Monday, April 21, 2014

The Author's Corner with Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences and Chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (Basic Books, May 2014).

JF: What led you to write Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Deerfield, when Jimmy Carter emerged onto the national stage. Like many evangelicals, especially those reared within the evangelical subculture, I was astonished to hear a politician speak unapologetically about being a “born again” Christian. It was a bracing moment, especially for someone who was considering a bid for elective office someday (I actually ran for a seat in the Connecticut legislature in 2004). Mark Hatfield was a hero of mine, of course, especially because of his advocacy for progressive evangelicalism, and I served as an intern for John B. Anderson and the House Republican Conference in 1975. But Carter’s boldness about his faith made a deep impression on me.

It’s axiomatic among historians that history is written by victors, but I’ve always been drawn to the underside of those triumphalist narratives. My first book was an account of the Dutch Reformed Church in the decades following the English Conquest of New Netherland in 1664, and when I first started writing about evangelicalism, evangelicals were hardly culturally ascendant, although they were beginning to make a bid for cultural and political power.

Jimmy Carter, following his bruising political defeat in 1980, is not generally seen as a victor, although his activities since leaving the White House have burnished his reputation considerably. But I’ve always been drawn to his story, replete as it is with the evangelical tropes of striving, success, failure, and redemption. In purely historical terms, the narrative is quite remarkable—coming out of political obscurity to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency in 1976 with his grassroots campaign. In doing so, by the way, he rid his party—and the nation—of its most notorious segregationist, George C. Wallace of Alabama, by beating Wallace in the Florida Democratic primary. I don’t think that Carter has ever received sufficient credit for that.

I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

Even with all of this research, the book itself remained elusive. I remember that I sat down at Thanksgiving 2012 and considered seriously the possibility of abandoning the project altogether. After a bit more dithering, I simply started writing; an entire draft emerged about six weeks later. Writing is how I think.


JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: Redeemer argues that Jimmy Carter rode to the presidency on the twin currents of his reputation as a “New South” governor and a brief recrudescence of progressive evangelicalism as articulated in the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. As president, he sought to govern by those lights—and was, to a remarkable degree, successful in doing so—although many of the same evangelicals who supported him in 1976 turned rabidly against him four years later.

JF: Why do we need to read Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter?

RB: Redeemer is the first biography of the thirty-ninth president of the United States to take his faith seriously as a way of understanding Carter and the religiously turbulent times in which he lived.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RB: The short answer is that I was profoundly influenced by two historians at Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: Douglas Frank and John D. Woodbridge, respectively, both of who remain friends to this day. For the longer answer, I’d have to take you along on automobile trips we took as a family when I was growing up as a preacher’s kid. My father, a pastor for forty years in the Evangelical Free Church, would plan our vacations around the denomination’s annual conference at different venues throughout North America. In mid-June every summer, we would pile into the family sedan (my father despised station wagons) and head off from southern Minnesota to Denver or Wisconsin or from Bay City, Michigan, to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, for the annual conference. In 1970, I recall, the sedan carried my parents and all five sons, pulling a travel trailer from Des Moines across the Rockies to Seattle and back. I loved those trips. I would look out the window and watch the landscape scrolling by hour after hour. I became enchanted with America and all of its regional diversity.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: Twenty-five years ago, I published a book entitled Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. This summer (2014), Oxford University Press will release the fifth edition of that book, with a new chapter (Latino evangelicals) and an afterword that provides an update on many of the people and the places I wrote about in the previous editions. Beyond that, I’m planning to collaborate with my son, Christian, on a film documentary about Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. Finally, my wife, the estimable Catharine Randall, and I are working on a biography of a fascinating turn-of-the-twentieth-century Canadian woman who was a spiritualist, a journalist, a labor organizer, a women’s rights activist, an entrepreneur, an environmentalist, and a fan of Walt Whitman.

JF: Thanks Randall!

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author's Corner

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