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.
But the quick rise to power for some has left them without sufficient resources. The lack of a distinctive evangelical tradition of scholarship, art, or social and political theory is a major hurdle that evangelicals need to overcome. Unlike Roman Catholics, evangelicals have little to draw on except the Bible. They don't have a robust theology, and the movement is too young (and, until recently, too isolated) to have many intellectual resources in any of the fields Lindsay addresses. Consider George W. Bush's oft-quoted statement that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher. This wasn't just a way to get votes. In a certain sense Bush was doing, and has done, what many evangelicals do: read government action directly off the pages of the Bible.
Of course, this is a problem for anyone who values limited government, enumerated powers, constitutionalist judges, or most of the other political values that the Western tradition has developed but which don't immediately tug on evangelical heartstrings. And while there is nothing wrong with a broad, biblically informed social vision, disaster can result when this vision is translated into a political vision of government action. Both right-leaning and left-leaning evangelicals play the translate-the-Bible-into-public-policy game, which increases the state's role and undervalues key aspects of constitutionalism, national defense, and market economies that are essential to free societies, though not prominent in Scripture.
But these political confusions pale in comparison to the spiritual maladies that become strikingly clear throughout Lindsay's study. Though he never mentions this phenomenon explicitly, Lindsay recounts numerous stories of evangelical leaders who seem to view much of life as only instrumentally valuable: Why lead a successful business, create movies or music, produce penetrating scholarship, or hold public office, except to acquire a platform to change culture and lead others to Christ?
This is a terribly stunted spiritual and moral outlook. It neglects the basic, intrinsic goodness of creation and human activity. From a traditional Christian perspective, God is pleased by work well done in any upright field, and not just as it's useful for winning converts. Christians can worship God and bring Him glory in their everyday activities. Certainly these can be the occasion for spreading the Gospel, but to see them primarily, or exclusively, as means for evangelism misses the central truth of Christianity: The Word became flesh so that all aspects of human life, not just formal religious behavior, could participate in the divine life.
These are challenges for future generations of evangelicals to take up. Those looking to understand the current generation, however, would do well to read D. Michael Lindsay, for he captures the complexities of evangelical life in a book that no one interested in the current state of American life can ignore.
As for me, though a Roman Catholic, I ended up participating in some evangelical activities at Princeton and formed many strong friendships. My professional life, too, has involved close work with a number of evangelicals. Though theological differences remain, I'm thankful for my evangelical friends. They've made me a better person, and a better Catholic.
Ryan T. Anderson, assistant editor at First Things, is a Phillips Foundation fellow and assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.