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.1