Randall Balmer Spends an Afternoon With Jimmy Carter

Religion & Politics is running a piece by Randall Balmer describing a Sunday he spent with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter while conducting research for his new book Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.  Here is a taste:

In the course of our interview in the pastor’s study, after church and photographs on the side lawn, Carter declared himself “honored” to be numbered among such progressive evangelicals as Charles Grandison Finney and William Jennings Bryan. Mark Hatfield, he said, “was a kind of hero of mine.” Carter characterized Hatfield as “a genuinely devout believer in Christ who sought to put Christ’s teachings into practice.” Carter also acknowledged that his own defeat in 1980 followed by Hatfield’s retirement from the Senate in 1997 had left a void, at least among elected officials. Carter lamented the “new definition” of evangelicalism that had taken hold, one associated with “rightwing Christianity.” He recalled hearing about Jerry Falwell “giving me a hard time” in 1976, but his was just a lonely voice at the time; Falwell and his associates, however, “had remarkable success in four years in making that a driving force in American political history.” When did the president have a sense of the gathering storm as he prepared for reelection? Carter remembered that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, “told me that there was a stirring of animosity toward me because of some of the moderate positions I had taken on human rights and so forth and that they thought I had betrayed their own definition of Christianity. But I didn’t really see it as a serious thing until the altercation arose in the Southern Baptist Convention.” After the conservative takeover in 1979, he said, he began to recognize the ramifications of the evangelical shift away from progressive evangelicalism.

See our interview with Balmer here.  For more coverage of the book at The Way of Improvement Leads Home click here and here.

Molly Worthen On Jimmy Carter

Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina reviews two new books on Jimmy Carter.  One of them is actually written by Carter.  

They are: Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.

Here is a taste:

In the early 1970s, the Christian right was not yet the political juggernaut it would become. Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell were still wondering if activism was compatible with the Gospel. But then Paul Weyrich, a Catholic from Wisconsin who had been trying to organize conservative Christians since the Goldwater campaign, struck political gold when the I.R.S. revoked the tax exemption of whites-only Christian “segregation academies.” Conservative evangelicals felt victimized by court decisions and new regulations that policed their private schools — and they blamed the evangelical in the White House. The call to defend “religious liberty,” not the legalization of abortion, first summoned them to politics.

“Weyrich finally had discovered the issue that would persuade evangelical leaders of the importance of political activism: defense of racial segregation, albeit framed as a defense of religious expression,” Balmer writes. For all of Carter’s personal piety, he was out of touch with his fellow believers’ rightward tilt. In 1980, televangelists mobilized their media empires in the Republican cause. Balmer charges that the culturally conservative, fiscally libertarian platform of the Christian right “bore scant resemblance to evangelical activism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

In April we interviewed Balmer as part of our “Author’s Corner” series.  Check it out here.

The New "Books and Culture" is Here

I just got my copy in the mail today.  I immediately read the following two reviews:

Eric Miller’s review of Peter Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now.  Miller writes:

However [John] Winthrop may hover over Hales’ story, his own vision and hope are most decisively inspired by the classic Emersonian ideals: the spontaneous discovery of an inward connection to a greater reality; a harmonic convergence of self and society; above all, a religious confidence that The Self Knows, and that our true enemy is the enemy of the self.  Will these ideals be enough to save us from the mighty surges of history Hales with such acuity uncovers?  Many of us, still poised at that watchtower, listening to that howling wind, find ourselves looking for rescue from another direction.  Still: Read this book

Todd Ream and Drew Moser’s review of Randall Balmer’s Redeemer; The Life of Jimmy Carter. Ream and Moser write:

Redeemer is a biography of Jimmy Carter that has little to do with Jimmy Carter in critical places. As the story advances, it reads at times more like an account of the rise of the Moral Majority in evangelical America, with Carter cast as an almost accidental antagonist.  The book’s epigraph sketches its narrative and theological arc and its fundamentally ironic perspective: He came unto his own, and his own received him not, John 1:11 (King James Version).”  But Balmer’s irony isn’t calculated to elicit cheap sneers; it grows out of the tangle of American history.  And if his book isn’t entirely satisfying as a biography, he does succeed–in contrast to previous biographers–in rightly portraying Jimmy Carter’s Christianity as the driving force behind his political and personal life

We did an interview with Balmer last week about this book.

