Higher Powers

Review of Faith in the Halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay and From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic edited by J. Matthew Wilson.

Patton Dodd
1 May 2008

Faith in the Halls of Power
By D. Michael Lindsay
Oxford University Press, 2007; 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic
Edited by J. Matthew Wilson
Georgetown University Press, 2007; 336 pp., $26.95 (paper)

Decades from now, when my grandkids ask me what the world was like when I was young, I’ll relish regaling them with tales of the 1990s and 2000s. I’ll tell them about the dawn of the wireless age, when Starbucks still made you pay for a signal. We’ll laugh at the ill-fated “digital book” and shake our heads at 15-miles-per-gallon family cars that once dominated city streets. We’ll make fun of the pocket-computers of yesteryear, which were only able to play music, surf the Web, make telephone calls, take pictures, and map your evening plans—but couldn’t control your kitchen appliances or give you a CAT scan.

If my grandkids have kept the family faith, maybe they’ll ask me what it was like to be a Christian in my day. Then I’ll really blow their minds. I’ll say that we were known as “evangelicals,” and our kind received all the attention. But it wasn’t good attention. Being an evangelical meant you were mean. It meant you had to vote Republican—and be glib about it. Back then, evangelicals ridiculed pacifists and conservationists, celebrated unfettered capitalism, and demanded that the Bible be taught as a book of science.

I hope my grandkids will have a sense of humor. I hope they can laugh at that distant past, when being evangelical was marked by the political and economic interests of a few powerful white men. And I hope the faith they know will be a far cry from that kind of evangelicalism.

The good news is that the public image of evangelicals is in flux, which is appropriate for a movement that has always been something of a shape-shifter. Since the late 1970s, this segment of Christianity has been over-represented by a small contingent of loud media voices and behind-the-scenes power brokers who spend much of their energy on conservative political causes. They are a mere subcategory of evangelicals, but they have been so successful in stumping for the Republican platform that they have made “evangelical” shorthand for their own circumscribed worldview. (And no doubt they have also been successful in influencing the views of a number of evangelical believers.)

But this perception of evangelicals is unstable now, as it becomes ever clearer that evangelicals are a mosaic of attitudes and habits. Three of the most popular young evangelical leaders today—the megachurch pastor Rob Bell, the writer Don Miller, and the “new monastic” leader Shane Claiborne—sound precious little like the leaders who came just before them. They believe in the story of Jesus—life, death, resurrection—but their politics are local and framed by issues of justice; their Bible teaching is polyvalent. They are not, as they are sometimes mistaken to be, a picture of the Evangelical Left, but of evangelicalism as it really is: an adaptive, evolving organism with complex traits.

Reading D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power, a book about evangelical elites that has prompted much discussion since its debut last fall, one realizes just how layered is that evangelical complexity. Lindsay’s book is a report of his 360 (360!) interviews with evangelical leaders who work in the highest reaches of American political office, business, academia, arts, and entertainment. We meet evangelical executives in large firms, evangelical professors at prestigious universities, evangelicals employed in music, film, television, and fine art, and evangelicals at the pinnacles of national, state, and local politics. These are not men and women scraping for shards of authority; these evangelicals have, as Lindsay’s subtitle suggests, “joined the American elite.”

Faith in the Halls of Power is a rare feat not only in terms of its comprehensiveness, but also in terms of its unique approach: on page after page, Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University, lets his subjects speak for themselves. Instead of filtering the subtleties of evangelical social capital through sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we hear, for example, former Enron executive (and whistle-blower) Sherron Watkins explain her own understanding of how Christians are called “to create wealth for people to use for God’s purposes.” We hear a Hollywood screenwriter say, “Prayer is the spine of what I do,” and a pair of Ivy Leaguers cite their “heart for ministry” on exclusive college campuses. Voices like this fill the volume, and Lindsay lets them speak without interpretive encumbrance.

