In his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, author and Episcopal priest Randall Balmer discusses the former President’s religious faith in context with his life story. Previous biographies have taken a more authoritative approach, but this one has a very different intent. The book shows Carter first and foremost as a man of God, revealing the strongly religious motivations behind every significant decision. Balmer’s portrayal is sympathetic, though not sycophantic, as he clearly identifies with his subject’s Progressive Evangelical beliefs.
Though Carter’s born-again Christianity made many Americans uncomfortable in the late Seventies, these views were rooted in a very different tradition than some might have feared. Since leaving office in 1981, the former Georgia governor has revealed himself to be an unapologetic liberal, willing to take stances he might have been reluctant to embrace earlier. Since the election of Ronald Reagan, the word Evangelical has become associated with a strongly conservative political leaning, but as Balmer shows, this is a relatively recent construct.
Progressive Evangelicals like Carter were never a rare breed, though in recent times we have forgotten that fact. Once, born-again Christians took an isolationist approach to politics and policy, fearing being unduly influenced by a corrupt, immoral society. Evangelicals turned out in droves in the 1976 Presidential election partially out of novelty, finally casting their votes for one of their own. Only four year later, however, they completely abandoned an unpopular Chief Executive and supported his opponent instead. Though its impact would only be felt later, this was the beginning of the so-called Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and a strong association between Christianity and the Republican party.
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 American, also took its warrant from the New Testament, especially the words of Jesus.
Jesus even said that those who refuse to show compassion “will go away to eternal punishment,” whereas the righteous will inherit eternal life.Believers in a more liberal interpretation of Scripture may have become less prominent in the past three decades, but they have never completely died out. Balmer hopes to reinvigorate the Religious Left, no small task among many progressives, who have in recent years grown skeptical of organized religion. In that respect, he has added his voice to the few, but decidedly vocal purveyors of liberal Christianity.
The book discusses one such facet to Carter's religious beliefs. His official policy on abortion was that he was personally opposed, but did not have any right or authority to reverse established precedent. As a Southern Baptist, he was raised to believe in a strict and unwavering separation between church and state. Conservative Christians hold no such distinction, believing it is their duty to intercede directly into shaping policy, even in defiance of the rule of law. To this day, this is an opinion to which they hold fast, one that has recently led to fruitless attempts to repeal Obamacare and overturn Roe v. Wade on the state level.
In our increasingly noisy national discourse, Progressive Evangelicalism fights for oxygen. It resents being mischaracterized, while recognizing that it is not a large enough target to draw fire. Many Americans might find they have much in common with the movement, if they can put aside their judgments for long enough to be fully enlightened. President Carter’s conduct after leaving office, as a private citizen, has shown that it is indeed possible to use the language of the Christian church in combination with a traditionally progressive concern for the underprivileged.
It remains to be seen if we truly have moved to a Post-Christian society, where all we have left are shadows of former rituals and beliefs. The Right holds stubbornly fast to a reductionist view, one that is as political as it is theological. The Left is more reluctant to mix the two, or to vocalize the conflict between private convictions and public display. In order to co-exist with a dramatically different interpretation of religion, every believer must not, as it is written, allow his or her light to shine under a bushel. Instead, they should let their light shine for everyone to see.