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‘Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter’

by Randall Balmer

Basic Books, 273 pp., $27.99

There were times during his presidency when Jimmy Carter came across like a kid dancing in his big brother’s hand-me-down suit, tripping on his own cuffs and becoming more lost in the expanse of fabric the more he tried to sway gracefully to the music. Since leaving office, however, he has grown into a suit of his own, one he wears with dignity and that seems barely capacious enough to contain his magnanimity.

In “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter,” Dartmouth professor and religion historian Randall Balmer argues convincingly that our 39th president is, in the most important ways, the same man he always was, even if his true character wasn’t always apparent as he stumbled across the world stage in a single term that was marked, as Balmer enumerates, by an oil embargo, recession, inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. Now, as then, Carter is “a restless man, consumed by a kind of frenetic benevolence.”

Balmer’s big contribution to our understanding of the man from Plains is in showing how his evangelical convictions both helped put him into office and helped precipitate his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter, we learn, “embodied a particular, activist strain of evangelicalism called progressive evangelicalism,” a movement that “interpreted prophetic calls for justice as a mandate for racial reconciliation and gender equality.” At first, even the more socially-conservative factions heard their own convictions in Carter’s description of himself as “born again.” Many who had sat out elections, convinced that they had no role to play in “social amelioration” in a world from which they were soon to be whisked to heaven anyway, went to the polls for him in 1976. Although he never had the support of a majority of evangelicals, vastly more of them cast their votes for him than for any previous liberal — enough to make the difference.

It didn’t take long for disappointment to set in, followed by resentment. Although Carter’s openness and honesty were a relief from the dissembling of the Nixon White House, the landscape shifted faster than Carter could map it, much less find his way through it. One of many examples Balmer offers: When Carter took office, “evangelicals … by and large refused to see abortion as a defining issue … Abortion simply failed to gain traction.” Within a few years, however, abortion became a seismic force that opened deep chasms. Carter’s refusal to take a definitive stand in favor of prohibiting it left him on the wrong side of those new rifts, at least for political purposes.

The recovery period from his resounding defeat was brief. “There was work to be done — eradicating disease, monitoring elections, building houses, reprimanding dictators and obdurate politicians, teaching Sunday school, heading off military confrontations, ending hunger, making peace.” Not a bad agenda for a man who will soon be 90. The kid we made fun of for his sartorial gaffes looks pretty good these days.

Richard Wakefield’s latest book is “A Vertical Mile,” a poetry collection (Able Muse Press).