People who came of political age after the 1970s may be surprised to learn that in the preceding decade or so, the religious affiliations of presidents were not front and center concerns. Carter changed that.
Having won office by -- honestly -- positioning himself as the moral alternative, Carter ran an administration that was earnest and often inept. He signed the treaty returning the Panama Canal to that country. He proclaimed fidelity to human rights concerns in foreign policy and sometimes even acted on this stance. He had a lot of bad luck, notably being in office when Iranian revolutionaries seized U.S. hostages in Tehran, tickling the national bellicosity.
And he ended up a victim not only of his own failures, of the ongoing distrust among labor and liberals for a culturally conservative southern president, but also of his own white evangelical kind, who were mobilized by far right activists. It is in telling this part of the Carter story that Balmer shines.
Weyrich found the issue that cut with Evangelical leaders in court decisions denying tax exempt status to institutions like Bob Jones University that practiced racial discrimination. Defending the right of their institutions to remain segregated moved them as nothing else had.
And so in 1979, conservatives ousted more moderate leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (Carter's denomination) and then in 1980 supported the Republican divorced Hollywood actor. Ronald Reagan launched his campaign from Philadelphia, MS where civil rights workers had been murdered, signaling to his sympathies to white segregationists. And most white Christian evangelicals are still running with the party of reaction.
Carter comes off in this telling as a lonely, admirable, individual -- one whose putative constituency perhaps never existed. Not rich, he had to rebuild his bankrupt peanut farm when he returned to Georgia. He chose to leave the local Baptist congregation that had been his home church and join another which was racially inclusive (though insolvent). There was always a cost to sticking with his convictions. Since leaving office, he's built houses with Habitat for Humanity and traveled the world on various peace missions, some of them somewhat fruitful. And through it all, he's taught Sunday school.