The drawback of this approach, one that has been cited by both critics and fans, is that it can’t address the pratfalls of evangelicalism in the manner of investigative journalism. No doubt there is muckraking to be done here. Lindsay conducts many of his interviews in cafes, restaurants, and cozy offices, and as he sits across from wealthy ministers, CEOs of firms such as Wal-Mart, and members of current and past presidential administrations, our readerly reflex is to want him to dig for dirt.

But Lindsay’s restrained approach offers something we’ve never quite had before: an extensive overview of evangelical self-perceptions. Much of the media coverage about evangelicalism lacks a basic grasp of the character of the faith. The Web site GetReligion.org exists to point out the news media’s constant mistakes in covering religious beliefs and practices, and a great deal of its output concerns repeated errors in defining and describing evangelicals. They are, as Lindsay writes, “the most discussed but least understood group in America today.” That alone is justification for this project’s singular approach.

Further, Lindsay’s use of direct quotes captures the nuanced, deeply symbolic language of evangelicalism: “I felt called,” “God gave me this platform,” “My relationship with Jesus is not hidden.” To hear these quotes page after page is to gain a quality of understanding that could not otherwise be had, and to know they were uttered by people who hail from institutions that have profoundly shaped our country’s culture is to comprehend the way faith actually works in many people’s lives: it is indelibly intertwined with everything else, so much so that we can hardly see it or even sense it. As Lindsay argues, faith informs the work that these prestigious men and women want to accomplish, and at the same time, their work speaks into their faith.

The symbiotic relationship between faith and secular work is echoed in another volume published last year, From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic, edited by J. Matthew Wilson. It offers essays from a range of scholars, including the omnipresent Pew Forum researcher John C. Green. Unlike Faith in the Halls of Power, this book focuses exclusively on politics, but like Lindsay, Wilson presents a study in exploding simple stereotypes.

After a series of case studies on the political practices (or lack thereof) of evangelicals, African-Americans, Mormons, Jews, and atheists, Wilson offers a concluding essay that makes a point that almost never gets made: everyone is caught up asking how much the political process should be open to religion, which assumes that religious people want to be involved in the political process. In fact, for many religiously faithful, politics is a temptation, not a mission. It’s a veritable Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Maybe your faith leads you to believe that the welfare state should be increased, or abortion diminished, or homosexual marriage defended—but before you can make a move, you face a vexing realization: politics is a world of, as Wilson puts it, “half measures, sordid compromises, unsavory bedfellows, and endemic corruption. Is practical political engagement by people and communities of faith worth the descent into that mire, with a potentially attendant loss of religion’s clear prophetic voice?” The same can be said for the other realms treated in Lindsay’s study, from Fifth Avenue to the ivory tower of education. People of faith may want to change these areas of our public life, but they must weigh the risk of being changed.

The elites in Faith in the Halls of Power are also forced to deal with the problem of their own success. Evangelicals, like adherents of all the major religions, are heirs of a tradition that emphasizes the irony of strength through weakness. The double-entendre in Lindsay’s title captures this tension: these are people of the evangelical faith working in the halls of power; these are people who face the temptation of placing their faith in those same halls of power.

In this regard, Lindsay’s work does briefly become more like investigative journalism, as he uncovers a handful of stories that shock the reader—not with anger, but with inspiration. In a section about Ralph Larsen, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, we learn that his family lived in a small-town home and drove the same old cars even as he climbed the corporate ladder. When Business Week published a list of CEO salaries, including Larsen’s, his eight-year-old boy’s teacher asked what the family did with all that money. The boy responded that they gave it away—all he knew was that he got one dollar per week for allowance.

Stories like that may be an exception, but such exceptions color our received wisdom about faith practice and expand our sense of what’s happening in the world of religion. It’s a complex world, and as we navigate it, we’d do well to keep work from the likes of Lindsay and Wilson close at hand.

Patton Dodd

Patton Dodd is an editor for Beliefnet and a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University. He is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversation and Confusion (Jossey-Bass). He lives with his family in Colorado.