In recent presidential elections, it has become obligatory for the candidates to talk about their religious beliefs. This was highlighted in the 2008 interview Barack Obama and John McCain did with the evangelical pastor Rev. Rick Warren, an important moment in that campaign. Obama confessed that selfishness was his greatest moral fault, while McCain acknowledged the failure of his first marriage.
These discussions can give voters useful insights into their would-be leaders, but even so, examining candidates’ religious beliefs can quickly slide into a cynical swirl of spin. The pragmatic world of politics has a way of trivializing the transcendent belief systems of religion, and faith seems to become just one more tool with which to win poll points or bludgeon an opponent.
So perhaps historians can be forgiven for so often disregarding religious faith as a factor in understanding our presidents and other political leaders. But that does not mean they are right to do so.
Randall Balmer, an accomplished historian at Dartmouth College and an Episcopal priest, demonstrates this in Redeemer, his fine new biography of former President Jimmy Carter. At the outset he announces that this book “attempts to take Jimmy Carter’s religious commitments seriously as a means for understanding his life and character.” It may seem like the obvious approach toward understanding a president who reveled in being a Sunday school teacher but, as Balmer writes, he is the first biographer to do it.
Balmer situates Carter in the tradition of progressive evangelicalism, which encompassed the abolitionist movement. Like his progressive predecessors—forgotten to the point that evangelical Christianity is so often wrongly assumed to be coterminous with the Religious Right—he was concerned with poverty and human rights and sought “a less imperial foreign policy,” as Balmer puts it.
Balmer writes that Carter embraced his faith after losing the Georgia governor’s race in 1966, but faults him for temporarily betraying his religious ideals to win the 1970 campaign. Pandering to George Wallace-type Democrats, he endorsed the segregationist Lester Maddox for lieutenant governor and used campaign attack ads with racial innuendo. Carter had “prostituted his integrity,” according to Balmer, and sought to make amends as governor.
Carter’s rise and fall on the national political scene took place in the context of major changes in evangelical Christianity, and Balmer sets this out in an illuminating way. A resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the early 1970s, reflecting the concerns found in broad-minded quarters of 19th-century Protestantism, enhanced Carter’s prospects. Balmer demonstrates how the moral tone of this movement echoes through the Carter presidency, from matters like the Panama Canal treaty to Middle East peace negotiations, nuclear weapons reductions and the emphasis on human rights in foreign policy.
But evangelical Protestantism in the United States underwent significant changes in the later 1970s, moving in a conservative direction. Balmer argues that the shift was not a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in most cases, but rather lashed back at federal opposition to tax exemptions for racially segregated private schools.
Balmer makes a convincing case that most evangelicals were initially indifferent to Roe v. Wade; abortion was seen as a “Catholic issue.” He views legalized abortion as a pretext that right-wing operatives used to stir up evangelical opposition to a president who was in many ways a social conservative. Carter was, after all, the president who told a group of federal employees: “Those of you who are living in sin, I hope you’ll get married. Those of you who have left your spouses, go back home.” (And some Carter aides with long-term relationships did marry.)
Balmer argues that race was the real reason for evangelicals’ disaffection with one of their own, but that this discontent about desegregation was channeled into dissent over other issues. He describes the Republican strategist Paul Weyrich as “nothing short of brilliant” for turning opposition to abortion into a cause that Protestant televangelists fervently espoused. By the time the 1980 election rolled around, abortion was no longer simply a Catholic issue.
Carter’s loss of an energized evangelical Christian electorate in 1980 was no doubt a factor in Ronald Reagan’s victory, but there is a giant “to be sure” to add to this: Raging inflation, the long-running Iranian hostage crisis and the third-party candidacy of John Anderson were overriding reasons for the outcome. Balmer acknowledges as much.
To do so does not negate his strongest theme, which is that we must consider the role of religion to understand Jimmy Carter and the political world he inhabited. Balmer has crafted a sympathetic and yet objective portrait of the nation’s 39th president. By emphasizing religion, he provides a clear-eyed view of what is too often a blind spot in historical and journalistic writing on politics.
Jimmy Carter, for his part, keeps religious issues front and center as he continues to pursue global peace, democracy, health and justice in his renowned post-presidency. That comes through in his 22nd book, A Call to Action on women’s rights. The book is a sort of white paper that analyzes the many injustices done to women around the world, with topics ranging from discrimination in the workplace to campus rapes, genital cutting, slavery, spousal abuse and “honor” killings.
The book is most effective when Carter drops the think-tank tone and offers anecdotes from his personal experience. In one anecdote, he recounts his meeting with Pope John Paul II at the White House in 1979. Carter writes that he raised the topic of women’s status in the church, and that the pope was “surprisingly conservative concerning any possible changes in Church practices.” Carter adds that when he asked John Paul whether the church had gotten stronger or weaker in the past five years, the pope told him that it had dipped after the Second Vatican Council because of changes in the liturgy and, in the opinion of many believers, that it had become too liberal. The pope added that the church was gaining strength as it again stressed traditional values, Carter writes.
Defining “traditional values” remains of great interest to the former president, a Sunday school teacher for more than 70 years. In his new book, he is particularly interested in what he sees as the distorted use of the Bible and Koran to subjugate women, and calls on male religious leaders to support equality for women.
Carter builds a strong case that the struggle for the rights of women has barely begun. He cites in support multiple sources of international data, his own vast experience in exploring many parts of the world as president and as head of his Carter Center and the insights of many human rights activists he works with through the center.
His vantage point is unique, and his ideas and his life story are well worth reading about, particularly for those with an interest in the interplay of religion and politics.