One of the reasons I was drawn to Jimmy Carter, first as an emerging national politician in the mid-1970s and then as a biographical subject decades later, was the similarity of our backgrounds. Both of us were reared in evangelical households, he in rural southwest Georgia and I in Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. We are both the oldest in our families: Carter had three younger siblings, and I have four younger brothers. We had “born-again” experiences at an early age, Carter at age 11 and me initially at, well, three years old—but that is another story.
Jimmy Carter rode to the White House in 1976 on the twin currents of his reputation as a “New South” governor and a resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the early 1970s. Progressive evangelicalism, which traces its lineage to 19th-century evangelicals and to the commands of Jesus to care for “the least of these,” represented a very different version of evangelical activism from that of the religious right.
Long before Sarah Palin met CPAC and the Duck Dynasty clan discovered A&E, George Gallup Jr. famously declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Subsequent commentators often pluralized “evangelical.” They might have done the same for “year,” too. In many years hence—1980, say, or 2004—it was 1976 all over again, to judge from the headlines. Those election years highlighted the Christian Right, a force that was not on Gallup’s radar screen back when Jimmy Carter was the prototypical evangelical in public life.
The years of the evangelicals were not only about campaign politics, however.
Holidays evoke moments of reflection. Americans just celebrated Memorial Day, a time to honor those who have fought and died in wars for the nation. Traditionally, people hold parades, gather in cemeteries and rally around monuments to fallen soldiers.
From a trip to Havana in the fall of 1980, I returned with two small statues of African female warriors, one with a machete, the other carrying a rifle. These were gifts from a government official who handed them to me after I stopped to admire them.