Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carterby Randall Balmer
Evangelical Christianity and conservative politics are today seen as inseparable. But when Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and a born-again Christian, won the presidency in 1976, he owed his victory in part to American evangelicals, who responded to his open religiosity and his rejection of the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon Administration. Carter, running as a
Evangelical Christianity and conservative politics are today seen as inseparable. But when Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and a born-again Christian, won the presidency in 1976, he owed his victory in part to American evangelicals, who responded to his open religiosity and his rejection of the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon Administration. Carter, running as a representative of the New South, articulated a progressive strand of American Christianity that championed liberal ideals, racial equality, and social justiceone that has almost been forgotten since.
In Redeemer, acclaimed religious historian Randall Balmer reveals how the rise and fall of Jimmy Carter’s political fortunes mirrored the transformation of American religious politics. From his beginnings as a humble peanut farmer to the galvanizing politician who rode a reenergized religious movement into the White House, Carter’s life and career mark him as the last great figure in America’s long and venerable history of progressive evangelicalism. Although he stumbled early in his careercourting segregationists during his second campaign for Georgia governorCarter’s run for president marked a return to the progressive principles of his faith and helped reenergize the evangelical movement. Responding to his message of racial justice, women’s rights, and concern for the plight of the poor, evangelicals across the country helped propel Carter to office. Yet four years later, those very same voters abandoned him for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. Carter’s defeat signaled the eclipse of progressive evangelicalism and the rise of the Religious Right, which popularized a dramatically different understanding of the faith, one rooted in nationalism, individualism, and free-market capitalism.
An illuminating biography of our 39th president, Redeemer presents Jimmy Carter as the last great standard-bearer of an important strand of American Christianity, and provides an original and riveting account of the moments that transformed our political landscape in the 1970s and 1980s.
A religious historian, Balmer (Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory) attempts to situate the 39th president within the larger framework of American evangelicalism. He posits that Jimmy Carter is part of the progressive evangelical movement that had its heyday in the 19th century and agitated for reforms that led to the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, among other things. Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential elections, Balmer argues, signals the eclipse of progressive evangelicalism and the rise of the religious right. But history is not that neat, and progressive evangelicalism was likely a minority movement among Carter’s fellow Southerners. Indeed, as Balmer notes, even in Carter’s winning 1976 presidential race, he lost the evangelical vote to his opponent, Gerald Ford. That doesn’t make Carter any less interesting, and the role of faith in his life is undoubtedly profound. What this volume lacks is original source material and interviews. Apart from one or two meetings with his subject, Balmer’s biography leans heavily on Carter’s two dozen published books as well as newspaper and journal accounts. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim, Williams & Bloom. (May)
Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Balmer narrates the surprising rise of a Georgia peanut farmer with the ease of a natural storyteller.”
New York Times Book Review
“A refreshingly concise entry in a genre known for doorstops.”
“Balmer’s big contribution to our understanding of the man from Plains is in showing how his evangelical convictions both helped put him into office and helped precipitate his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980.”
Chronicle of Higher Education
“Balmer is an excellent storyteller, and many of the main characters in this biography come to life at key moments."
“For much of the past 35 years, conservative belief has defined American religious life. Although the progressive evangelicalism of the 19th century remains well known, the recent history of liberal belief is in need of recovery. Redeemer fits within this reconsideration of progressive religion, and Carter’s career path offers a way forward for progressives’ engagement as global citizens.”
“Randall Balmer’s slim profile seeks to remind us there was once, and could be again, a 'Christian left' in American politics.”
Baptist Joint Committee Magazine
“Anyone who is interested in squaring appropriate expressions of faith in politics along with the separation of church and state, 20th century American political and religious history, and Baptist life in this country over the past four decades will want to read and savor this important and incisive effort by Randall Balmer.”
Booklist, starred review
“Balmer explores the paradoxes of a man balancing faith and ideals against the pragmatics of politics and the evangelical tide that favored him and later turned so vehemently against him.”
“Balmer provides an engaging religious-centric interpretation of his subject.”
“A sympathetic account of a president too often overlooked, embedded in a rethinking of the rise of the religious right.”
T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
“Redeemer is a fascinating account not only of Jimmy Carter, but of progressive evangelicalism and its place in American history. Beautifully written and moving, it offers an eye-opening account of the man and the period. Evangelicalism emerges as more complex and unpredictable than many observers imagine.”
George Marsden, author of Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
“Focusing on Carter as a religious figure, Balmer recounts a fascinating story of unintended consequences. Carter’s progressive evangelicalism had liberal political implications, but his capitalization on being ‘born again’ during his 1976 presidential campaign led eventually to the emergence of a religious right. By 1980 that conservative movement was strong enough to help defeat Carter and to establish itself as a force on the national political scene. As Balmer nicely observes, Carter’s many admirable activities after leaving office illustrate that religion may be at its prophetic best when distanced from political power.”
Jon Butler, Yale University
“Randall Balmer's Redeemer deftly reveals modern America's most misunderstood president. Randall Balmer melds Carter's famous evangelical sensibilities into a story of cascading successes and failures, the world ultimately indifferent to a man who hoped politics could be religion realized and redeemed more in retirement than in his frustrated presidencya compelling, wistful tale briskly rendered.”
