Faith, Hope, and...
Evangelicals in America.
Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
Faith in the Halls of Power
Up until college, I hadn't met a single evangelical. Growing up in Baltimore and attending a Quaker school, I seemed to meet only liberal Jews and nominal Christians. But Princeton was overflowing with evangelicals. They were at my residential college, in my section of the orchestra, even on my football team.
How strange, I thought, that I'd never even heard of them. Now, thanks to the 2004 election, we all know about them. Or at least we think we do. But reality, and what the media choose to report, are two different things. Most recent books written about evangelicals feature gross politicization, partisan agendas, and at their worst, antireligious bigotry: Evangelicals are fascists, want a theocracy, and psychologically abuse their children.
D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice, knows this isn't the real story, and Faith in the Halls of Power tries to paint a fuller picture. The result is a remarkably balanced look at what Lindsay describes as "the most discussed but least understood group in America today." Combining academic rigor with flowing prose, Lindsay presents the fruits of over 10 years of research on elite evangelicals, including unprecedented interviews with 360 of them, among them two former presidents. Lindsay lets these leading evangelicals speak for themselves, but he also points out their inconsistencies and omissions.
Far from the stereotypical lower-class hick, evangelicals make their way in the Ivy League and Major League Baseball, on Wall Street and K Street. And their rise is intentional. Evangelicals have long desired platforms to spread the Gospel, to shape culture, and to gain legitimacy among the nation's elite. To achieve this, they created countless institutions dedicated to producing the next generation of leaders. As Lindsay describes their impressive networks of development, we quickly understand how evangelicals went from the religious ghetto to civic prestige in just one generation. Yet much of this increased prominence is due to adult conversions, one-on-one friendships, and an array of elite support groups. Lindsay documents typical evangelical pathways, from getaway weekends at exclusive resorts to Bible studies on Capitol Hill.
Of course, evangelicals are a notoriously hard group to define, but the hallmarks include accepting Jesus as one's lord and savior, fostering a personal relationship with God, viewing the Bible as divinely inspired, and leading others to Christ. Evangelical Christianity is self-consciously not Sunday-only or otherwise compartmentalized; Lindsay notes that there is an "evangelical imperative to bring faith into every sphere of one's life." As a result, evangelicals face unique challenges along their ascent in the largely secular worlds of politics, academics, entertainment, and business (the four arenas documented here). Unwilling to "expunge faith from the way they lead," evangelicals want Christianity to influence all aspects of American life.
Not surprisingly, the evangelical elite are in tension with both the evangelical mainstream and the secular elite. Most pastors and worshippers fail to realize that the elites are trying to lead lives of biblical faithfulness while also attaining the highest levels of success in secular domains. As a result, most elite evangelicals feel alienated from their local churches and can find fellowship only in parachurch organizations dedicated to their unique needs. And they do have unique needs. Evangelical elites describe the careful balances they seek while navigating the waters of power, money, fame, and status--balances that many of their secular colleagues find downright odd (passing on visits to strip clubs, for example, or choosing to live in modest homes). And because evangelical Christianity is so misunderstood and disparaged by secular leaders, Lindsay finds some evangelicals compare themselves to homosexuals, having to go through a "coming-out" stage.
As a result, many elite evangelicals self-consciously reject the evangelical ghetto and eschew the media parody that evangelicals are only conservative anti-abortion, anti-gay activists. Their broad political agenda includes environmental protection, human-rights campaigns, and Third World humanitarian interventions. Those who attempt to define evangelicals in political categories fail to understand them as they understand themselves: Religion is primary; all else is secondary.