I am sure these reviews will appear soon on the B&C website.  Stay tuned.

I should also add that there is an ad on page 18 for the 29th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held on September 25-27 at Pepperdine University.  Learn more about the conference here.  Though the ad does not provide details, and the conference program has not been released, I can spill some of the beans and let you know that the following historians/authors/friends of this blog will be speaking in various capacities over the course of the weekend: Charles Marsh, Daniel Williams, Lendol Calder, Allen Guelzo, John Wigger, Jim LaGrand, Colleen McDannel, Thomas Albert Howard, Margaret Bendroth, Beth Barton Schweiger, Jay Case, Eric Miller, Chris Gehrz, Jonathan Den Hartog, Timothy Hall, Christopher Shannon, Darren Dochuk, Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, David Bebbington, Shirley Mullen, Jana Riess, Mike Kugler, Randall Stephens, Ed Blum, Randall Balmer, Jonathan Yeager, Bill Trollinger, Tracy McKenzie, Brad Gundlach, Warren Throckmorton, Paul Contino, John Wilson, Don Yerxa, and Wilfred McClay.

See you in Malibu.

The Author’s Corner with Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences and Chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (Basic Books, May 2014).

JF: What led you to write Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: 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.

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.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: Redeemer argues that Jimmy Carter rode to the presidency on the twin currents of his reputation as a “New South” governor and a brief recrudescence of progressive evangelicalism as articulated in the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. As president, he sought to govern by those lights—and was, to a remarkable degree, successful in doing so—although many of the same evangelicals who supported him in 1976 turned rabidly against him four years later.

JF: Why do we need to read Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: Redeemer is the first biography of the thirty-ninth president of the United States to take his faith seriously as a way of understanding Carter and the religiously turbulent times in which he lived.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RB: The short answer is that I was profoundly influenced by two historians at Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: Douglas Frank and John D. Woodbridge, respectively, both of who remain friends to this day. For the longer answer, I’d have to take you along on automobile trips we took as a family when I was growing up as a preacher’s kid. My father, a pastor for forty years in the Evangelical Free Church, would plan our vacations around the denomination’s annual conference at different venues throughout North America. In mid-June every summer, we would pile into the family sedan (my father despised station wagons) and head off from southern Minnesota to Denver or Wisconsin or from Bay City, Michigan, to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, for the annual conference. In 1970, I recall, the sedan carried my parents and all five sons, pulling a travel trailer from Des Moines across the Rockies to Seattle and back. I loved those trips. I would look out the window and watch the landscape scrolling by hour after hour. I became enchanted with America and all of its regional diversity.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: 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 will release 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’m planning to collaborate with my son, Christian, on a film documentary about Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. Finally, my wife, the estimable Catharine Randall, and I are working on a biography of a fascinating turn-of-the-twentieth-century Canadian woman who was a spiritualist, a journalist, a labor organizer, a women’s rights activist, an entrepreneur, an environmentalist, and a fan of Walt Whitman.

JF: Thanks Randall!

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner

Jimmy Carter on Religion and Politics

When it comes to the relationship between church and state, Jimmy Carter is a true Baptist.

A snippet from the Salt Lake City Tribune:

For a man who evangelized foreign leaders and taught Sunday school while U.S. president, Jimmy Carter has some strong words for what he sees as an “excessive melding of religion and politics.”

And it began, he said, with the denomination he called home for more than seven decades: the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It’s now metastasized to other religions, where an actual affiliation between the denomination and the more conservative elements of the Republican Party is almost official,” Carter said during a stop here to promote his new book, “White House Diary.”

“There are pastors openly calling for members to vote a certain way,” the 86-year-old ex-president said. “That’s a serious breakdown in the principle of separation of church and state.”

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, left the Southern Baptists in 2000 after the denomination’s long shift toward conservative politics and new doctrinal statements that are, in Carter’s view, more creed-based and anti-woman. But the couple remain Baptists and worship at Maranatha Baptist Church when they are home in Plains, Ga.

