In 2006, my wife and I drove to Plains, Georgia, to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. "Do we have any visitors today?" asked the former president, delivering his standard opening joke. Then the 80-something Carter launched into an extensive discussion of the various Old Testament covenants between God and human beings. He interrupted his exposition only once, to critique then-President George W. Bush's doctrine of preemptive war.
Randall Balmer, a prolific writer about the past and present of religion in the United States and an Episcopal priest, also traveled to Plains to see Jimmy Carter. On the Sunday of Balmer's visit, Carter taught on the "direct relationship with God Almighty" available to all Christians, criticized the conservative power grab within the Southern Baptist Convention, and lamented his country's hawkish foreign policy and incarceration rate. On the hustings, in the Sunday school classroom, and on the world stage, Jimmy Carter has unabashedly professed his love for Jesus Christ but found himself at political odds with most of his coreligionists.
In his preface to Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Balmer informs the reader that, as an evangelical college student, he was enamored enough of the former Georgia governor to buck the political preferences of many of his classmates and hand out Carter campaign literature by the Deerfield, Illinois, train station. Given Balmer's religious sensibilities, his past criticisms of the Christian Right, and his book's title, one might have presumed that Redeemer would effusively praise Carter. But while Balmer makes plain his admiration and sympathy for Carter, he does not shy away from criticizing his subject.
Deeper Commitment to Jesus
Readers unfamiliar with Carter's pre-presidential years will find the early parts of Redeemer engaging and informative. Indeed, this is a book written with a general audience in mind. I found myself drawn to Balmer's portrait of the successful nuclear-powered submarine engineer who resigned his commission to—in Carter's own words—"come home, grow seed peanuts, buy and sell farm products to the farmers in the community." Carter quickly became a successful and wealthy farmer, but he angered his neighbors and fellow church members through his egalitarian stances on race.
Balmer analyzes in detail how Carter's failed 1966 gubernatorial bid led to both a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ and a recognition that he had to outflank his 1970 opponents to the right on the issue of race. Carter courted the Georgia equivalent of George Wallace voters by gaining the endorsement of segregationists and by releasing a photograph of his primary opponent "being doused with champagne by black members of the [Atlanta Hawks] team in the course of a victory celebration." Carter displayed obvious remorse for those unsavory tactics once he occupied the governor's mansion.
The long middle section of Redeemer centers on Carter's presidency, which Balmer contends remains underrated. He lauds Carter primarily for his foreign policy, namely his tenacity in facilitating the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. He also contends that Carter strengthened American interests in Latin America through the then-controversial treaty returning sovereignty over the Panama Canal to Panama. The Iranian hostage crisis, of course, ultimately sank Carter's bid for reelection. Balmer notes that Carter resisted calls to bomb Tehran, which would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Iranians and almost certainly of the hostages themselves. "Above all," concludes Balmer, "whatever his shortcomings, Carter succeeded in restoring integrity to the White House following the moral debacle of the Nixon presidency." At the very least, Balmer suggests, Carter did not merit the derision and scorn he received in the wake of electoral failure.