The Common Good

Jimmy Carter, “Progressive” Evangelicals, And The Religious Right

Date: October 27, 2013

Pepperdine University’s Washington, DC program honored the late U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) in a Senate conference room on October 22 with speaker Randall Balmer, historian of evangelicals, Episcopal priest and Chairman of Dartmouth College’s Religion Department. Balmer’s lecture examined the history of evangelicalism’s — both liberal and conservative — effect on former President Jimmy Carter’s political success and failures.

“How it is that the very [evangelical] people who helped catapult [Carter] to the White House in 1976 turned so drastically…rapidly against him four years later?” questioned Balmer, who is currently working on a book addressing Carter’s faith and the presidency.

Balmer explained that the impetus behind his book really began while he was in college shortly after Carter arrived on the national scene. “Here was someone who claimed to be a born-again Christian and isn’t ashamed to say so, which at that time was a rather new thing, at least for us evangelicals in the Midwest.”

Once, when the former President was asked about faith’s compatibility with politics, Balmer relayed that Carter responded, “I think every one of us in our own lives has inherit conflicts built in as we equate our Christian beliefs with our worldly responsibilities.”

Similarly, “In positioning himself for the presidential campaign, Carter frequently invoked the vocabulary of evangelicals. As a born-again Christian, he told reporters for the National Courier, ‘I don’t want anything that is not God’s will for my life.’”

Balmer continued: “Carter began his campaign for the presidency during the mid-70s under paradox and duplicities. Despite the fact that Carter had courted segregationists for his second and successful gubernatorial campaign, the media seized on Carter’s inauguration as a transitional moment for the South.”

During the same time that Carter was on the political rise, a revived emergence of “progressive” evangelicalism began to surface, due in part, to the “popular revulsion against Richard Nixon,” said Dr. Balmer.

Progressive evangelicals gathered over Thanksgiving weekend at the Chicago YMCA in 1973 to draft the Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. Among the attendees was Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Robert Weber, William and Ruth Bentley, John Howard Yoder and, somewhat reluctantly, the founding editor of Christianity Today, Carl F.H. Henry. The group gathered, Balmer said, “to emphasize social sins as vigorously as personal sins” to denounce the nation’s reliance on the military, the materialism of culture, racism, male domination and the lack of concern for the poor.