I’m really enjoying Randall Balmer’s biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. This semester I am going to be teaching a course on biographies and I’m halfway through this new one about the life of a truly impressive person. I say impressive not because he was President of the United States but mainly because of what he has done with his life following his quite inglorious defeat after just one term in office.
Carter is a Baptist and grew up in Plains, Georgia, where he still lives. His father was a farmer and local politician, and his mother was a nurse. They were active in the local church and very strongly committed to social justice. Carter’s mother was effectively a community nurse and cared for the local people without regard to their colour. This was extremely unusual in that time. So too was Mrs Carter’s feminism. Jimmy Carter grew up with black children as his playmates and friends and it was only when he went to school that he encountered the discrimination that so characterised the South. Jimmy also did not wear shoes till he was 6 years old—not because his family were so poor but basically because that was how things were on the farm and he didn’t consider that unusual either until he was teased for it at school.
I’d like to quote a few passages from the first parts of the book, which give some idea of Carter’s formation and basic life values. It is important to note that for a very long time there was presumed to be no influence of ‘religion’ in politics in the USA, notwithstanding the frequency with which all presidents say ‘God bless America’ and the words ‘In God we trust’ on their currency. What that presumption really meant was that everyone in office was a while Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The issue of ‘religion’ only came to the fore when Kennedy, a Catholic, was about to be elected President. Would his religion somehow influence his decision making as President? He said it would not. (As Tony Abbott once famously denied that his faith was entirely separate from political decision-making. I cannot comprehend such a claim. Surely one’s faith has ethical implications or it is worth nothing at all.)
Against this background, Balmer traces not only Jimmy Carter’s stance as an Evangelical—describing it as ‘progressive evangelicalism’—but also the rise of Evangelicalism as a political force and its alliance with fundamentalist movements which called themselves the Moral Majority and are now known as the Religious Right.
Carter’s father was both a committed Christian and a politician and it was well into his adult life that Jimmy Carter began to realise just how deeply that affected his father’s life. Jimmy Carter saw that his own faith was largely privatised and ‘internal’ by comparison. He too began to see the challenges of living that faith in terms of social justice. These challenges led him not only into a life of prayer but also deep study of the Bible, and to become a Sunday School teacher in his local Baptist church, a role he has continued all his days. Many of the things that shaped his presidency and the immense contribution he has made since (such as his engagement with Habitat for Humanity) arise from this biblical ethic.
Thus here is a quotation from Balmer describing Carter’s evangelicalism:
Jimmy Carter not only fit the definition of evangelical, he embodied a particular, activist strain of evangelicalism called progressive evangelicalism. Harking back to the Hebrew prophets, progressive evangelicals in the nineteenth century interpreted the prophetic calls for justice as a mandate for racial reconciliation and gender equality. Progressive evangelicalism, at one time the ascendant strain of evangelicalism in America, also took its warrant from the New Testament, especially the words of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus identified those who will inherit the kingdom of God as the peacemakers and those who cared for the poor and needy. (page xiv).
Balmer reports on listening to sound recordings of Carter teaching Sunday School:
… it wasn’t until I listened to recordings of his Sunday-school lessons at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, that I recognized how profoundly steeped he was in progressive evangelicalism. Here, both Carter’s conversance with the biblical texts and his asides, the depth of his understanding of evangelicalism became apparent. Identifying oneself as an evangelical, he declared in one of his lessons, entails more than claiming the label Christian. Instead, believers should emulate the life of Jesus, especially his example of “love and respect and concern” for others. “Let that be the primary evangelical capability that we exhibit”. (Pages xxv-xxvi)
This biography shows the profound influence of the man’s parents and their example, also of his sister who shared with him a little later in their development her own experiences of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and encouragement. Carter was also an avid student and read very widely in philosophy and theology, as well as in science and technology. He became a nuclear physicist, but later strongly committed to environmentalism he turned his interests to such things as solar energy.
There were some insights from his scholarship that affected him deeply. Quite a number of times Balmer refers to a maxim of Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.’
There are many exceptionally interesting elements in the story of how Carter campaigned for Presidency, in a time when there was great pressure to amend the constitution to prohibit abortion, and also to remove the Equal Rights Amendment. Carter resisted these pressures and yet gained the support of the wider evangelical movement. But during his term in office, those supporters turned against him as the ‘moral majority’ movement grew. We also see, in Balmer’s account, the way some prominent figures withdrew their support while publicly claiming to be with him. The later part of the story, which I will discuss in another post, relates how Carter was able to accept defeat in politics but see it fundamentally as an invitation to ‘redeem’ the situation in so many other ways. One might well say that beyond the constraints of office Carter was able to achieve far more for justice and peace, and indeed is still doing so. All that is possible because, like Mandela, he did not allow events to make him bitter. Rather he has drawn upon the foundations of his faith to continue in the steps of his redeemer.