In Randall Balmer’s admirably succinct if thematically debatable biography, Jimmy Carter enters the White House in January 1977, three years after the resignation in disgrace of Richard M. Nixon, on a high if not downright inspiring note. “Carter represented a clean break with the recent past,” Balmer writes, “an opportunity to redeem the nation.” More than 100 pages later, in his concluding paragraph, Balmer returns to the theme, calling Carter “the man whose improbable election in 1976 redeemed the nation from the sins of Watergate.”
Like Carter, Balmer is a man of strong evangelical convictions — he teaches at Dartmouth, with an emphasis on American religious history — and he has framed this biography around the themes those convictions suggest. Inasmuch as Balmer is reasonably objective and unsentimental about Carter’s record as president, it would be unfair to say that he views Carter as a savior (a view that Carter himself probably would happily embrace), but there is a willingness here to accept Carter’s religiosity on its own terms, to make token acknowledgment of his “strain of self-righteousness” and “fierce competitiveness.” Balmar lays greatest emphasis on what he clearly views as the depth and sincerity of Carter’s beliefs and the degree to which those beliefs shaped his public and private lives, carrying on the cause of those “progressive evangelists [who] in the nineteenth century interpreted the prophetic calls for justice as a mandate for racial reconciliation and gender equality.”
Religion is a tricky business, never more so than when it gets mixed up with government. Although Balmer pays due respect to the argument that “religion functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power,” that “once a religious group panders after political influence, it loses its prophetic voice,” he does not convince me that Carter, either as governor of Georgia in the early 1970s or as president in the second half of that decade, really “understood that the Christian faith had flourished in the United States precisely because the government had stayed out of the religion business.”
To the contrary, Carter brought religion (religiosity, too) into the national government more directly and intensely than any president before him in the 20th century. He campaigned as a religious man, speaking repeatedly, openly and almost boastfully about his religious convictions, about the centrality of prayer to his daily life, about the joy he took in being “born again.” Balmer sees this as a redemptive response to the cynicism and venality of the Nixon years, and unquestionably there is some truth to that. But Carter made religion a campaign weapon as well as a private belief, which was not appreciably less calculating than Nixon’s disregard for the Constitution and the common decencies.
If Carter’s presidency was indeed redemptive, why is it that in the 31 / 2 decades since it ended, American politics has been plunged into one of the most bitterly partisan periods in the country’s history? Granting for the sake of argument Balmer’s apparent belief in the sincerity of Carter’s religious beliefs and his commitment to “progressive evangelism,” it remains that it was Carter who brought religion into the public arena and thus opened the way for others whose evangelical beliefs are the polar opposite of his own. Balmer would have us believe that the rise of the religious right was in large part due to the clever political manipulations of Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell and others, but it was Carter who made it possible for them to present themselves as a legitimate political opposition. If it is permissible to grant a political role to “progressive evangelism,” why is it any less legitimate to grant a similar role to those whose evangelism “emphasized free-market capitalism, paid scant attention to human rights or the plight of minorities, and asserted the importance of military might as resistance to communism”?
For the five cents that it’s worth, my own political views are far closer to Carter’s than to those who carry the banner of the religious right — I actually voted for him twice, though holding my nose the second time — and Balmer is right that there is more than a little to admire in the record of his brief presidency, but he was his own worst enemy: smug, self-righteous, sanctimonious, humorless, vindictive and exhibitionistic about his piety. He was too haughty and aloof to deal effectively with friends and foes in Congress — foreshadowing the presidency almost three decades later of Barack Obama — and he never understood how to talk to the American people, as made all too plain by his well-intentioned but tin-eared address to the nation in July 1979 about the “crisis of confidence” from which the country ostensibly was suffering.
It is quite true that since his involuntary departure from the presidency, Carter has acquitted himself well, not least because of the remarkable alliance he has struck with his purposeful wife, Rosalynn. Under the aegis of the Carter Center, which he established in Georgia, he has engineered a “transformation from the ashes of political annihilation in 1980 to elder statesman, world-renowned humanitarian, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.” He has not shied from publicizing his achievements in this post-presidential reincarnation, and he has inflicted upon the nation’s readers a long shelf of inspirational and self-congratulatory books, but this doubtless is no more harmful than spending one’s post-White House years on the golf course, and of course in writing all those books he has merely followed the example of the ever-inspirational Richard Nixon.
Balmer treats the details of Carter’s life succinctly and fairly. He gives due acknowledgment to the influence of Carter’s parents, in particular the “plucky feminism and indomitable spirit” of his mother, Lillian; to that of Hyman Rickover, the brilliant if eccentric and headstrong admiral under whom he served for a while in the Navy; and to that of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian whose maxim “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world” Carter earnestly if imperfectly sought to follow. Balmer does not whitewash the questionable presence in the White House of various members of the Georgia mafia who did not always encourage Carter’s better side. He is also far more honest than most journalists and historians have been about the baleful influence on 20th-century American politics of Billy Graham, who gave public lip service to political neutrality while clandestinely exercising his considerable (if unmerited) influence on behalf of candidates such as Nixon and Ronald Reagan who were much to his own taste.
Balmer does all of this handily enough, but he fails to accomplish his central premise, to convince us that Carter’s was a redemptive presidency. No doubt that is what Carter wanted it to be, and he campaigned in 1976 as the man capable by virtue of conviction and abilities of bringing about so desirable an end. He was done in, though, by various forces in the world and the nation that frustrated his best intentions, and he was done in as well by a personality too inflexible and arrogant to permit him to be a leader as well as a Sunday-school teacher and a scold. He brought religion into politics with a mixture of conviction and cynicism, and it boomeranged on him. Perhaps when his time at last arrives, he will pass triumphantly through the pearly gates, but the hunch here is that Saint Peter will have some hard questions for him.
The Life of Jimmy Carter
By Randall Balmer
Basic. 273 pp. $27.99