Engaged Evangelicalism: Randall Balmer’s Book on Jimmy Carter

RedeemerLast week I devoted myself to Randall Balmer’s new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. I was drawn to it after reading Randall’s piece last month in Politico about how the Bob Jones tax exemption decision was the trigger that prompted evangelical political activism. So when I got an Amazon gift card for Father’s Day, I knew what to get.

It turns out that Randall and I graduated from high school in the same year. When he described the tumultuous factors impacting his teen years (the assassinations of RFK and MLK, the War in Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s Resignation) I completely identified. Those were my events too. For both of us there were also family and religious changes, but being in your early twenties when “one of our own” ran for the highest office in the land was certainly attention getting. We came of age at a time when a progressive voice in evangelicalism was being rediscovered after decades of post-social-gospel quiet. Not that everyone around us was progressive, but there were voices talking about inequality, justice, racism, and faith. Heady stuff for historians and sociologists.

Ballmer’s take on Jimmy Carter is fascinating. He keeps President Carter’s faith and his quest to follow Jesus at the center of the story. There are other players as well. The aforementioned Bob Jones case appears as a pivot point in turning evangelicals away from Carter between 1976 and 1980. Not that most folks were concerned about that specifically, but it was a lever used by people like Paul Weyrich who saw an opportunity to mobilize evangelicals (he wasn’t one) for conservative causes. Then there are the evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Phyllis Schlaffly who used their positions to undermine the President’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Bordering on opportunism, they saw nothing of distorting views (Schlaffly), making up anecdotes (Falwell), or being generally two-faced (Graham) if it suited their larger cause.

Set against all this positioning and opportunism is the story of a man who sought consistency in his moral life and tried to govern following that light. He was shaped by his interactions around race in rural Georgia, three very strong women (his progressive mother, his evangelist sister, and his wife), and his ambition to be of service in the world. Not that he always got that right. There is the gubernatorial campaign that betrayed his principles on race (for which he publicly apologized after his election). There is the Playboy interview given during the presidential run (right sentiments but evangelicals saw it as not maintaining separation from evil).

But time and again the story returns to his Baptist upbringing, the importance of congregational autonomy and separation of church and state (key Baptist principles at the time), and his own conversion at the leading of his sister Ruth. This isn’t a faith that is compartmentalized but one that is thought through carefully. There is a linkage between Carter’s commitments to Human Rights, to equality for women, to concern for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, and what he believes Christ has called us to. It’s not a separationist evangelicalism that sees politics, government, and society as tainted. It’s a progressive view that believes that a person acting from a moral core, who works hard, who is smart, and who can effectively communicate those values can make a difference in the lives of many. Not because he’s special (though he knew he was) but because his Christian duty compelled him.

Ballmer’s title comes from his thesis that Carter redeemed American society from the sins of the Watergate era. He allowed us to move on (although Reagan gets the credit for “morning in America”) and to believe in possibilities again. But a variety of factors outside the president’s control (OPEC, Iranian Hostages, USSR invasion of Afghanistan, Inflation) hampered his attempts at moral suasion. There were clearly naive mistakes made by what was called “the Georgia mafia”. He could have reached out to evangelical leadership earlier than he did. And there the already mentioned forces that combined to favor Ronald Reagan as the darling of evangelicals (although he wasn’t one — while Jimmy Carter regularly taught Sunday School, many Sunday Schools of the day would not have allowed the divorced Reagan to have such a leadership role).

Randall quotes Emory President James Laney, who said that Carter “was the first president to use the White House as a stepping stone“. Carter’s post-presidential career has now spanned 24 years, three years longer than his political life from Board of Education to President of the United State of America. If anything, his moral voice has gotten stronger and more consistent. People don’t always agree with him but he continues to act on his Christian convictions.

There are some minor quibbles I could raise. Some phrases and stories get repeated a little too often. I would have liked a little more on policy initiatives. But the thrust of the story is about morality, faith, and following Jesus. Not just for the benefit of evangelicals but to pursue the common good, the shalom of God.

Balmer includes the “Crisis of Confidence” speech from July 1979, often called the “malaise” speech even though the word doesn’t appear. Carter had worked slavishly on the speech. What was supposed to be a speech about energy started with reflections on the American character. At the time, I thought he’d made a mistake by not being a presidential cheerleader (something his successor did to an extreme). But re-reading the speech 35 years later, I wish he’d left off the energy stuff. It was a six point policy statement about conservation, oil supplies, renewable resources, and the like.

But the opening of the speech (the first five pages in the appendix) are profound and speak to our moral needs today. He calls for us to have faith in each other. One that calls forth a faith and moral direction that benefits all Americans. It’s a message that we need desperately to hear in our churches, on our cable channels, and in legislative halls across the country.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves…

Looking back, the Sunday School teacher from Plains always keeps his moral center and keeps testifying to us about what it means to follow Jesus.

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