Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter by Randall Balmer

Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter cover imageSummary: A religious biography of Jimmy Carter focused on his progressive Evangelicalism and the rise of the religious right.

I have begun to pay more attention to Jimmy Carter since I moved to Georgia 15 years ago. I was able to go to one of the quarterly report meetings of the Carter Center about seven years ago and was duly impressed, not just with the ongoing work of the Carter Center, but with Carter’s sharp takes on current events. The event was a breakfast meeting at 7 AM. It followed an evening conference that Carter had hosted, which did not conclude until 10 PM the previous night. Carter has a murphy bed in his office at the Carter Center, so he would have slept in his office. As part of the question and answer time, Carter cited four different articles from several newspapers that he had read that morning before the breakfast meeting. He had compelling thoughts on questions as diverse as North Korean proliferation, Black Lives Matter organization, protests of police brutality,  environmental issues, and personal practices as a leader.

Part of what is fascinating to me isn’t just Carter’s post Presidental career, but how much of a transitional figure he has been to American politics. As I learned in the book, Carter was the first president born in a hospital. But his family home did not have running water until he was 11 and didn’t have electricity until he was 14. Carter was on the local school board during the integration era after Brown v Board. And he was pressured to join the local White Citizen’s Council, but resisted. He attempted to get his church to accept Black members in the 1960s, but there were only three votes in favor, including his and his wife’s. His church was still segregated when he became President, and the pastor was fired in 1977 for attempting to integrate it. That led to a church split, and for the remaining two years, he alternated between the two churches when attending church at home. He joined the new, integrated church the week after leaving the White House. It is incredible to think that a sitting president, known for his racial activism, was still attending an overtly segregated church.

Jimmy Carter was born in 1924. Which made him was younger than Reagan (1911), who was older than Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon (both born in 1913). George Bush and Jimmy Carter were born the same year, but then George W Bush, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump were all born in 1946, a generation younger.  The changes in the US since Carter’s birth are significant.

Randall Balmer’s primary thesis in Redeemer is well summarized in this quote from early in the book:

In the simplest terms, the brief recrudescence of progressive evangelicalism in the early to mid-1970s gave way to a conservative backlash, a movement known generically as the Religious Right, a loose coalition of politically conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. The leaders of the Religious Right faulted Carter and his administration for enforcing the antidiscrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act in evangelical institutions. They criticized his support for human rights abroad and equal rights for women and for gays and lesbians at home. Having joined the ranks of abortion opponents in 1979, the Religious Right castigated Carter for his refusal to outlaw abortion, despite Carter’s long-standing opposition to abortion and his efforts to limit its incidence. By the time of the 1980 presidential election, evangelical voters overwhelmingly abandoned Carter and threw their support to Reagan, the candidate who, with his faltering grasp of the essentials of evangelical theology and his episodic church attendance, had perhaps the most tenuous claim on the label evangelical.

Much of the book focuses on Carter’s theology and religious practice. It tells his life story, but mainly as a way to explore how that life shaped his theology and practice. Carter ran and lost to segregationist Lester Maddox in 1967. Carter spent the next four years campaigning for Governor, this time winning. He won the governor’s job in part by painting his primary opponent as a “liberal integrationist” and accepting Lester Maddox’s endorsement and endorsing Maddox as the Lieutenant Governor. But as governor, Carter was the most liberal person on matters of race in the office until that point. In addition to race, he reorganized the state government for efficiency and cost savings, significantly reformed education by providing funds for vocational education, reducing class sizes, and balancing funding across school districts.

As a sign of Carter’s social progressivism, which was rooted in his theological commitments, he thought that government should play “an ameliorative role in society, that governing wisely would, in Niebuhr’s words, advance ‘justice in a sinful world.'” As part of that theologically-rooted progressivism, Carter supported the Equal Rights Amendment, environmental concerns, and an anti-war stance on Vietnam.  As president, Carter was one of the few presidents in the last 100 years to not involve any troops in an armed conflict during his presidency.

As president, he continued many of the same political positions he started as governor. Carter had the most diverse appointments by gender and race of any president up until that time in both the Executive and Judicial appointments. He expanded the military’s role in Europe but oriented it toward a defensive role. He strove after responsibility, as illustrated by his 1979 speech “Malaise Speech.” Balmer includes the entire speech as an appendix to illustrate Carter’s call for responsibility and social transformation.

In many ways, Carter was just unlucky at his presidential timing. He was president during widespread inflation, which continued through most of Reagan’s first term. By the end of his presidency, Carter had a balanced budget, but Reagan disregarded that budget and significantly increased spending while also cutting taxes. There was little that Carter could do about unrest in the Middle East, although he did more than most presidents in addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Still, that did not help stabilize oil prices or supply. Reagan’s team negotiated with Iran before his inauguration to not release the Iranian hostages until the afternoon of Reagan’s inauguration. Carter worked for environmental policies and energy independence largely dismantled by Reagan.

And Carter was widely blamed for both the IRS’s enforcement of anti-segregation policies, which had been put into place under Nixon and the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade, which also was decided before Carter’s term, which was outside of his authority as president.

Balmer develops a thesis, turned into his famous Politico article in 2014 and then later his short book Bad Faith. The summary of Balmer’s thesis is that the Religious Right got its first organizational start by organizing around the IRS’s enforcement of anti-segregation policies that removed the tax-exempt status of segregated Christian schools, commonly known as segregation academies. These segregation academies arose in response to Brown v Board and were widespread. It was effectively recreating segregated schooling by removing most white students from the public school system and creating an alternative private whites-only Christian school system alongside the de facto Black public schools. It was only later that the Religious Right’s political organizing shifted to abortion as a new topic.

The 1980 campaign with Reagan and the history of the Religious Right’s rise has almost as much attention as the rest of Carter’s presidency in the book. Balmer is using this biography of Carter also to tell the story about the short rise and then fall of progressive Evangelicalism, and that story is largely a story of the rise of the Religious Right as a backlash to the Civil Rights movement and the broader social progressivism of the late 1960s and 1970s. That is a significant historical development, but in some ways, I think it crowded out the biography of Carter, even if he was a prime example of Evangelical Progressivism.

Historians are re-evaluating carter. Balmer is part of that trend. It is a trend that will continue. Redeemer is a helpful, short book on Carter that pairs well with the longer recent books like The Outlier: the Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, and President Carter, The White House Years. All three of those books, which I have not read, but which are well-reviewed, were published between 2018 and 2021 and were 750 to 986 pages.

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