What inspired you to write Redeemer?
I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Deerfield, when Jimmy Carter emerged onto the national stage. Like many evangelicals, especially those reared within the evangelical subculture, I was astonished to hear a politician speak unapologetically about being a “born again” Christian. It was a bracing moment, especially for someone who was considering a bid for elective office someday (I actually ran for a seat in the Connecticut legislature in 2004). Mark Hatfield was a hero of mine, of course, especially because of his advocacy for progressive evangelicalism, and I served as an intern for John B. Anderson and the House Republican Conference in 1975. But Carter’s boldness about his faith made a deep impression on me.
It’s axiomatic among historians that history is written by victors, but I’ve always been drawn to the underside of those triumphalist narratives. My first book was an account of the Dutch Reformed Church in the decades following the English Conquest of New Netherland in 1664, and when I first started writing about evangelicalism, evangelicals were hardly culturally ascendant, although they were beginning to make a bid for cultural and political power. Jimmy Carter, following his bruising political defeat in 1980, is not generally seen as a victor, although his activities since leaving the White House have burnished his reputation considerably.
But I’ve always been drawn to his story, replete as it is with the evangelical tropes of striving, success, failure, and redemption. In purely historical terms, the narrative is quite remarkable—coming out of political obscurity to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency in 1976 with his grassroots campaign. In doing so, by the way, he rid his party—and the nation—of its most notorious segregationist, George C. Wallace of Alabama, by beating Wallace in the Florida Democratic primary. I don’t think that Carter has ever received sufficient credit for that.
I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The Religious Right, in fact, emerged to defend racial segregation, although Jerry Falwell and others were savvy enough to camouflage that fact.
Even with all of this research, the book itself remained elusive. I remember that I sat down at Thanksgiving 2012 and considered seriously the possibility of abandoning the project altogether. After a bit more dithering, I simply started writing; an entire draft emerged about six weeks later. Writing is how I think.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
This is the first biography of the thirty-ninth president to take seriously Jimmy Carter’s faith as a motivation for his actions. Carter ascended to the presidency in part on the resurgence of progressive evangelicalism, an understanding of the Christian faith that takes seriously the words of Jesus to care for “the least of these.” One of the many paradoxes surrounding Carter and his presidency is that evangelicalism itself shifted seismically beneath him during his time in office. The progressive evangelicalism embodied by Carter (albeit imperfectly) gave way to the Religious Right.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
Nothing of substance. The challenge of writing a biography is to keep the narrative flow, so there are some details that ended up on the cutting-room floor. But I also happen to like details; they enhance the narrative.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Carter is widely perceived as a failed president, but I think that judgment is too harsh, and historians are now coming around to a new appreciation of his presidency. My purpose in writing this book was not to rehabilitate Carter’s reputation, but I think it’s worth noting some of his accomplishments: shifting U.S. Foreign policy away from the reflexive dualism of the Cold War toward an emphasis on human rights, renegotiating the Panama Canal treaties as a move away from colonialism, the Camp David accords, which advanced the cause of peace far beyond anything done by his predecessors (or successors).
Carter’s domestic initiatives were frustrated by stubbornly high inflation and a sour economy, but he advocated health-care reform, equal rights for women, and tried very hard to move the nation toward energy independence; if we had pursued his initiatives on energy in the late 1970s, we would be in a far different place today. Carter also appointed more women and minorities to office than any president before him.
Unfortunately, however, his accomplishments as president were eclipsed by economic woes, the Soviet Union’s imperial ambitions in Afghanistan, and finally by his inability to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran. Politically, Carter suffered from a pincer action in 1980: a challenge from the left in Edward Kennedy’s run for the Democratic nomination and from the right in the form of Reagan himself and various powerful interests, including the Religious Right.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
The challenge I have taken on throughout my career is to present ideas and events that are sometimes complex in language that is accessible to the general reader. I believe that scholars have a responsibility beyond the academy, and one of the reasons that we as a society find ourselves in such difficulty today—climate change deniers, the tea party nonsense, many of the decisions coming from the Supreme Court—is that scholars have effectively bracketed themselves from the arena of public discourse.
I acknowledge that it is far easier—and certainly much safer professionally—for academics to communicate solely among themselves and very often in specialized jargon, but that seems to me irresponsible. When I started graduate school three-plus decades ago, I vowed that I would never allow my scholarship to become so recondite that I could not communicate with a popular audience.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
I am a teacher, so I hope to inform and to educate. I don’t expect all readers to agree with me—and I certainly don’t deny that I have biases and perspectives—but if I can participate in, and contribute to, a larger conversation, that satisfies me.
What alternative title would you give the book?
I wanted to call it Redeemer President, but the publisher wanted to shorten it to Redeemer. I also considered His Own Received Him Not, a reference to the dramatic reversal of evangelical sentiment toward Carter between 1976 to 1980.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love the cover. Basic Books did a wonderful job—and I have the best editor in the world!
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
I admire novelists because fiction, in the hands of a master, carries a power far greater than nonfiction. So I would probably point to the works of some of my favorite novelists: William Styron, David James Duncan, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson, A. B. Guthrie—those are some of the names that come immediately to mind.
What’s your next book?
Twenty-five years ago, I published a book entitled Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. This summer (2014), Oxford University Press released the fifth edition of that book, with a new chapter (Latino evangelicals) and an afterword that provides an update on many of the people and the places I wrote about in the previous editions.
Beyond that, I plan to do a film project on Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska, a collaboration with my son, who just completed his M.F.A. at Columbia University. I’m also collaborating on a biography with my wife, Catharine Randall, of a fascinating woman who lived in Ontario at the turn of the twentieth century.