Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Part 1

Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Part 1 July 2, 2014

When Marge Simpson forgets to pay for a bottle of rum at the Qwik-E-Mart, she ends up serving thirty days in jail for shoplifting.  Without Marge’s famous marshmallow squares to sell, Springfield’s Beautify Our Parks Bake Sale falls short of its goal, forcing the town to purchase a statue of Jimmy Carter instead of Abraham Lincoln.  Furious, someone in the crowd cries, “He’s history’s greatest monster,” and the townspeople riot, eventually using the statue of Carter as a battering ram (Marge in Chains,” The Simpsons, Seas. 4, Ep. 21.,  1993).

Although hyperbolic, The Simpsons’s treatment of the 39th President of the United States captures the general feeling of disdain Americans felt towards Carter in the early 1990s.  Public perception of Carter has improved in the interim two decades, in part due to the increasing unpopularity of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Carter’s post-presidential work with The Carter Center.  Rectifying their error in not  awarding Carter the prize alongside Begin and Sadat in 1978, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognized “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development” by selecting him for the prize in 2002, further boosting his legacy.  Randall Balmer‘s new biography should do likewise.

Growing up, Jimmy Carter was my favorite president.  As an avid reader, I read at least two biographies of him during my third grade year while he was the sitting president.  I recall being impressed with his childhood interracial friendships, his appointment to Annapolis, his submarine service, and his assignment to the Navy’s nascent nuclear power program.  I distinctly remember casting my vote for him in our elementary school’s mock election (complete with a cardboard refrigerator box voting booth), one of only seven such votes in a school with a population of approximately 250.  Besides being impressed with aspects of his biography, I also knew that Carter self-identified as a Christian, something that was important to me, even as a young boy.  Coming from Randall Balmer, I expected that Carter’s Christian faith would figure prominently in Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. I was not disappointed.

During his campaign for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter unashamedly proclaimed himself to be “born again,” a label that perplexed the national media .  It does not perplex Balmer.  Having grown up in an evangelical environment and received two degrees from evangelical institutions, he understands evangelical sensibilities, even though he has long since left their subculture behind.  As a result, unlike other biographies, Redeemer places those aspects of Carter’s life at the center of his life, a well-founded approach considering Carter placed them there himself.  In fact, Carter is probably the most Christian president of the twentieth century.  For example, in 1968, he went on mission trips to Loch Haven, Pennsylvania and Springfield, Massachusetts, where he engaged door-to-door evangelism.  (When I read that, I wondered how many other Christian presidents actively shared their faith, seeking converts.)  Further, while in the White House, he and Rosalynn read a chapter in the Bible every night.  As president, he faithfully attended First Baptist Church, Washington, teaching Sunday School 3-4 times per year.  Prayer too, was a constant in the Carter White House.

Inauguration Day (Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Library)

As a candidate, Carter famously wore his faith on his sleeve.  He told voters that he “spent more time on his knees the four years I was Governor… than I did in all he rest of my life put together (56).”  Hyperbole aside, evangelicals could relate to such personal piety.  They were further impressed when Carter refused to soft-peddle his religious convictions, declaring “If there are those who do not want to vote for me because I’m a deeply committed Christian, I believe they should vote for someone else (57).”  Such statements also characterized Carter’s manner of speaking directly, providing evidence that he embodied the Christian virtues of integrity and honesty.  As the taint of the duplicitous Nixon administration hovered over the Ford campaign, many evangelicals found these things attractive, and they cast their ballots for the peanut farmer from Georgia.  Carter won the election in 1976; by January 20, 1977, evangelicals had one of their own in the White House.

