Jimmy Carter has been an outspoken voice in American politics. From his opposition to the Iraq War to his remark about the United States no longer having a “functioning democracy,” he hasn’t shied away from controversy. Two recent books help us comprehend him better.
Dartmouth College Professor Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, in “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter,” casts the thirty-ninth President as the modern carrier of a distinctive strain in U.S. political tradition: that of progressive evangelicalism.
“Progressive evangelicalism has a long and distinguished history in the United States, dating back to the reforming zeal of evangelicals in the nineteenth century,” Balmer tells me. “They sought to remake society according to the norms of godliness, so they supported the abolition of slavery, public education, and the rights of women, including voting rights. Carter rode to office in part because of a brief resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the early 1970s.”
Balmer contends that Carter’s religiosity drove much of his policymaking while he occupied the Oval Office. Carter was greatly influenced by his favorite theologian: Reinhold Niebuhr. “The highest possible aspiration of any given community, Carter said, paraphrasing Niebuhr, was to establish justice and fairness,” Balmer writes.
Carter’s commitment to these goals began with his tenure as Georgia’s governor (albeit after a tainted campaign, as Balmer points out), during which he focused on racial equity and prison reform. Carter carried this approach with him to the Presidency, such as with his focus on human rights, Balmer says, even if he was inconsistent.
It was Carter’s brand of Christianity that ultimately cost him support among conservative evangelicals. For instance, his refusal to countenance tax exemption of racially discriminatory schools infuriated many of them. And his insufficiently blinkered approach on abortion also did him no favors with that crowd. In 1980, the evangelical vote deserted him en masse for an ex-Hollywood star and has stayed with the Republican Party ever since.
“The Religious Right, which coalesced to defend racial segregation in ‘Christian’ schools, forged alliances with hard-right conservatives like Paul Weyrich,” says Balmer. “In so doing, leaders of the Religious Right turned their backs on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelicalism.”
Balmer ends his book with meeting Carter at his regular Sunday School sermon at Plains, Georgia, where Carter ruminates on his post-Presidency—and the impulses driving him—an apt conclusion for such a work.
The book by Carter himself is in a similar vein. “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power” tries to harness religion to particularly end discrimination against women. Much of “A Call to Action” deals with his work through the Carter Center, of which he’s always been proud.
“My life since the White House has been much more all-encompassing, much more enjoyable,” he told me when I met him at the Center in 2008. “The main thing that I’ve acquired in the last twenty-seven years has been access to the poorest and most destitute, forgotten, and suffering people on Earth. It’s not possible for a President to actually know them. But we go into the remote areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and actually meet with people who are suffering and find out why. Then we try to work with them, giving them maximum responsibility for correcting their own problems. So that’s the element that’s been most beneficial to me.”
There are interesting segments in his book, especially considering that it is written by an ex-President of the United States.
“More than any other nation, the United States has been almost constantly involved in armed conflict and, through military alliances, has used war as a means of resolving international and local disputes,” Carter writes. “…. Some devout Christians have been in the forefront of advocating warfare even when the choice was hotly debated among the general public. ‘An eye for an eye’ has become more important to them than the teachings of Jesus as the Prince of Peace.”
In the same vein, Carter reprints a New York Times op-ed of his from early 2003 that decried the impending invasion of Iraq as unjustified and immoral. His critique of U.S. foreign policy is bipartisan and up to date, since he also lays out his concerns with the Obama Administration’s use of drone attacks in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
A fascinating section of the book is Carter’s recounting of the reason he and Rosalynn decided to leave the Southern Baptist Convention.
“My wife and I began to question whether our beliefs were compatible with those adopted and later mandated by the Convention,” Carter writes. “The change that was most troubling to us was an emphasis on a few specific Bible verses about the status of women and how they would be applied in practical terms, including one that called for wives to be ‘submissive’ to their husbands.”
“A Call to Action” ends with a list of recommendations to ameliorate the condition of women and girls worldwide, such as having more women in higher public office and involving religious scholars to give a more forward-looking interpretation to their faiths.
It is this commitment to a progressive religious outlook that makes Carter almost a lone voice in U.S. politics. These two books help us understand this facet of Carter—and through that, help us know Jimmy Carter more fully.