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A President’s Faith

Dartmouth Religion Professor Assesses Jimmy Carter

  • Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, sits in the college's Rollins Chapel in Hanover,  N.H., on June 4, 2014. Balmer, has recently written "Redeemer," a biography of Jimmy Carter. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, sits in the college's Rollins Chapel in Hanover, N.H., on June 4, 2014. Balmer, has recently written "Redeemer," a biography of Jimmy Carter.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

  • Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter waves to a crowd in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 12, 1974 where he announced officiallyhis candidacy for presidenct. Carter promised to “restore integrity, confidence and businesslike management to the federal government.”  (AP Photo/BJ)

    Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter waves to a crowd in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 12, 1974 where he announced officiallyhis candidacy for presidenct. Carter promised to “restore integrity, confidence and businesslike management to the federal government.” (AP Photo/BJ)

  • Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, sits in the college's Rollins Chapel in Hanover,  N.H., on June 4, 2014. Balmer, has recently written "Redeemer," a biography of Jimmy Carter. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter waves to a crowd in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 12, 1974 where he announced officiallyhis candidacy for presidenct. Carter promised to “restore integrity, confidence and businesslike management to the federal government.”  (AP Photo/BJ)

In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency on a wave of public disillusionment with government. After Watergate, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, and the Vietnam War ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. The economy was tepid, and the national mood uneasy, anxious and cynical.

And here came an unorthodox, cerebral politician from the small town of Plains, Ga., who seemed to embody moral probity, a Southerner who disavowed the institutional racism of the Old South; a governor with a reputation for competence, a teller of hard truths and an unabashed Christian, very comfortable and public in his faith.

He promised to run an administration that would be the antithesis of Nixon’s imperial presidency and Ford’s caricatured bumbling. After the inauguration, in a gesture of openness, he and his wife , Rosalyn, walked hand in hand down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House rather than ride in the presidential limousine.

Four years later Carter was gone, beaten handily by Ronald Reagan. He’d become a prisoner of circumstance, most notably the capture and imprisonment of 52 Americans by hard-l ine clerics in Iran, a crisis that consumed the second half of his presidency.

In Redeemer , a new biography of Carter, Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, examines Carter’s path to the presidency and the stunning speed with which he went from an almost complete unknown outside Georgia to capturing the public imagination, and the Democratic nomination.

Published by Basic Books, Redeemer also scrutinizes the role that evangelicals played in Carter’s 1976 win and 1980 defeat, as well as Carter’s life after the presidency, a widely admired record of accomplishments that led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Carter’s presidency, which was widely viewed as an almost complete failure in the years after his defeat, has, in recent years, undergone reevaluation by historians.

“He did have some significant accomplishments for which he gets very little or no credit,” Balmer said in an interview at the college, where he’s been a full - time professor since 2012; he came to the college after a 27-year teaching career at Columbia University in New York and stints as a visiting professor at Dartmouth, as well as at other universities.

Balmer’s second book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America , was made into an award-winning, three-part documentary for PBS that Balmer wrote and hosted. He also made a documentary on Billy Graham, the American evangelical leader. He is also a contributor to this newspaper’s Perspectives page.

Among Carter’s achievements were his renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty, turning it over to the Panamanians for administration and thereby mitigating some of the distrust that Latin America bore the Colossus to the North, his early recognition of the importance of a coherent energy policy and his environmental record in conserving lands for posterity. He also recognized, earlier than most politicians, the need for health care and tax reform.

And prior to his presidency, Balmer said, one of Carter’s most “significant accomplishment(s) was beating (George) Wallace (in the Democratic primary) in 1976. He rid the Democratic party and the nation of its most pugnacious segregationist.”

Among the widely-held assumptions that Balmer debunks in the book is that the issue of abortion has always been a litmus test for conservative, right-wing evangelicals. The pervasive story is that after the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, conservative evangelicals seized on it as the issue that united them in opposition and forced them into action.

In fact, said Balmer, the issue that overwhelmingly brought evangelicals together was opposition to the 1971 ruling in Green v. Connally , in which the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that racially discriminatory private schools were not eligible for federal tax exemption.

