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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.
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.
In his analysis of Carter's presidential years, Balmer concentrates on the alienation of conservative evangelicals from their evangelical president. Balmer argues that "the real catalyst for their disaffection was race, especially the issue of desegregation" as it related to the IRS's revocation of Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status. Balmer provides significant evidence that IRS regulations were a top concern of evangelical leaders in the mid-to-late 1970s. Still, there were many "real" catalysts that flowed into evangelical disaffection with Carter: the cluster of issues pertaining to the family that arose during these years, Carter's failure to appoint evangelicals to government offices, and the administration's economic and foreign policy setbacks.
Balmer also describes Jerry Falwell's mendacity and Billy Graham's duplicity as they worked to bring Carter's presidency to an end. Falwell brazenly lied in his report that Carter had told a group of evangelical leaders he supported gay rights. Eleven days after telling the Reagan campaign that he wanted to "help short of [a] public endorsement," Graham reassured a Carter liaison that he was "staying out of it." While Balmer's critiques of conservative evangelicals are often on target, Redeemer occasionally spends more time criticizing Carter's opponents than getting readers inside the mind of its protagonist. In particular, I found myself wanting a fuller exploration of Carter's post-presidential years, which Balmer covers quickly in a final chapter.
Balmer ends his book with the "impression that Carter was driven—almost obsessed—by a kind of works righteousness." He observes quite rightly that too many Christians seek "to prove by their good works that they are among the elect." From his days on his family farm to his years in the Navy to his many years on the campaign trail, Carter was an incessant worker. Most of the time, his hard work paid off, but Carter's work ethic could not solve the Iranian hostage crisis, his nation's economic malaise, or the electoral threat of Ronald Reagan. Balmer observes, however, that after his defeat to Reagan "Carter reaffirmed his commitment to works righteousness as a way to redeem his loss," and his ceaseless activism and philanthropy bolstered his reputation in the United States and abroad. Balmer thinks that the former president, now approaching 90 years of age, has earned a respite. That is undoubtedly true, but it is difficult to know whether Carter suffers from a theological blind spot or mere workaholism.
Regardless, most of us are quite content to drift through life rather oblivious to either the earthly or eternal welfare of our neighbors. Carter was not. He went door to door trying to "share Christ" with strangers. He devoted one week each year to Habitat for Humanity projects. Through the Carter Center, he attempted to eradicate disease, poverty, and dictatorship around the world. Although he could not redeem his nation from the sins he believed had imprisoned it, Carter was always an ambassador for his Savior in a way that made nearly everyone around him uncomfortable, whether his unmarried staff members when he encouraged them to stop "living in sin" and get married, feminists who bristled at his staunch personal opposition to abortion, or politically conservative evangelicals who just could not believe that a follower of Jesus Christ would affiliate with donkeys instead of elephants. As Balmer laments, by the time of his presidency, Carter was already a rare breed.
Balmer correctly observes that progressive evangelicalism has made something of a public comeback, but it obviously strains credulity to imagine the second coming of Jimmy Carter succeeding in contemporary American politics. As Carter moves further into his own twilight, one hopes that Balmer's book partly redeems his standing among fellow believers. His politics and decision-making might not have always merited agreement, but Carter's honesty, integrity, and devotion to Jesus Christ demand our respect.
John G. Turner teaches the history of religion at George Mason University and is the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Belknap Press).