His Own Received Him Not: Jimmy Carter, First Evangelical President

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.

  • This is a powerful statement and conclusion. ” My findings there [in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie] 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.”

    I like the title. It is good to see President Carter in a positive light. It seems the religious right has not moved much especially with all the republican efforts at voter repression. It also seems a refreshing look at evangelicals.

  • GeniusPhx

    and since NT scripture doesn’t change, neither will the republicans stance on anything. they cant change with the times, grow with the culture, become more palatable to the population, or even start to sound reasonable/rational about women’s issues; because their platform is stuck in the first century.

  • Jim Reed

    That may not be permanently true. It has been true for several decades. Fiscal conservatives and social conservatives found common ground, and Christians sold their soul to the party of the rich. Christian vanity became wedded to Republican greed, which does kind of seem like a match made in heaven. This has been a global disaster, and Christians might want to follow it through to the end to see if Jesus will come, but Republicans don’t really want to see the world destroyed, and they will probably file for divorce just before the end. It may seem hopeless right now, but this is not going to bring end times destruction of the world.

  • RMHarris

    Wow. The idea that “The religious right, in fact, emerged to defend racial segregation..” Put down the crack pipe dude. The Democrat party and the regressive Neanderthals of the American and International left have always been stalwarts and proponents of institutionalized racism. The Democrat party was founded by racists with the explicit purpose of allowing slave holders to keep ownership of slaves. The KKK is a democrat party organ created explicitly to prevent Americans of African descent from voting for Republicans. The Democrat party supported institutionalized slavery using the false Christianity of the Calvinist cult as their backdrop. The Democrat party authored the Chinese Exclusion acts (an opposed by Biblical Christians.) The Democrat party instituted Jim Crow laws. Democrat president and hero Woodrow Wilson: “Segregation is not humiliating but a benefit” and “distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves.” Internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent were created by regressive Democrat FDR. Opposition to the voting rights act was Democrat party policy. Opposition to the Civil Rights act was Democrat party policy. Jimmy Carter is know for his continual anti-Sematic remarks.
    This trend continues through today with two of the most racially divisive politicians in memory, Barak Obama and Eric Holder, who uphold the persistently Democrat party tool of dividing people by race and wealth for the furtherance of their destructive policies coupled with lust for personal power and profit.
    Carter was not a good president for the country. Democrats never are.

  • I couldn’t care less if he was a Christian, or not.

    He was a terrible President. And he is still causing problems with his unrealistic and naive views on world affairs.

  • Jim Reed

    Or maybe that is just the way conservatives like to see things.

  • Jim Reed

    Politics changes over time. Lincoln freed the slaves and the South became solidly Democrat. Then Johnson signed the civil rights legislation, and the South became solidly Republican.

  • Bob Drake

    Jimmy Carter as a political candidate and President was a fascinating figure. He was the first modern president who ran and won as an outsider.

    Brilliantly he read the nations unease in the post Vietnam, Watergate, Church committee hearings and offered a fresh alternative that was a nice blend of progressive values plus an authenticity associated with rural America. He was both a Southern Baptist and a nuclear engineer.

    His campaign focused not on what his accomplishments were, particularly his in the context of and hew deal, which was the touchstone for democrats for decades, but that he was untainted by the corruption of Washington.

    As president he faced a hard road as the Nixon inspired Fed policies increased the money supply, kicking the problem down the road for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to deal with. Add in a second Arab oil embargo, Soviet aggression and the ill-advised, failed military rescue mission in Iran, Carter had major league challenges.

    To his credit, he chose Paul Volker as his Federal Reserve chairman with the understanding that Volker would choke the money supply and kill inflation. Of course, Carters reelection campaign was also a casualty as conservatives smelled blood in the water.

    I think Mr. Balmer’s book could add another piece to the puzzle explaining the origins and early years of the alliance between the republican party and the religious right. I look forward to reading it.

  • TheRealReginaPhalange

    You think the first African American president is DELIBERATELY intending to be the most racially divisive politician in memory? What exactly has he done to perpetuate racial divide? Or are you confusing his actions with those of the religious right/tea party and their near-lunatic rantings? Is he the one demanding other politicians show their birth certificates to ‘prove’ they were born in the US? Is he the one insinuating that other politicians are not who they claim to be? Has he spread rumors about other politicians’ parentage, particularly their fathers to imply that they are tied to a certain movements?

  • oh2props

    True students of Baptist fundamentalism and how it morphed into today’s tea party will give serious scrutiny to Thomas Powers wonderful review of Texas Baptist fundamentalism, easy google for nybooks.com, the Oct 9 issue. But online is just a teaser; you have to find the print issue for the full monty, and it is worth it.

  • RetroPam

    The Religious Right wanted a Pharisee in 1976, and got a Christian instead.

  • RetroPam

    You don’t believe one word of that.

  • fiona64

    Wow. Talk about revisionist history: back away from David Barton.

    You clearly do not understand the sea change that happened in the parties, and you need to do some reading by actual historians.

  • fiona64

    Exactly. It wasn’t about the parties at all; it was about the racism that was part and parcel of Southern culture (and, sadly, still is in many ways).

  • fiona64

    Perhaps you are just unable to comprehend why his views are, in fact, correct …