William Jennings Bryan (Public Domain)

But Carter’s evangelicalism was different than many expected.  Although the family resemblances were clear, it did not easily fit into all the dominant patterns of post-World War II era evangelicalism.  Instead, it hearkened back to an earlier era.  From the book’s opening pages, Balmer firmly establishes Carter in the “activist strain of evangelicalism known as progressive evangelicalism (xiv),” and connects him to evangelical social reformers of the nineteenth century such as Charles Finney, Frances Willard, and William Jennings Bryan (xv-xvi, 48, 74, 180, 188).  To Carter (and to Balmer) the thirty-ninth president’s progressive policies flowed naturally from his own evangelical faith–salted with a dash of Niebuhrian realism–and fitted well into the historical stream of that tradition.  For instance, as governor of Georgia, Carter perceived that Jesus’ instructions to visit those in prison (Matthew 25:36) applied to more than just individuals.  Instead, it meant that he should use his power as governor to reform the criminal justice system (35).  As president, Carter viewed his efforts to pursue peace, agitate for human rights, back the ERA Amendment to the Constitution, and support efforts to eliminate systemic racism as similar logical extensions of biblical prescriptions.  By 1979, many evangelical voters saw it differently.

After gaining the support of roughly half of them in the 1976 election, evangelical voters abandoned him at the polls in 1980, contributing to Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980.  As might be expected from the author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America, that subtext figures prominently into Balmer’s biography of Carter, something I will address in more detail in tomorrow’s post.

Regardless of one’s own political position or assessment of the Carter presidency, Redeemer is worth reading for several reasons.  First, Balmer is an excellent storyteller.  Throughout most of its pages, Redeemer reads like one of David Halberstam’s books, moving along at a steady pace, rarely bogging down.  Second, few presidential biographies orient their story around a president’s religious beliefs.  This one does.  Such novelty makes it even more interesting.  Third, the cries of the people of Springfield are certainly inaccurate.  There is much to be impressed with in the life of Jimmy Carter.  His work ethic, his compassion for the less fortunate, his integrity, and his commitment to his faith inspired me–at times, they convicted me.

NOTE: The second part of this review will appear tomorrow, July 3, 2014.

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  • Preston Garrison

    My first vote was in 1972. I remember when the ’76 campaign was going on, I visited an East Texas friend. His father was an attorney, a man who made the start of a regional Christian ministry possible in those years. I noticed Carter’s little campaign autobiography sitting on a table and asked if he had read it. He said yes. What did he think? His answer was concise. “Goo-goo.” I voted for Ford.

  • billmcreynolds

    Let’s see: Investor’s Business Daily, if I recall correctly, ran a 10-part piece on why Carter was the worst president of the 20th century, or was it worst ever. I will just mention the one: Carter’s peace endeavors got Menachem Begin kicked out of office and Anwar al-Sadat murdered. He’s been a better former president, unless of course, you are a friend of Israel.
    I voted for him, too, but was certainly glad when the mood changed with the Reagan presidency. We went from returning the Panama Canal to hosting the ’84 Olympics in such a short time!

  • Daniel Merriman

    I voted for him in 1976, primarily because I knew his heart was right on race, which I felt as a Southerner was what the country needed at that time. Only Democrat I’ve ever voted for for President (I skipped 1972– couldn’t stand Nixon, but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for McGovern.)

    What a disappointment his Presidency turned out to be. Paralyzed by what seemed to be intractable inflation at home, deserted even by Democrats over his foreign policy, and almost denied renomination. As far as his Christianity is concerned, as far as I know he has never uttered a gracious word about the man who beat him, Ronald Reagan, unless he was forced to say something nice when Reagan died. I am not a mind reader, and I hope I am wrong, but I believe in his heart that to this day he feels that he was beaten by a lesser man.

    But for all the negatives, if he had managed to get the hostages back, he might have been re-elected. There were a lot of doubts about Reagan and there was, at least in the circles I moved in, still a lot of residual good will toward the man. I haven’t read this book, but in other things he has written Balmer seems all too ready to explain things through the lens of race. At least as far as the 1980 election is concerned, that is wrong– Carter was beaten by inflation and a foreign policy that appeared weak.

