Redeemer II

Edward J.  Blum

Below is part II of our fall round table on Randall Balmer’s Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Although most of us know Balmer as a correspondent for The Christian Century's "Then and Now" blog, he also, on occasion, writes longer pieces. :) For the fascinating first RIAH review by Elesha Coffman, see here. There are a host of other great reviews, too. The Christian CenturyWashington Post; Wall Street Journal; New York Times. The one below comes from James K.Wellman, Jr. Professor and Chair, Comparative Religion Program, Jackson School of International Affairs, University of Washington.

James K. Wellman, Jr.

Randall Balmer’s beautifully written book is above all a joy to read. Balmer’s writing has always been elegant and insightful, and he is at his best in this loving portrait of someone who seems to embody his ideals and hopes for American religion, politics and culture. Balmer is perfectly suited to explicate and outline the full flavor of Carter’s religious life and how it shaped and profoundly impacted his political career. For Balmer, Carter is the quintessential progressive evangelical: favoring women’s rights, equal rights for all, human rights overseas, compassion for the poor, all the while carrying a deep sense of piety and purpose in his faith in Jesus Christ. I was struck by Carter’s dedication to his faith. Carter meant it when he said he was Christian. Even as President, Carter taught Bible studies, attended church and clearly sought political policies that reflected his faith: the belief in the family; care for the environment; nuclear disarmament; peaceful solutions for foreign policy conflicts—indeed, the last president under whom we haven’t gone to war.

There is also a part of me that sees this book in a tragic light. We see the rise of the Christian Right, which Balmer knows so well and delineates so carefully in this book. How it manufactured a campaign against Carter for reasons that were banal and even immoral. As Balmer details, while Paul Weyrich—a notorious conservative activist—cultivated the Christian Right ostensibly to end abortion, he was primarily motivated by resentment over the 1972 Green v. Connally case, which established that any institution that practiced discrimination would compromise their Federal tax exemptions as a charitable organization. The federal case against the racial discrimination practiced at Bob Jones University was a critical conflict over which many Christian activists fought. They argued that this case posed a government imposition and took away the rights of Christian schools to set their own policies. Needless to say, these policies of discrimination were, to Carter’s mind, abominations. Familiar with the effects of racism from his own family life, Carter, while not always consistent in his stance on racial prejudice, became more steadfast about these issues over time, particularly as President and in his post-presidency.

Beginning with Ronald Reagan, the Christian Right has been consistent and successful in their support of conservative American Presidents. This backing reached an apex in George W. Bush. Ironically, neither Reagan nor Bush gave the Christian Right what they sought—overturning Roe v. Wade, or pushing back gay rights. From my own progressive Protestant perspective, this partnership between the Christian Right and Republican conservatism has been tragic at best, and catastrophic at worst, but not because of the failures on questions of personal morality. I would argue that many of our present day problems stem from Reagan and his policies, including a laissez-faire economic philosophy that has led to a massive increase in social inequality; an enormous military build-up that has made American military interventions common and expected to this day; a culture war rhetoric that has been used to divide and tear American culture apart; energy and environmental policies that have delayed our ability to face and fight climate change. In all these ways, the Republican Party has sadly used Christian conservatism to fight against national health care, environmental responsibility, women’s rights, help for the poor and racial equality. In all these ways, the defeat of Carter and Reagan’s victory in 1980 has marked what I would call one of the most unchristian eras in American political history. Balmer doesn’t say this directly, but the map is carefully constructed so that these conclusions seem inevitable.

Balmer may or may not believe in any of what I am arguing, but his book tells a tragic tale of a good man who was destroyed by a political system and political party bent not so much on a Christian agenda but on a political vision to invest power in an American elite that has dominated our politics for the last generation. So much so, that we cannot even imagine policies outside of Reaganomics or power politics overseas. We ignore the “least of these,” and the poor are now seen as lazy and undeserving of care. We can’t see the interests of other countries when we talk or think about foreign policy. We are only interested in securing American values and American interests. Carter was dedicated to a flourishing international community: he worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East; he gave back the Panama Canal to its rightful owners; and he sought human rights in Latin America as well as in other parts of the world. He did not achieve the freedom of the Iranian hostages, even though many think that the timing of their freedom was set to enable President Reagan to take all the credit. As Balmer shows, Carter put forward environmental policies that many saw as visionary, all of which Reagan reversed.

It’s hard not to think that Carter, although a flawed candidate who Balmer shows had his own streak of stubborn self-righteousness, is a tragic figure in American political history. While a Nobel Prize winning President, who has done more good out of the presidency than while in office, was perhaps the closest Christian leader that American evangelicals could or perhaps ever will have in a political figure. And ironically, the very one who was most imbued with the evangelical tradition, the Christian Right crucified and helped defeat. As Christian Right leaders have admitted, Reagan did next to nothing to forward their policies. Moreover, the legacy of the Christian Right and its partnership with the Republican Party has done nothing but undercut and damage the reputation of Christianity in America, particularly among the younger generation.

I would argue that Balmer’s book is a necessary read—a cold splash of water, which reminds us that politics do matter, and who we support can change a generation. Perhaps, the Christian community might look again at Carter’s progressive evangelicalism as a live option. I would argue, in taking up this tradition, Christians might seek a more noble future in American politics and culture. One wonders if all of this is simply too late. I hope not. 


Tom Van Dyke said…
Unfortunately, the results of yet another theologico-political Rorschach test.

It's not history. This all needs to be placed in a different folder.

As one reviewer nailed it:

If it is permissible to grant a political role to “progressive evangelism,” why is it any less legitimate to grant a similar role to those whose evangelism “emphasized free-market capitalism, paid scant attention to human rights or the plight of minorities, and asserted the importance of military might as resistance to communism”?

Whose evangelicalism is it, anyway? The historian can only measure, not vote.