Beyond Playboy: The Inner Life of Jimmy Carter

Beyond Playboy: The Inner Life of Jimmy Carter April 1, 2015

In 1976 Playboy magazine conducted its infamous interview of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. The interview nearly cost Carter the election. Secular pundits mocked his confession of “adultery in my heart.” Conservative Christians not only disagreed with his use of the word screw but objected that Carter would grant the salacious magazine an interview in the first place.

The distinguished historian Randall Balmer goes beyond this notable episode to explore the evangelical spirituality that underlay the controversy in the first place. This biography of Carter is the latest in an abundance of research on non-rightist sectors of American evangelicalism. My own Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (2012) has been followed by Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (2014) and now Balmer’s Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Carter, contends Balmer, was a quintessential “progressive evangelical.” His spiritually minded mother pushed racial boundaries in the rural South and identified as a feminist before Betty Friedan. Carter, as a child and then as a young man who left the navy to become a peanut farmer in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, assumed similar stances on spirituality and justice. A hard-working populist who refused to join the White Citizens Council, he entered politics because he felt that he could help “establish justice in a sinful world.” Niebuhrian in his realism, he nurtured a warm evangelical piety, a strong conversionism, and a pronounced Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. These religious convictions drove Carter’s career as a state senator and governor.

They also animated his political agenda in the White House. Arguing against Carter’s reputation as an ineffective micromanager, Balmer describes impressive advocacy for human rights, the Panama Canal, the Camp David Accords, nuclear weapons limits, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In each of these efforts, Carter embodied a small, but energetic evangelical left that was rallying around the 1973 “Chicago Declaration.” This vibrant progressive movement labored against both evangelical political conservatism and evangelical apoliticism. On the ground, these evangelicals built Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action and campaigned for Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, Iowa Democrat Harold Hughes, and President Jimmy Carter.

The book isn’t perfect. As I note in a review that appears in an upcoming issue of the American Historical Review, Balmer’s depiction of Carter’s broader evangelical context is not quite as convincing. Despite the work of Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, and others on the long rise of evangelical conservatism since the 1940s, Balmer portrays Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as abrupt hijackers of an apolitical, benevolent evangelicalism. At the same time, he constructs an overly romanticized account of a nineteenth-century evangelicalism that pushed for abolitionism and women’s rights. To be sure, evangelicals pioneered many social justice initiatives, but they also reinforced Jim Crow, robber barons, and jingoistic imperialism.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book. It demonstrates the significance of progressive strains of evangelicalism, showing that such strains reached the highest political office in the nation. It is based in extensive oral interviews, archival sources, and a multitude of newspaper and magazine accounts. It is compact, readable, and clearly argued. And it is a beautifully written spiritual biography that recovers the moral gravitas of an oft-maligned politician. Whatever the limits of progressive evangelicalism, whatever his political liabilities, Carter was clearly a man trying to articulate and practice Christian theological principles of temptation, sin, redemption, and salvation by grace.

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  • Paul M.

    Balmer also discusses how Carter race-baited the more liberal Carl Sanders during the 1970 Georgia gubernatorial election. Niebuhrian indeed.

  • Daniel Merriman

    I knew several evangelicals who worked their fingers to the bone to get Carter elected. At that time and in that place (the South) they were “right on race,” and would certainly be considered to be progressive.

    Yet I can’t think of a single one of these people who was not bitterly disappointed by Carter’s Presidency. I do not pretend to know all of the reasons for this phenomena, but there is still time (barely) to interview some of these people and try to start figuring it out. The relative decline of the evangelical left has at least some of its roots in this disenchantment, which in many cases seems to me to have risen to the level of feeling personally betrayed

  • BT

    Two primary reasons come to mind – the rise of the extreme right as embodied by the Moral Majority removed his support among evangelicals, and the deep recession did what deep recessions do to any sitting president. Those two things combined were fatal. If you remove the dismal performance of the economy in that period, he would be viewed far more positively.

  • Daniel Merriman

    Perhaps you are correct as far as the (for lack of a better word) generic evangelical voter is concerned, but the people I’m most familiar with were not moral majority types, then or later. Most of the ones that were Baptists belonged to Churches that left the. SBC during the fundamentalist takeover of that denomination. Sure the economy was bad, but that doesn’t explain the depth of hard personal feelings I have seen. There is an emotional aspect to politics, particularly the way we tend to invest fee!ings in the Presidency, that political science types recognize but is hard to quantify and is all too often overloked by historians, perhaps particularly in writing about Southern politics.