer’s biography of Carter is not the first work to hang the mantle of redeemer on an American president. In 1999, Allen Guelzo proclaimed Abraham Lincoln as the nation’s “Redeemer President.” But this is a heavy responsibility to lay on anyone’s shoulders, least of all a democratically-elected leader. The notion that the individual who become president in 1976 — elected by a two percent margin among a subset of a subset of the American population, in highly particular circumstances, via an electoral system shot through with inequities, and who was roundly repudiated by that electorate at their next opportunity — reflects some sort of national mood, or plays a role in some sort of collective spiritual process, is both strangely familiar and deeply problematic. Did Ronald Reagan, for that matter, redeem the nation from Carter’s presidency? After all, he received nearly four million more votes in 1980 than Carter had in 1976. Then again, Gerald Ford received more than three million more evangelical votes than Carter did in 1976. That Carter’s own narrative is so compelling, and his troubled presidency admirable in so many ways compared to those before and since, makes the sorts of questions Randall Balmer wants to raise all the more crucial to ask, yet frustrating to answer.

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