Harry S. Stout, Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History, Yale University
"In this brilliantly argued and thoroughly substantiated biography of Jimmy Carter, Randall Balmer charts a unique course, choosing to situate Carter's presidency in the religious context of ‘Born Again Christianity,’ which catapulted him into the White House on the back of a neo-evangelical revival. A must-read for all who are interested in understanding the religious and political tumults of the 1960s and 70s, and how they speak to our present."
Edward J. Blum, co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America
“This is religion and politics at its finest. With wit, insight, and narrative freshness, Randall Balmer recalls that dynamic moment in the 1970s before evangelicalism became a handmaiden to political conservatism. Jimmy Carter was the “born again” president who would redeem the nation from the sins of Watergate and Vietnam. How he tried, how many failed, and the evangelical-conservative knot that rose after his presidency is a tragic and beautiful story, and none explains it better than Randall Balmer. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, for Redeemer is one of those books not to skim, but to savor.”
Leigh E. Schmidt, Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
“Redeemer offers an astute, sympathetic, and engrossing account of how Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist faith shaped his political career. Randall Balmer’s feel for the religious dynamics of the 1970sthe ways in which right-wing evangelicalism swamped Carter’s more progressive rendering of born-again Christianityis remarkable. He combines an insider’s knowledge with a historian’s erudition to create a revelatory account of Carter’s religious and political fortunes. A story replete with betrayal and redemption, Balmer tells it exceptionally well.”
Bill Leonard, James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History, Wake Forest University
“Professor Balmer provides an insightful summary and analysis of Jimmy Carter's life and work as farmer, politician, president, humanitarian and born-again Baptist. His study moves beyond biography to place Carter within the larger context of an American evangelicalism that continues to struggle with its role in the political sphere and the impact of personal faith on the lives of elected officials. Balmer knows the issues well and explores them creatively.”
E. Brooks Holifield, Charles Howard Candler Professor, emeritus, Emory University
“It would be hard to imagine a better account of a president’s life, faith, and politics. Balmer is an accomplished historian who combines accuracy, insight, and archival diligence with the narrative skills of a novelist. The result is a compelling story of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, of conflicting evangelical traditions, and of a great reversal that saw religious conservatives helping to elect one of their own as president and then organizing to bring him down. Balmer gives us an incisive analysis of idealism and realism in the White House, duplicity in unexpected places, and hardball politics in the back rooms of right-wing churches. The book vividly captures the tone and atmosphere of presidential politics in the late-1970san era that still resonates in twenty-first century religious and political battles.”
Balmer (religion, Dartmouth Coll., coauthor, First Freedom) offers the first biography of President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) framed in the context of Carter's progressive evangelicalism. Carter's presidential advocacy for women's and gay rights, pro-choice legislation, and programs for the poor inspired a resurgent progressive evangelical movement that helped elect him in 1976. Four years later, evangelicals, along with many Americans, had become disenchanted with Carter and deserted him for Ronald Reagan. According to the author, evangelicals were also angered by Carter revoking tax exemptions for discriminatory schools, notably Bob Jones University, several years before Carter's pro-choice politics resulted in the impassioned migration to the religious right. Balmer concludes that by restoring morality to the presidency, which was diminished by the Richard Nixon administration, Carter became a redeemer president. VERDICT Although details about Carter's presidency are sketchy, Balmer provides an engaging religious-centric interpretation of his subject. This work can be complemented by Betty Glad's An Outsider in the White House and Frye Gallard's Prophet from Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy, which provide the political narrative of this man's life.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
The words "progressive" and "evangelical" may no longer be thought of together, yet in combination, they shaped Jimmy Carter as a man and president.So argues academic and Episcopal priest Balmer (Arts and Sciences/Dartmouth Univ.; The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond, 2010, etc.). Carter has never been shy about his beliefs, the author notes, pointing to the way the then-governor of Georgia positioned his campaign for the presidency: "I'm a born-again Christian…and I don't want anything that's not God's will for my life." Balmer organizes this biography to show that Carter's religious views are the foundation of his politics and continued to set a standard that guided the way he shaped his life after leaving office. Illustrations drawn from the former president's life and numerous writings highlight his discordance with the conservative religious fundamentalism allied to the tea party. As a businessman, for example, Carter refused to join the White Citizens' Council's opposition to school integration; he stood alone, defying boycott of his business and ostracism. However, he was also a fierce competitor who did what he thought necessary to win, as in the Georgia gubernatorial election in 1970. "You won't like my campaign…but you will like my administration," he told Vernon Jordan. Carter's single-term presidency was characterized, according to Balmer, by the interplay between his ambitious competitiveness and service. Differing from those who attribute Carter's 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan to foreign policy or economic issues, the author contends that Carter was undermined and out-organized by former supporters of segregation like Jerry Falwell, who birthed what is now known as the religious right by rallying a defense for the tax breaks of private schools.A sympathetic account of a president too often overlooked, embedded in a rethinking of the rise of the religious right.
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Meet the Author
Randall Balmer is Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College. An Episcopal priest and the author of more than a dozen books, Balmer lives in White River Junction, Vermont.
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