'Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter': A historian asserts he is America’s best former president

Randall Balmer’s slim profile seeks to remind us there was once, and could be again, a 'Christian left' in American politics.

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What should a presidential biography be? The gold standard these days is Robert Caro’s ongoing life of Lyndon Johnson, currently at four volumes, 3,500 pages, one Pulitzer and one National Book Award — and Johnson’s barely in the White House.

By Randall Balmer
Basic Books ($27.99).

One might also opt for one of those titles that make a customary Father’s Day gift, like David McCullough’s “John Adams” or anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Randall Balmer’s “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” is neither, rather resembling a concise version of Amity Shlaes’ recent “Coolidge.” Both use the life of their subjects to comment pointedly on current politics — Ms. Shlaes to boost the small-government Tea Party, and Mr. Balmer to remind us there was once, and could be again, such a thing as the “Christian left” in American politics.

In fact, Mr. Balmer’s slim profile of the 39th president really can’t claim to be a life of President Carter. Rather, it focuses on the role of evangelical Christianity in Mr. Carter’s life and politics and on how Mr. Carter, personally and through his administration’s policies, energized evangelical Christians to become active in politics.

Mr. Carter showed evangelicals like himself that it was safe to engage in electoral politics. Against everything he wished for, though, the religiously charged movement he sparked veered dramatically away from his own model and became a powerful source of support for conservative policies and the Reagan revolution. The very evangelicals Mr. Carter brought into politics in 1976 turned against him in 1980, voting for Reagan by a large margin.

After decades of American politicians proclaiming their faith — President George W. Bush, remember, named Jesus his favorite political philosopher — it’s hard to imagine American politics without its permeating piety. But Mr. Balmer reminds us that well into the 1970s, most evangelical communities stayed out of politics.

Ironically, given the pivotal role of Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson in the creation of the “religious right,” Southern Baptists were the most ardent defenders of the separation of church and state.

Evangelicals, Mr. Balmer points out, hewed to Roger Williams’ 17th-century warning that there should be a “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.”

Until the 1970s, Mr. Carter and his fellow evangelicals stayed in the garden and out of the wilderness.

Mr. Carter’s election changed all of this. As governor of Georgia, the deeply religious Mr. Carter demonstrated how faith could influence policy. He even embodied his own sin-and-redemption narrative. In his 1970 campaign, Mr. Carter courted segregationists, but he repented and declared in his inaugural address that the time of racial segregation was over.

Mr. Balmer argues that Mr. Carter deeply regretted using bigotry to get elected and committed himself to redressing structural racial inequality in his state in a way that few Southern governors have since.

It’s incredibly difficult to become U.S. president, and most men who have done so benefited from circumstances beyond their control. The relatively callow FDR took advantage of Hoover’s superciliousness, JFK benefited from the nation’s sense that a new era was dawning, and George W. Bush rode to victory on exhaustion with Mr. Clinton’s lawyer-liness.

National disgust at Nixon propelled this obscure Southern governor into office. Mr. Carter was everything Nixon was not: transparent, honest, modest. But, Mr. Balmer points out, these same traits also contributed to his administration’s failures, particularly its domestic ones. A man of profound integrity, Mr. Carter lacked the ruthlessness and selective amorality that truly effective politicians need.

Mr. Balmer also busts the myth that abortion roused Christian voters and led to the Moral Majority and the Christian right. Instead, Mr. Balmer insists, the elimination of tax-exempt status for segregated schools (a policy initiated under Mr. Nixon, but pursued by Mr. Carter) ignited religious conservatives’ political involvement. Only later did they adopt abortion, school prayer and opposition to homosexuality as key issues.

Although he identifies himself as a practicing evangelical and an Episcopal priest, Randall Balmer is a distinguished professor at Dartmouth, and thus the Christian right will likely dismiss him as a mouthpiece for ivory tower liberals. But Mr. Balmer is right to unearth the forgotten pre-history of the religious right in contemporary American politics, especially its deep roots in racial resentment and resistance to desegregation.

Through his book, Mr. Balmer also seeks to highlight, and perhaps revive, the dormant tradition of progressive evangelicalism embodied in Mr. Carter and in other politicians such as former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield.

“Redeemer” doesn’t argue that we should reassess the nature or achievements of the Carter presidency. Mr. Balmer seems to have no argument with the prevailing wisdom that Mr. Carter was a fundamentally decent man but a mediocre president, perhaps because of that decency. But also because of that decency, Mr. Balmer suggests, Mr. Carter has had perhaps the most important, and certainly the most admirable, post-presidential career of any of our former chief executives.

Greg Barnhisel is an associate professor of English at Duquesne University.

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