by randall balmer?
basic, 304 pages, $27.99
Historians generally agree that the best that can be said for the presidency of Jimmy Carter is that it was a mixed bag. The common (and I think correct) view is that the one-term Carter administration, unfocused in purpose and inept and unlucky in practice, concluded short of disaster but far from success. The same unenthusiastic judgment, it turns out, applies to Randall Balmer’s new biography of the nation’s thirty-ninth President. His lukewarm defense of his subject, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, is at best workmanlike and for the most part pedestrian. More important, Balmer gets wrong the matter that concerns him most: Carter’s tangled relations with the Evangelical Christian community.
Carter was born on October 1, 1924, in modest but not impoverished circumstances in rural Georgia. His father Earl was a cotton farmer, but declining prices during the Depression prompted a switch to the more profitable peanut crop. A talented student, Jimmy enrolled in the Naval Academy and graduated in 1946. He married Rosalynn Smith that year and began a promising career as a naval officer.
Carter seemed destined for a lifetime in the military, but in 1953 Earl Carter died and Jimmy abruptly decided to resign from the navy and return to Georgia to take up the family business. After some early difficulties, the Carter farm and warehouse flourished and by 1960 was a multimillion-dollar operation.
For the deeply ambitious Carter, success in the private sector was not enough, and in 1962 he won election to the first of two terms in the state senate. In his first run for governor, in 1966, he lost in the Democratic primary to the fiercely segregationist Lester Maddox. Carter was unaccustomed to failure, and the defeat tossed him into an acute depression that left him bitter toward the world and shaken in the religious faith that had always anchored his life.
Carter was born into a family and community where Evangelical Christianity was second nature, and he has lived his entire life in that world, even if, on occasion, he has found himself in tension with it. Earl was a devout Baptist, and his son followed suit. In accordance with evangelical custom, Jimmy at age eleven underwent the “born-again” conversion experience preparatory to baptism, and beginning already as a midshipman, he adopted his father’s practice of teaching Sunday school and Bible class.
The midlife crisis brought on by Carter’s loss of the governorship to Maddox tested but did not destroy his faith. In fact, encouraged by his Pentecostal evangelist sister Ruth Carter Stapleton to see his defeat as an occasion for deeper spiritual maturity, Carter rededicated his life to Christ in 1967. Ever since, he has been blessed with, in his own words, “inner peace and inner conviction and assurance.”
He also rededicated himself to politics, but in a manner strikingly at odds with his religious reawakening. Among Carter’s most admirable qualities has been his marked lack of racial prejudice and his courage in opposing racism. Inspired by his mother Lillian’s example, Carter risked economic boycotts and social ostracism in demonstrating his belief in racial equality. He ran as a racial moderate in the 1966 gubernatorial contest.
Yet when he made his second—this time successful—run for governor in 1970, he indulged in unsubtle race-baiting against his major opponent, Carl Sanders, sought out the support of prominent segregationists, and even endorsed Lester Maddox for lieutenant governor (state law barred Maddox from reelection as governor). It was cynical, hardball politics: Carter had lost one race for governor because of race and he wasn’t going to do so again. One can infer how Carter justified his behavior to himself from his preelection comment to the civil-rights leader Vernon Jordan: “You won’t like my campaign,” he said, “but you will like my administration.”
And so it was. In his inaugural address Carter announced that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” and from that point on he behaved accordingly. On race, as on other matters, Carter compiled a liberal record as governor, and before long the national media was playing him up (they mostly ignored his campaign) as a leading example of a generation of New South leaders eager to put to rest the doctrines of white supremacy that had been the Old South’s foundation.
More than race, however, it was Richard Nixon and Watergate that were the making of Carter’s presidential candidacy. Carter’s open and frequent avowals of religious faith, which could in normal times have put voters off, were reassuring in 1976 to an electorate eager for moral cleansing and the restoration of ethics and probity in government. Thus, as Balmer’s title suggests, the morality-infused Carter campaign offered the nation redemption from scandal and moral decay. Carter came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and went on to an easy victory at the Democratic convention in July and a narrow one over Gerald Ford in November.
Since Balmer’s primary biographical focus is not on politics but on Evangelical Christianity as it shaped both Carter and the environment in which he operated, we can pass over the underwhelming Carter presidency in summary fashion. There were, to be sure, some successes, especially in foreign policy. He renegotiated the Panama Canal treaties in 1977, giving up control of the canal and thereby improving U.S. relations with Latin America and the Third World in general. The Camp David Accords the following year ended the state of war between Israel and Egypt and called for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. Many people approved of Carter’s playing down of Cold War containment policies with the Soviet Union and his emphasis on human rights as a central imperative of American foreign policy.
