Randall Balmer. Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 273 pp. ISBN 978-0-465-02958-7
Redeemer is a lively, swift account of Jimmy Carter’s life and legacy, highlighting how the 39th president thoughtfully and openly engaged his personal faith in the public realm. Moving the reader through an absorbing story of “striving, betrayal, defeat, and redemption,” Randall Balmer adroitly argues that Carter represented the confluence of two streams: first, the more obvious post-Jim Crow New South and, second, a lesser-recognized progressive evangelicalism. The latter harkened Americans back to the prevailing social ethic of late nineteenth and early twentieth evangelicals, as well as to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (xxvii). While the former stream eventually joined wider currents, pushing well past Carter’s one-term presidency (1977-1981), Carter’s defeat signaled the drying-up of the latter, only though in terms of larger political life. As Balmer convincingly presents it, the progressive values of the Sunday School teacher from Plains transformed Carter’s post-presidency into an archetypal evangelical tale of regeneration and redemption, with a little works righteousness thrown into the narrative flow.
The first three chapters describe Carter’s pre-presidential years. If Carter inherited a certain dogged determinism, bold-faced honesty, and denominational loyalty from his father, James Earl Carter, his mother (Lillian Gordy Carter) and her bending of the rules in both racial and gender matters motivated Carter toward New South ideals and progressive evangelicalism. Balmer skims over Carter’s naval career and marriage to the 18 year-old Rosalynn Smith as well as their early family life, pausing instead on Carter’s moments of unease with the racial and social inequalities of Plains, the Navy, and Southwest Georgia. Boredom, ambition, and a keen sense of higher ideals pushed Carter to run successfully for state senator and then, unsuccessfully, for the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Failure forced a time of theological reflection during which, inspired both by the personal testimony of his Pentecostal sister Ruth and by reading Reinhold Niebuhr, he rededicated his life toward a more intimate relationship with Jesus. Carter emerged from this period even more convicted, it seems, that he was called to politics to promote justice in a sinful world. Balmer views this conviction as a matter of faith rather than hubris. Ironically, then, Carter courted the segregationist vote, as a populist peanut farmer, to win the gubernatorial race four years later. It was a surprisingly aggressive and even sordid campaign for the 46 year-old Carter, which Balmer claims he immediately regretted. Reflecting something of an “ends justifies the means” approach, he vigorously pushed integration forward and pursued prison and educational reforms. In other words, he redeemed himself from the dirtiness of his campaign even as he sought to redeem Georgians from their racist past. But he also promoted greater frugality, strictness, and efficiency in state matters. If those policies did not always seem of one piece in politics, Balmer points again to the lessons gleaned during Carter’s childhood and youth and that carried him to the presidency.
Balmer devotes the following five chapters to Carter’s two presidential bids and one-term presidency. In one of the longest chapters, Balmer recounts the grassroots campaign of “Jimmy Who,” whose almost naïve honesty, born-again faith, and downhome manner won Americans over after the corruption of Nixon and Watergate. According to the author, Carter’s campaign signaled a religious turn in presidential history. He ran on the ideals of progressive evangelicalism, which included an end to racism, poverty, and Vietnam as well as support for women’s rights. But Carter also addressed his faith openly and often in the public sphere, a move every president has been forced to repeat since. If his born-again status confused the secular media, evangelicals recognized the language as their own. Moreover, the morally scrupulous and dedicated Southern Baptist, Balmer states, represented evangelicals’ better selves. And many Americans saw Carter as a means to their own as well as the nation’s redemption after the ethical debacles of the White House lies and congressional sex scandals. His progressive evangelicalism also represented a turn in racial matters. Balmer calls Carter’s defeat of George Wallace in the Florida and South Carolina primaries a “knock-out punch” that rid the Democrats and the South of their “most pugnacious segregationist” (57).
Evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike expected much of this president over the next four years. As with many scholars and historians, Balmer considers Carter’s foreign policy as one of his greatest successes. But if some Americans feared his humanitarian approach to foreign affairs ill befitting the Cold War era, his domestic policies turned into a minefield. As Balmer tells it, Carter considered his presidency a ministry; however, key problems within that framework of interpretation emerged. Some of his religiously conservative views, for instance, conflicted with the politics he felt obliged to serve. Known as a promoter of women’s rights, he rallied behind and vigorously supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but much to the disappointment of the Kennedy liberals in his party, he was more conservative on marriage, family, and sexuality, and he personally opposed abortion. Trying to find a middle-ground by pursuing policies that might curtail unwanted pregnancies, Carter still felt bound, as president, to honor Roe v. Wade, which proved too much for the burgeoning Religious Right. Finally, over time, his progressive evangelicalism when it came to feminism and racial justice at home and human rights abroad put him at odds with this new network of evangelicals, who understood their faith’s application quite differently.
