Carter has been maligned for being a weak, ineffective, micromanaging president. Randall Balmer begs to differ. To be sure, Carter had his weaknesses (and in his biography Redeemer, Balmer acknowledges them, including a sordid account of race-baiting during his gubernatorial campaign of 1970). But he points out that Carter’s presidency was sabotaged by events quite beyond his control—and that his significant accomplishments have been unfairly obscured. Here is Balmer’s attempt at rehabilitation:
- Human rights: Carter moved American foreign policy away from a reactive preoccupation with the Cold War toward a posture animated by human rights. He collected data on human rights abuses, which then informed his negotiations with foreign nations. This was a much more nuanced approach (and thus not politically savvy) but a necessary one in the twilight of the Cold War. Argentinian dissident Jacobo Timerman, said, “It was the first time—and I fear the last—in this violent and criminal century that a major power has defended human rights all over the world.” Balmer credits Carter with helping to arrange the release of 30,000 political prisoners in Indonesia and with the immigration of 118,000 Soviet Jews.
- Panama Canal: Carter also oversaw the return of the Panama Canal. A instrument of American power in Central and South America for nearly a century, the canal had served important military and trade purposes for the United States. The construction of the canal had been a tawdry affair, however, and the canal was a symbol of American imperialism. Wallace Nuttig, a commander of U.S. forces in Latin America in the late 1970s, described the return of the canal to Panama as “one of the most magnanimous acts in history by a great power.” Like Carter’s advocacy on human rights, the return of the Canal added an important moral dimension to American diplomacy.
- Camp David Accords: In the wake of two wars between Israel and Egypt in 1967 and 1973, Carter also tried to address knotty Mideast politics. Enjoying significant support from evangelicals associated with Billy Graham and Christianity Today, Carter’s efforts resulted in the Camp David Accords. The culmination of a dramatic 13-day summit between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar el-Sadat, the Accords provided for Palestinian self-rule, the return of the Sinai to Egypt, and a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. While the region has not remained stable, it is not difficult to imagine a world in which conditions could be far worse because Israel and Egypt had gone to war again.
- Nuclear non-proliferation: On June 18, 1979, in Vienna, Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II treaty that significantly limited the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Billy Graham threw his substantial support toward trying to end nuclear proliferation. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan meant that the treaty would not be ratified in the United States. But again, Carter sought to move away from Cold War dualisms and toward détente. These efforts would pay off in the 1980s.
- A theology of limits: While Carter’s invocation of Niebuhr sometimes led to race-baiting, his seriousness about Christian faith (which motivated many of the just-discussed policies) led to some remarkable sermonizing at the White House. Perhaps the most important (and politically reviled) was the so-called “malaise speech” of July 15, 1979. Near the end of his presidency (marred by economic stagnation and an energy crisis), Carter secluded himself at Camp David where he tried to make sense of it all. He read Scripture and Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. He met with Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism. He emerged from the compound speaking about “a crisis of the American spirit” in the tone of an evangelical jeremiad: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption.” “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” Carter sermonized, but “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” Critics may have panned Carter’s idealistic approach to the energy crisis as politically naïve, but it was nonetheless a penetrating cultural critique. He was probably the most theologically profound president since Lincoln.