On the domestic front, Carter proposed a broad set of reforms on health care, welfare, taxation, and energy conservation, but despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, his legislative initiatives, pursued helter-skelter and with no clear sense of priority, went nowhere. Carter’s problem, his erstwhile speechwriter James Fallows suggested, was that he “believes fifty things, but no one thing.” The president made some progress in conservation and economic deregulation, signed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and appointed record numbers of women and minorities to office. That was about it.
Meanwhile, missteps and disasters abounded. Carter’s human-rights record was inconsistent in application and often seemed to work against American interests. He dropped the authoritarian Anastasio Somoza García in Nicaragua and got the Marxist Sandinistas in exchange; he withdrew support from the shah of Iran and was rewarded with the rule of the ayatollahs. The pursuit of détente and emancipation from “inordinate fear” of communism lost its allure when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
The economy, weakened by the Arab cartel’s oil policies, sputtered badly. The emergence of stagflation (low economic growth, high cost of living) baffled economists while Republicans trumpeted the “misery index” of combined rates of unemployment and inflation. A heralded White House conference on the family degenerated, under pressure from the left, into a chaotic gathering on “families” of all types and genders. Most disastrous of all, on November 4, ?1979, Iranian students occupied the American embassy in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans hostage. Carter appeared overwhelmed by it all. His ill-advised and off-point “malaise” speech decrying a supposed crisis in American values antagonized liberals and conservatives alike, and his desperate attempt to rescue the hostages was an embarrassing failure. In the end, he recorded the lowest approval ratings of any president since Harry Truman.
Balmer’s account of Carter’s political descent between 1976 and 1980 focuses in large part on the behavior of Evangelical Protestants. Indeed, their discontent with Carter is his book’s main preoccupation, as indicated by the biblical epigraph that introduces it: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). This jarring and unfortunate analogy to the Jews and Jesus quite aside, the suggested relation between Carter and the Evangelicals does not finally hold up.
It does explain, though, why Balmer wrote his book. While he was growing up, the Evangelical congregation of which his father was pastor held to the premillennial belief in the imminent return of Jesus and the final ingathering of God’s elect. Given that focus, morality had to do with individual regeneration rather than social transformation. To the extent that politics mattered at all, most premillennialists, the Balmer family included, leaned more or less conservative.
Balmer went to college at Trinity, an Evangelical school in Deerfield, Illinois, where he came under the influence of a different strain of Evangelical adherence. The “progressive evangelicals” he learned to admire focused less on the end times and more on doing right by “the least of these” in the here and now. For people of that persuasion—Jimmy Carter prominent among them—Christian faith had to practice “the politics of Jesus.”
Progressive Evangelicals hearkened back to the Hebrew prophets and, more immediately, to the revivalist Evangelicals of the nineteenth century who fought for the end of slavery, the rights of women, public education, and prison reform. In their concern for the poor and marginalized, Balmer adds, they even came to question “the morality of capitalism.”
Balmer writes in sweeping terms of the progressive tradition. At times he seems to take it as the tradition of nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, though in fact Evangelical thought and practice were considerably more variegated than he indicates. In any case, as Balmer concedes, progressive Evangelicalism faded in the twentieth century. Most Evangelicals turned inward (influenced, in no small part, by the embarrassment of the Scopes Trial of 1925) and grew suspicious of political involvement. The progressive tradition made something of a comeback in the 1970s, but the Trinity College coterie that drew Balmer into its ranks was at the margins of Evangelical life.
Evangelicals of all stripes took note, of course, of Jimmy Carter’s rise to prominence, but they by no means all supported his presidential candidacy. In fact, Carter ran behind Ford among Evangelicals in 1976, though by a smaller margin than was usual for Democratic nominees. Over the course of the next four years Evangelicals became deeply disenchanted with the Carter administration, and in 1980 they voted heavily for Ronald Reagan.
In a literal sense, therefore, it is true that Carter came unto his Evangelical fellow believers and they received him not. But they, or at least the clear majority of them, had never been his politically, and the better they came to know his politics the less they identified with him. Thus Evangelicals did not “abandon” or “betray” Carter, as Balmer supposes, and it is not a “paradox” that they voted instead for Reagan, whose politics were far more congruent with theirs, especially on the social issues that most concerned them: abortion, feminism, and gay rights.