While Balmer rehearses the pivotal events of Carter’s presidency, he focuses on the rise of the Religious Right. Here his analysis offers fresh insights that sometimes challenge standard interpretations. Balmer acknowledges feminism, homosexuality, and abortion as hot-button social issues and primary reasons for evangelicals abandoning their born-again president. He credits the usual personalities, particularly Francis Schaeffer, for reconceptualizing these issues, especially abortion, for evangelicals and uniting them with Catholics to crusade against what they perceive as growing evils. But Balmer also emphasizes the racist positions of the early leaders of the Religious Right, namely Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, and he sometimes shockingly outlines the ways the Reagan campaign catered to their lingering segregationist sentiments. According to Balmer, Weyrich and Falwell used the Internal Revenue Service policy of denying tax exemptions to schools who discriminated on the basis of race as the early catalyst for organizing. While Nixon supported this policy, Weyrich, Falwell and other Religious Right leaders, claims Balmer, mendaciously blamed Carter for it and reframed any implementation as a denial of religious freedom. If the Reagan campaign initially hesitated to take on ERA and Roe v. Wade, not wanting to alienate its more established constituents, they used the racial politics of the South as an entré into the new right-wing group. Ignoring both black voters and southern progressivism, Reagan played to evangelicals like Weyrich, Falwell, and Bob Jones by opening his campaign after securing the GOP nomination in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the horrific murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, and referencing there his allegiance to states’ rights. The well-versed actor then dazzled evangelicals by adopting their rhetoric, emphasizing his relationship with Jesus Christ, and affirming his born-again status. And he performed, too, on their most prominent stages, ones that Carter had refused. As Balmer renders it, Weyrich, Falwell, and Reagan and his campaign, with all of their backstage antics, or to switch the metaphor, backroom machinations, do not come off well. Neither does the evangelist Billy Graham, whom Balmer discredits with similar duplicities.
Balmer also shows how Carter underestimated the power of the Religious Right. His last ditch efforts were just that, last ditch, and Balmer presents them as somewhat halfhearted too. Moreover, in four years, much had changed in religion and politics, especially in their increasing overlap. By 1980, three candidates not only vied for the presidency but for a certain evangelical status, with the least likely on paper, Ronald Reagan, to emerge heir to the kingdom. The sudden popularly of the Religious Right, maintains Balmer, eclipsed evangelical progressivism and sealed Carter’s defeat.
Balmer is both forthright in his admiration for the 39th president and candid as to his own proclivities toward evangelical progressivism. He shares an evangelical background with Carter and eventually moves toward the left politically too. Nevertheless, his is a straightforward analysis of Carter’s triumphs and failures. He recognizes that Carter’s meticulous attention to detail could turn petty, his piety could seem self-righteous, even smug, and that he sometimes lacked humor. Balmer does not shy away from the sordidness of Carter’s successful gubernatorial campaign. And while he concludes that Carter was dealt a bad hand with an almost immediate occurrence of events beyond his control, he acknowledges that Carter did not always play this hand well. Balmer’s final assessment is that Carter needed the power and freedom of his post-presidency status to pursue fully his progressive evangelicalism. Religion functions best, insists Balmer, from the margins. And while not quite at the margins of power, Carter no longer stood at its center either. Balmer’s final chapter and epilogue together serve as an eloquent and moving testimony to the ways Carter rose from the ashes of defeat to create the Carter Center as an “activist organization, rather than merely as a celebratory institution” and transform his legacy (164). As elder statesman and humanitarian, Carter moved beyond any ministerial calling, his voice sounding more like that of a prophet and his story paralleling, says Balmer, the gospel narratives, with the 2002 Nobel Prize signaling his final redemption.
As an American religious historian, Balmer offers the first nuanced study of Carter as a religious personality. In this sense, Redeemer complements rather than competes with previous and more detailed political biographies. Moreover, his examination of Carter’s religious vision brilliantly illuminates the wider religious landscape of post-World War II America and the ways evangelicalism undergoes rapid changes in the 1970s and 1980s. In this sense, Balmer’s book also complements but sometimes conflicts with recent studies of late twentieth-century evangelicalism, which might question any final eclipse of the evangelical left or evangelical progressivism. As a scholar of southern evangelicalism, I wonder at times whether Balmer overplays the northern elements of the multi-faceted movement, especially in his numerous references to the Chicago Declaration and its related evangelical, and primarily Northern-based, groups and figures. Carter’s faith was born of a particular Southern experience and as an embodiment of the New South, he reflected the moderate and progressive wings and organizations of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose leaders might have attended the Chicago conferences but never participated fully in their related circles. The difference between the two cultural expressions of progressive evangelicalism might explain why Carter would have felt more comfortable than his northern counterparts in pursuing political power. Finally, like most of Carter’s biographers, Balmer describes him as a highly dedicated family man; yet Rosalynn and their four children remain relatively minor characters. This angle of Carter—as husband and father—seems worth exploring further, perhaps in a second or later edition. An important element here might be the ways his marital relationship and political partnership with Rosalynn eventually blurred and overlapped, so much so that Rosalynn appears to have assumed increasing responsibility for negotiating the Religious Right her husband came to disavow as well other religious groups he depended on for support.
These comments are but minor queries to a riveting and insightful study. In the end, and to come full circle, Balmer pulls off a remarkable literary feat. After all, the author writes Redeemer as a gospel narrative, an archetype evangelical tale or, dare I say, testimony. Through a particular arrangement of events and carefully chosen themes, Balmer crafts a sympathetic and altogether human story of an extraordinary figure, and, in the process, facilitates the narrative redemption of the man he calls “Redeemer.” Most readers will close the book feeling the conviction of its title.