Last week, after President Jimmy Carter announced that he will undergo treatment for brain cancer, admirers traveled for miles to attend his Sunday school class in Plains, Georgia. The former president and long-time Southern Baptist taught about forgiveness and peace in his class, and took photographs with everyone who had traveled to see him. He was, in other words, much as he always has been: a progressive Evangelical with a warm and patient presence, the president charged with the task of restoring dignity and integrity to the White House following the cynicism-inducing administrations of presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Did Carter succeed in undoing American cynicism about politics? Despite his best efforts, and the public’s general respect for him as a person, it seems the project was always doomed. Can the same be said about the tradition he represents? For the Evangelical left, once a substantial contingent of American life, is now seemingly small and powerless compared to its rightwing counterpart.
“I sometimes argue that Jimmy Carter is the last progressive Evangelical,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religious studies at Dartmouth and author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.