'Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter' makes religion central to Carter's 1980 defeat

Religion – and not politics – is at the core of this examination of the strengths and weaknesses of Carter's presidency.

On September 12, 1960, a young Democratic presidential nominee named John F. Kennedy made history. Addressing a group of Protestant ministers in Houston Texas, he swore – despite his Roman Catholic background – to uphold a belief in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which allows for freedom of religion and advocates a separation between church and state. Kennedy was effectively making religion redundant in American public life.  

When he was elected the following January, Kennedy set a trend in the White House. For the next 16 years, a president’s choice of church seemed to have no effect on American voters. Lyndon Johnson worried more about how Vietnam and the Civil Rights Act would affect his presidency, than he did about his association with the Church of the Disciples of Christ. Similarly, voters seemed to barely notice Nixon’s Quaker background.

But post-Watergate, a change occurred. The United States had just witnessed a drastic constitutional crisis, after Richard Nixon poisoned the chalice of the US presidency by lying about his knowledge of a 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters. By 1976, two years after Nixon’s resignation, the American people wanted a man with a strong set of moral values.

So when a peanut farmer and Baptist Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia, promised he would “never knowingly lie to the American people”, voters listened with enthusiasm.     

Jimmy Carter's initial appeal as a candidate lay with his outsider status. This connected him to ordinary Americans.

Religion also played a small role. If John F. Kennedy had told voters to forget about the president’s religious beliefs, Carter reminded them that it was central to his moral compass. This was a man who unashamedly declared that Jesus Christ was “the single most important factor in my life.”

Those in the Bible belt who spoke this same language, voted with their pious hearts. Time magazine even commented that 1976 was the “year of the evangelical.”

Randall Balmer reminds us of this fact at the beginning of his new book Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Balmer gives us a brief introduction to various aspects of Carter’s personal and political life. But much of this material is familiar ground that has been previously covered in Peter G. Bourne’s "Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography" or Douglas Brinkley’s "The Unfinished Presidency."

We learn, for example, that from his father, Earl Carter, Jimmy inherited the Baptist principles of liberty of conscience and firm belief in the separation of church and state, as well as an individual’s responsibility before God. In 1943 Carter embarked on a career in the US Navy, where his steadfast commitment and dedicated work ethic allowed him to rise up the ranks with ease.

In 1953, following the death of his father, Carter resigned his position in the navy and returned to Georgia to work in the family peanut business. This allowed him to concentrate on a career in politics.

Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate in the early 1960s.

Then, following an initial defeat in 1966, he was sworn in as governor of Georgia in 1971. Five years later he was sitting in the Oval office as US president, the first Southerner to get there since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

While Balmer skims over these details in brief, his book is concerned with another agenda entirely. At the heart of his narrative is a thesis which states the following: Jimmy Carter’s electoral defeat in 1980 signaled not just a victory for Ronald Reagan, but it transformed the way that the evangelical faith has been understood in the United States ever since.

Balmer claims that it was the core principles of 19th-century progressive evangelicalism, which Carter embraced, that got him elected as president. This form of the religion saw politics, public duty, and religious worship as going hand in glove. It embraced women’s rights, social equality, racial tolerance, and urged its followers to live out the teachings of Christ.     

But as Carter’s popularity dwindled, and his presidency went from bad to worse, Balmer says that leaders of the Religious Right – people like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham – came to embrace a different interpretation of the evangelical faith. It now came to represent individualism and free market capitalism, over community, human rights, and collective responsibility, which had previously been its core values.

There is certainly an element of truth to this part of Balmer’s argument. For example, while abortion had once been the concern of Catholic voters, after 1980 it came to dominate the core belief system of evangelicals. And it has continued to shape American election debates ever since.

But Balmer, who is an Episcopal priest and a distinguished professor of history and theology, fails to offer any serious political analysis here. Anyone who wants to grasp why Carter failed to get re-elected in 1980 should look elsewhere for answers.

Balmer's main handicap as a writer is that he fails to separate religious ideology from the world of Washington politics. And while acknowledging that the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a massive global energy crisis in the 1970s, and a personal strain of self-righteousness and an inability to get things done efficiently all helped contribute to Carter’s demise as president, Balmer sees the entire 1980 election almost in the form of a religious crusade. This is absurd.

But it's easy to understand where this comes from. Balmer's entire academic training merges theology and politics together. His previous books include "The Making of Evangelicalism," "God in the White House," "Religion in American Life," and "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts America."

Yes, it is true that Ronald Reagan did court a strong evangelical vote. But Balmer sees Reagan’s ability to claim 56 percent of the evangelical vote – to Carter’s 40 – as somehow sealing Carter’s loss in the entire election. This axiom is not grounded in reality.

Such an obsession with theology has given Balmer a distorted view of American political history, which sees everything through a prism of religious ideology.

Carter’s inability to get reelected in 1980 was really not about a change in religious values in American society. If religion did come into the equation, it was more to do with Carter’s evangelical outlook of the world.

And if there was a seismic shift happening in American society during this period, it was one that saw the traditional base of the Democratic Party change. The disintegration of the old Roosevelt Republic in the mid-1970s – which, in the eyes of many voters had become overly bureaucratic, inflated, and corrupt – had actually got Carter to the White House in the first place.

But Carter failed to acknowledge that he would need the help of the traditional liberal wing of the Democratic Party if he was to be re-elected. In his book Balmer quotes a Wall Street Journal article that declared at the time, that the “real Jimmy Carter has finally stood up, on the far left of the Democratic Party.” This journalist was mistaken.

The comments were made after Carter’s famous malaise speech in 1979, which opened up by identifying a “moral and spiritual crisis” in the United States.

What Balmer’s myopic vision of Jimmy Carter’s presidential career fails to recognize is that his downfall was not about religion, but politics. As an outsider from Georgia, Carter did not understand the reciprocal nature of Washington politics.

This came back to haunt him.

For all his good intentions and human decency, Carter was attempting to move the Democratic Party to the right.

But the traditional Democratic left wing base – that included people like Ted Kennedy – did not agree. And so Carter fell into the political wilderness, becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover – defeated by F.D.R. in 1932 – not to get re-elected for a second term.

Balmer also mentions Carter’s post-presidential career. He documents his success on the international stage, with the Carter Center and his Noble Peace Prize in 2002, which finally recognized the exceptional diplomatic skills Carter exercised in bringing Israel and Egypt to the Camp David Accords in 1978.

But Balmer doesn't really add anything to what has already been written on this subject. His book seems most likely to interest those with a deep attachment to the evangelical faith. As for readers looking for a serious political discussion, unfortunately, it is not to be found anywhere in the pages of this book.    

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