Balmer’s confusion here stems, it seems, from his own theological and political commitments. He has had a notable career as professor of American religious history and has been not just a chronicler of modern religious history but a participant in its civil wars. He is an Episcopal priest highly sympathetic to the tradition of progressive Evangelicalism—he worked in Carter’s 1976 campaign—and, accordingly, a sworn enemy of the Evangelical religious right that arose in the 1970s and worked assiduously to unseat the president. Balmer’s many books include the combatively titled Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (2007).
Balmer’s real argument with the Evangelicals is that, from his perspective, they should and would have been Carter’s had they embraced the politics suggested by the teachings of Jesus. But the social teachings of Jesus, embodied most comprehensively in the Sermon on the Mount, add up to a call to Christians to radical discipleship grounded in self-denying charity—and politics is about justice, not charity. Anyone proposing to found a political order on the beatitudes writ large has thought carefully neither about politics nor about the gospels. When Jimmy Carter, quoted sympathetically by Balmer, said he couldn’t agree with Reagan’s low tax rates for the wealthy or his opposition to feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment because those fiscal and social policies mark “a departure from the New Testament,” he was speaking pious nonsense.
The Jimmy Carter who insisted that his favorite theologian was the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr should have known as much. He should have known that social justice is not a self-defining term and that Christians of equal good will, political understanding, and theological literacy can, most of the time and on most issues, legitimately disagree about its content. All Christians must be concerned about the poor and marginal, but how that concern should find political expression is best determined by studying policy outcomes, not by resorting to biblical proof texts. And all might agree that, given the varied and often incommensurable ends of politics—freedom and security, efficiency and equality, liberty and moral order—the social good is plural, not univocal. (Confusion about all this is unfortunately as prevalent among Christian conservatives as among Christian progressives.)
Randall Balmer is fully entitled to his unstinting opposition to the religious right, and he properly calls out a number of its leaders on instances of dubious and unethical behavior during the Carter years. But his unrelenting critique would be more effective, and appear less tendentious, if he would entertain the possibility that those with beliefs different from his own are capable, at least on occasion, of acting in ?good faith.
The long last act of Jimmy Carter’s life, his post-presidency, has been as controversial as what came before. For Balmer, it is the second coming of redemption for Carter, this time “transformation from the ashes of political annihilation in 1980 to elder statesman, world-renowned humanitarian, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.” There’s something to that, but the redemption is rather more complicated than Balmer’s summary suggests.
The least problematic element in Carter’s rehabilitation has been his altogether admirable record of humanitarian achievement. The Carter Center has worked with small farmers throughout Africa to boost agricultural production. Even more successful have been its initiatives in fighting and helping to eliminate a remarkable range of diseases across the developing world. The Center has also had some success in advancing global democracy and human rights, perhaps most notably in monitoring elections for fairness. At home, the Carters have been active in providing housing for the poor, including working on construction themselves, through the programs of Habitat for Humanity.
As “elder statesman,” Carter has amassed a record that has been, at best, spotty. Balmer notes that he has operated “as a kind of ambassador-at-large.” That ambassadorship has been mostly self-appointed, and it has often conducted its own foreign policy—one that proceeds, moreover, not just independently of the president currently in office but often in contradiction to the incumbent’s own policies. (One can be reasonably assured that those who rate Carter our most successful ex-president have not consulted his successors.) The most outrageous of Carter’s many gratuitous interventions, in my view, was his behind-the-scenes effort in 1990 to rally America’s allies on the U.N. Security Council against the senior George Bush’s military plans to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Carter has also been less than helpful in the Middle East, where his persistent anti-Israel bias announced itself in the title of his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Even his Nobel Peace Prize was tainted by politics. When it was bestowed in 2002 while the younger George Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, the Nobel committee bluntly announced that it was being awarded not only for Carter’s various peacemaking initiatives but also “as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken.” In keeping with his aversion to military action except in the most exigent circumstances, Carter had publicly opposed Bush’s proposed war against Hussein.
Balmer defends Carter’s frequent contentious outbursts as the utterances of a prophetic voice, and at one point he suggests they are of value without regard to their “specific merits” simply because they call those in power to account. But one would think that those who presume to speak in the name of the Lord would have particular concern for accuracy in proclaiming the Lord’s judgments. Otherwise they risk being taken merely as unduly self-regarding village scolds.
There is much for Christians to admire in the life and career of Jimmy Carter. But there is also much to serve as warning that those who most self-consciously follow the straight path of discipleship are those most in need of the grace of humility.
James Nuechterlein is editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.