The decision affected numerous evangelical colleges and universities, like Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which practiced segregation. Religious colleges and universities were angered by federal intrusion into their affairs, seeing it as an assault on religious liberty, and used the decision to rally evangelicals to political activism.

Balmer, who grew up in the Midwest the son of an evangelical minister, said that he had long been “suspicious of the abortion myth.”

“I remember nothing whatsoever about abortion being of concern, it was considered a Catholic issue. It was not by any means a litmus issue until 1979 when it began to emerge.”

Right wing evangelicals interested in wielding political power saw abortion as a wedge issue to galvanize voters. And Carter had always declared abortion to be morally abhorrent to him, although he also stipulated that he wouldn’t necessarily impose his personal view of abortion on the American people as a whole.

So when Carter, a self-proclaimed Born Again Christian, ran for the presidency, evangelicals embraced him as a man they could trust and work with. Balmer said that Carter’s rise to national prominence moved and excited them.

Here was a man whose language of faith and belief in Christ as the ultimate guide was one they understood. Until then, to grow up as an evangelical or Born Again Christian was very much like being in a “private little world. It was possible to grow up within that world ... and have very little commerce with anyone outside that world.”

The Carter that Balmer describes is not always “an easy person. He can be self-righteous and impatient.”

His formidable intellect could shade into arrogance, and although Carter claimed the mantle of Christian righteousness, his 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia was, Balmer said, “tawdry.”

Ferociously intent on winning, Carter ran against his opponent in the primary, Carl Sanders, by insinuating he was in the pocket of moneyed influence, and by painting him as a candidate sympathetic to African Americans who would advance their interests.

Carter went so far as to seek the endorsement of a man who had consistently promulgated segregation in his role as president during the 1960s of the Citizens Councils of America, which was the umbrella organization in Georgia for local chapters of the White Citizens Council, a racist organization. Ironically, Carter had declined membership in his local White Citizens Council when it came calling in Plains, but when a political victory was at stake, he went after their votes.

Balmer, who said he’d gone into researching the biography rather wide-eyed and idealistic about Carter, came out viewing him as a more flawed, human man.

On the other hand, for a president to declare, after Watergate, that he would never lie to Americans was, Balmer said, “a huge thing.” And it resonated. “I don’t think he would have been elected without his faith or without the preceding Nixon presidency.”

The title Redeemer works on a number of levels, Balmer said. Carter came into office offering a measure of redemption for the sins of a corrupt presidency and a long, divisive war.

Although he was later mocked for wearing a cardigan sweater during a White House television appearance early in his administration, after turning down the White House thermostat to symbolize American dependence on foreign oil, his apprehension that a credible, sustainable energy policy was at the heart of this country’s future was prescient.

And although he was criticized roundly for his stark assessment of the national mood in a 1979 televised speech, that speech, 35 years later, seems uncannily germane to a country now struggling to rebound from a devastating recession and its own crisis of confidence in the American Dream.

“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” Carter said. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

After losing in 1980, Carter “could have sulked away, and gone back to Plains,” Balmer said. “But he sought to redeem himself through good works.”

And although Carter, Balmer said, is irritated by assumptions that his accomplishments post-presidency are more significant than his accomplishments in office, there’s no question that his record after 1980 has been “remarkable.”

Under the former president’s direction, the Carter Center in Atlanta, founded in 1982, has monitored elections worldwide, worked to eradicate disease in the developing world and addressed human rights abuses. Carter has also mediated international conflicts — a development not always welcomed by the American president in office, as Carter isn’t shy about prescribing solutions that aren’t always in synch with the official American foreign policy line.

“He’s his own person. ... He’s willing to stand up to people in his own party and even presidents. One of the reasons he’s been more effective as an ex-president is he was free of constraints,” Balmer said.

To measure how far the political scene in this country has devolved, with an exceptionally rancorous Congress, could or would a politician say in plain terms to the country now that he would always speak the truth, and be believed? Balmer raises his eyebrows and shrugs.

The answer is self-evident.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.