Though Carter criticizes conservative Christians’ influence on politics, he argues religions and religious people have a right — and a duty — to speak up on moral issues.

“It’s completely legitimate for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Baptists or Methodists or Catholics or anyone else to express the views of their particular faith, even when it’s an opinion about prospective legislation,” he said. “The Mormons have a perfect right to express their views against gay marriage.”

The U.S. Constitution simply says states cannot establish religion, he said. It does not silence religious voices…

Carter’s "Malaise" Speech

Today is the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech (referred to by many as the “malaise speech” despite the fact that Carter did not use the “m” word in the speech).

In 1979 the United States was in crisis. Gas lines were long, interest rates were high, and the country was defined by a decadence and narcissism that was seen most clearly in the disco culture of New York’s “Studio 54.” Jimmy Carter’s popularity was at an all- time low. On July 15th Carter told the American people that sacrifice was needed. He spoke with a Niebuhrian sense of realism and human limitation and chided Americans for their “worship” of “self-indulgence and consumption.” Carter wanted Americans to see that the nation had problems that ran far deeper than the energy crisis. He urged them to consider a form of happiness and human flourishing that did not require the piling up of material goods. It was a speech unlike any other. It was a reflection on the American condition.

The commentary on the thirtieth anniversary of the speech has been mixed. Gordon Stewart, one of the speech’s co-authors, reflects on the events surrounding the speech. He concludes that Carter “insisted on the realities of responsibility and the need for radical change.” Marty Peretz says that the speech was “pathetic.” Damon Linker describes it as Carter’s “kick me” sign. Chris Matthews thinks Carter was “dead on.”

To commemorate the anniversary of the speech, I took a break from early America and read Kevin Mattson’s excellent narrative history of the speech: What the Heck Are You Up to Mr. President: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. Instead of listening to blogging pundits like Linker or Peretz who thoughtlessly rant about the speech from their own political point of view, read Mattson’s book for a sustained analysis of the speech and its meaning. Mattson argues that Carter’s speech was a success.
Positive letters and phone calls poured into the White House in the days following the speech. Carter’s approval ratings went up 11% on July 16th. The speech could very well have changed the nation if Carter had not undermined the success of the speech by firing his cabinet several days later. According to Mattson, “Americans might have been able to take a tough speech about the state of their country and the energy crisis, but they couldn’t take a complete shakedown of the government at the same time.”

The speech has received largely negative criticism because it was used as a foil for Carter’s political opponents. The speech’s call for sacrifice and limits ran counter to Ted Kennedy’s liberal optimism and Ronald Reagan’s conservative optimism. As Mattson writes: “Our memory of the speech comes from those who reworked it, who twisted its words into a blunt instrument that helped them depose a president.” Mattson notes how Reagan used the speech to his political advantage, defending a political philosophy that offered “the right to dream ‘heroic dreams’ without sacrifice.” While Carter talked about the “fallibility” of America, Reagan believed that “fallibility only meant defeatism.” “There was no place in his world,” Mattson writes, “for sin or self-inquisition.” Reagan’s promised “a combination of guttural self-interest mixed with a utopian vision of the future,” a vision “that Carter could never offer…”

In the end, Mattson’s Carter is not a very good politician. Carter tended to side with cultural critics such as Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Reinhold Niebuhr (Bell and Lasch were consulted prior to the speech) in the belief that the problems facing civil society could not be solved by government or politics. Such an approach to culture does not usually win elections. The American people were not ready for this kind of message and, frankly, they never have been or will be. While the “malaise speech” did not help him win re-election in 1980, it did teach Carter that true change must happen on the ground. As Mattson shows, Carter lived out his ideas in this speech through the multitude of service projects and civic programs he participated in and sponsored after he left office.

Carter’s speech will remain one of the best presidential speeches in American history because of the courage it took to deliver it. Carter may not have been a great president, but this was a great speech–an exercise in truth-telling. Mattson is right–it could have changed America. Perhaps it still can.