Writing in The Washington Post 15 years ago, the reporter Michael Weiskopf famously characterized evangelical Christians as “poor, uneducated and easy to command.” No doubt there are some evangelicals who fit that description, as there are some people like that in every segment of American society. But as D. Michael Lindsay shows in his impressively researched new book, during the past generation evangelicals have assumed positions of influence in politics, academia, culture and business. (They are also in the military, which he did not study systematically.)
The subtitle of Lindsay’s book, “How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite,” both states a fact and points to a problem: power is not only an opportunity to do good, but also a temptation to place one’s own aspirations ahead of God’s work. Have evangelicals transformed power, or has power transformed them? While Lindsay does not investigate this question as carefully as I would have liked, he does offer a fair amount of material that bears on it. On the one hand, evangelicals have had an important influence on both domestic and foreign policy. The domestic issues are familiar—abortion, family planning and public assistance for faith-based institutions, among others.
In foreign policy, evangelicals have taken the lead on such issues as religious liberty, sexual slavery and the genocide in Darfur. On the other hand, as Lindsay observes, “a calling to business means an acceptance of the capitalist system. Very few [evangelical business leaders] questioned the American economic system, and they often linked their ideas about the market to evangelical faith.” This can lead, he points out, to careerism and materialism at the expense of deeper values: “Among the most successful business leaders, I found that a tension exists between professional success and spiritual grounding.... Over the course of my interviews, I was struck by how rarely leaders mentioned the many biblical passages that speak against the pursuit of wealth.” Many evangelical executives have made their firms “faith-friendly”; but very few, it seems, have allowed faith to transform the purposes their firms pursue. Regarding capitalism, anyway, the historic gap between the positions of evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics remains wide.
In an interview conducted after the publication of this book, Lindsay, who teaches sociology at Rice University, reflected on another temptation of power—an elitism that threatens to separate evangelical leaders from the mainstream of their faith communities. The leaders are “cosmopolitan” rather than “populist,” more likely to spend the bulk of their time with nonevangelicals and less inclined to try to convert them. Evangelical leaders tend to spend time with one another in “parachurch” organizations such as World Vision and a somewhat shadowy Washington, D.C., organization called “the Fellowship.” They are less drawn to their local churches, in part because they do not feel close to congregants with less money, education and influence, and also because they do not believe that local pastors understand the world in which the leaders live. Some actively resent pastors who criticize individual and corporate greed. They do not accept the “eye of the needle” story as the true measure of their chance to reach heaven.
This thinking raises an important distinction: the individuals whose rise to prominence Lindsay chronicles are leaders from the evangelical community but not necessarily leaders of that community. As recent events have made clear, the evangelical agenda is widening in ways that are proving divisive. As the National Association of Evangelicals has identified environmental stewardship and global climate change as issues of Christian concern, established evangelical organizations have sharply rebuked the N.A.E. for allegedly diverting attention from “core” questions such as abortion and gay marriage. Mike Huckabee’s startling victory in Iowa also called into question the alliance between evangelicals and the ideological partisans of limited government.
Evangelicals are reconsidering the decision they made a quarter-century ago to tie their fate to the broader conservative movement. Some feel a sense of betrayal. When George W. Bush was at the peak of his power after the 2004 election, he chose to pursue Social Security reform rather than a marriage amendment to the Constitution. And as shrewd Republican analysts like Ross Douthat have been arguing, many evangelical social conservatives are anything but economic conservatives, a fact that evangelicals in positions of political and corporate leadership have ignored.
Faith in the Halls of Power, in short, offers a plausible reconstruction of evangelicals’ rise to positions of influence during the past generation. But the book is stronger on description than on analysis, which makes it difficult to draw inferences about evangelicals’ future social role. If recent developments are significant, one suspects that the past will not be prologue.