  • stefanstackhouse

    To be fair, it was a terrible time to be President. Had Reagan won in 1976 (plausible, he came very close to beating Ford for the Republican nomination), we might have had a much worse opinion of him, too.

  • Daniel Merriman

    You make a fair point. Still, I think Carter made more than his share of unforced errors.

    Let me tell you a story. I knew a delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention (now deceased) who was pledged to Ford and stuck with him. When I saw her a few weeks later, she broke down in tears, convinced that the party had nominated the wrong man. Those were hard days, with lots of good people very conflicted about what was really best for the country. I have yet to read a history of this period that captures that agony.

  • Miles Mullin

    Hey Daniel:

    Sorry I didn’t get to this until now. (Travel.) As you know, your points are valid ones. Without a doubt, Balmer portrays Carter in a positive light, but we should expect that in a presidential biography. And, Carter was a good man in many, many ways that evangelicals consider important.

    On the race issue: sadly, there is too much right about Balmer’s position on that particular issue. Hopefully, you got to read my second post on the book where I engage Balmer’s thesis on that.

    Thanks for reading and providing good, thoughtful comments!


  • Miles Mullin

    And Ford might have been elected had he run in 1980. The hostage crisis alone gave an open door to the GOP.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Daniel Merriman

    Miles, I think you did a good job in responding to Balmer’s race driven thesis. What drives me to distraction is that these two elections are among the most studied ones ever. I know the poly sci guys have killed whole forests with published studies of the 1976 and 1980 elections and the history departments are probably not that far behind. I simply find it hard to believe that Balmer is unaware of all of this literature, a small portion of which you cite in your second installment. Yet from reading articles he has done for Christian Century and Politico, he seems to feel free to ignore it.

    As I said, I voted for Carter the first time, against him the second time. The first vote was made with enthusiasm, the second with reluctance. Hard to swallow the implication that I was just a racist.

  • philipjenkins

    Please excuse a lengthy posting here:

    A few years ago, I published my book DECADE OF NIGHTMARES on the 1975-1985 era, and a focus on the events of 1980. I included a major section headed “COUNTERFACTUAL” on what might have happened if Carter had won, the suggestion being that things might not have been too different from the Reagan years. I won’t go into detail here, but here are some selections.

    Any number of events might have transformed the political landscape of that year. The Tehran hostage rescue might have succeeded in April 1980, while through the summer, Reagan supporters worried that Carter might arrange an “October surprise,” a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough that would bring the Tehran hostages home in time for the election. The euphoria produced by such an event would have returned Carter quite comfortably. But based solidly on the actual events of 1980, we can make some likely predictions about the course of a second Carter term.

    After all, the new phase of the Cold War was already in progress following the Afghanistan crisis. Apart from Afghanistan, areas of crisis in the early 1980s would certainly have included Poland and Central America, while the United States would have had to respond to the recent Soviet missile deployments in Europe. …

    In domestic affairs too, Carter pioneered the fiscal conservatism commonly associated with Reagan. Carter, like Reagan, believed firmly that “government cannot solve our problems,” and he was repeatedly in conflict with liberals over drastic cuts to social programs. To quote Bruce Schulman, President Carter was already “slouching toward the supply side.” On his watch, the Federal Reserve had taken the steps necessary to cut inflation, and a second Carter administration likely would have both suffered a deep economic crisis in 1981–82 and benefited from some kind of subsequent recovery, though scarcely on the Reagan scale. …

    Much social policy of the “Reagan years” had its origins before Reagan took office. By 1980, all the foundations were already laid for a much more hard-line approach to crime and justice, most aspects of which had little to do with the federal government. A drug war was already under way, with all the attendant
    rhetoric…. Regardless of the election outcome, the year 1980 would be remembered as marking a significant shift away from social liberalism, away from the 1960s.

  • Miles Mullin


    Sorry I didn’t see this earlier. A great reply that adds another layer to the fascinating conversation (IMO) that bends around 1980.