Skip to main content

Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite

D. Michael Lindsay.
Published by Oxford University Press in 2008

How have evangelicals reached the elite ranks in Politics, Academia, Entertainment,the Arts, and Business? What are they seeking to do, and how are they doing it? What are their experiences?

Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite is an interesting and informative book that provides insights into how influential evangelicals function in non-evangelical settings. Evangelicals (including elite ones), as well as scholars and students of sociology, political science, communication, and business will likely find this book stimulating both in the facts it presents and the interpretations it offers. The title and subtitle purport to describe the content of the book, yet the title proves more accurate than the subtitle. The reader will find more about how evangelicals live out their faith in positions of power than about how they came to “join the American elite.”

According to Lindsay,

My interest in the role of faith in American public life began as a college student…For the last ten years, I have been thinking about American evangelicalism and its rising prominence in different parts of our society. I spent the last five years actively examining this subject by conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews and analyzing thousand of pages of data. This book is the culmination of that research (xi).

Most of Lindsay’s data is drawn from interviews with public leaders who have attained prominent positions in government, academics, arts and entertainment, or business. He relies also on organizational archives and ethnographic observations. Lindsay uses a two-stages election process he calls “Leapfrog” to identify the subjects for his interviews. He starts by interviewing 157 heads of “the nation’s largest organizations within American evangelicalism” and asking them to “identify public leaders whose Christian faith was an important aspect of their life” (248). His interview guide includes 46 questions, and given the average length of his interviews of sixty-three minutes, he may not have covered every question with each subject (249).

Lindsay conducts 203 interviews with public leaders whose names or titles would qualify them as elites in most readers’ minds. These include Pat Boone, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Tony Dungy, George Gallup, Kathie Lee Gifford, Mike Huckabee, Art Linkletter, Nancy Lopez, Edwin Meese III, Kenneth W. Starr, Cal Thomas, Kurt Warner, and Paul Wylie. Along with the famous names are less well-known but organizationally prominent individuals in-luding U.S. Senators, cabinet officials, entrepreneurs, executives, and major scientists.

What can one learn from all these movers and shakers? In the realm of politics, some may accept the media impression that the so-called Christian Right exercises too much control, even to the point of a power elite a la C. Wright Mills. Actually, though evangelicals hold many major offices, Lindsay finds them quite circumspect about bringing their faith explicitly to the policy arena. “Evangelicals are still a long way from being a majority in politics. They remain a minority voice even within the appointed inner circle of the Bush administration, one of the most evangelical friendly administrations in modern U.S. history” (71).

Lindsay takes us into the world of networks of Christians working in political settings to give the reader a sense of what it is like to be the evangelical in office or a politically-appointed position and gives us a sense of political history from the evangelical perspective. For instance, he describes the emergence of abortion as a hot button issue to evangelicals. Lindsay reports that C. Everett Koop, who describes himself as “the most outspoken anti-abortion physician in this country from 1971 to 1980…decades earlier over dinner at his home…persuaded Carl Henry, one of the architects of the modern evangelical movement to oppose abortion” (19-20).

How are evangelicals rising to prominence in higher education? Lindsay points out that the proportion of evangelicals earning degrees is rising faster than any other faith group and that evangelical students are less prone to abandoning their faith in adulthood (78 – 79). So the ranks of the elite can be expected to swell as more evangelicals stream into higher education. Lindsay also discusses various scholarships, graduate assistantships, and endowed chairs created by and for evangelicals that constitute a sort of private affirmative-action-for-evangelicals initiative. He explores various networks for evangelical support and outreachin higher education.

Lindsay is able to take us behind the scenes by scoring a rare interview with Roberta and Howard Ahmanson who have contributed over $100 million dollars “to revive intellectual engagement with classical Christianity” (94). Here Lindsay points to a growing alliance between evangelicals and Catholics who share many common interests in engaging the culture rather than retreating from it.

Again Lindsay gives us behind-the-scene insight in his discussion of the Trinity Forum, founded in 1991 “to contribute to the transformation and renewal of society through the transformation and renewal of leaders” (102). They sponsor by-invitation-only Leader Forums aimed at reaching top government and corporate figures (103). This group and a similar one called Socrates in the City aims toward supporting and recruiting intellectual and power elites. Here Lindsay suggests that the evangelical subculture which some view as “a cheesy Christian subculture…that does not appeal to mainstream audiences” may act as a significant impediment to reaching intellectuals (109). Still, Lindsay concludes that not only are we seeing more evangelicals in higher education, but their non-evangelical colleagues are gaining respect for them.

Most of Lindsay’s discussion of elite evangelicals in arts and entertainment focuses on movie-making and television, but he discusses visual artists and athletes as well. Here Lindsay reminds us that from the 1930s to the 1960s, the Protestant Film Commission reviewed every script made into a motion picture by each of the major studios. “Studio executives relied on this office and its Catholic counterpart to ensure that the film industry produced movies that would be well received” (118). In the first half of the 20th century, the church virtually controlled the filmmaking industry. But the Protestant Film Commission was shutdown in the l960s. By the second half of the century, evangelicals had become outsiders, known primarily for protesting films like The Last Temptation of Christ (118). Many of Lindsay’s elites pointed to bias against Christian performers and writers in the industry. Others saw the evangelical community simply being ignored.

Lindsay develops an interesting contrast between cosmopolitan and populist evangelicals.

Evangelical populism dominates the movement’s subculture, and leaders like Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell can mobilize millions for collective action. But the movement’s cosmopolitan figures—including many of those I interview—take a more nuanced approach to the goals that they share with their more populist brothers and sisters (130).

Cosmopolitan evangelicals often see the “cheesy” subculture itself as a problem in promoting the evangelical cause. In Lindsay’s hundreds of interviews, “not a single artist or entertainer referred to the evangelical subculture in positive terms” (123).

Still, evangelical elites in the filmmaking industry, together with wealthy philanthropists, recognize the potential power of the media to serve their cause. Lindsay discusses several support organizations for Christians in the industry. He closes with a curious discussion of the admiration that many of his subjects held for the ability of gays and lesbians to organize so that they are portrayed in movies and television in a favorable light. Often evangelical Christians are either not portrayed at all or are ridiculed.

Lindsay develops various concepts to guide our understanding of evangelical business elites. He writes of “Floors of Integration” to describe various strategies for living out one’s faith in the business world (173). The Ground Floor is the most basic, wherein faith guides ethical decisions. “On the second floor, business leaders establish internal programs that reflect evangelical sentiments” such as faith-based affinity groups and corporate chaplaincies (175). Faith becomes more public at the Third Floor, where faith becomes part of the firm’s public self-presentation. Finally, the Fourth Floor is the most explicit level of integration, with a distinctly evangelical ethos expressed in values, assumptions and symbols.Lindsay’s subjects explain their varied experiences operating on these different floors.

Lindsay also explores the way evangelical executives present their individual faith atwork, ranging from displaying Christian books to talking about faith when asked. Some talk about “coming out of a Christian closet” (188). Lindsay takes us behind the scenes to aspects of the executive experience we might not anticipate. These include the observation that many evangelical executives feel more comfortable working with and contributing to large parachurch organizations than with their local churches. Indeed, many have no formal local church membership. At the same time many engage in “by-invitation-only” support and outreach groups like Laity Lodge Leadership Forum to which only senior business leaders are invited.

Typically these evangelical business elites have bold visions and “little interest in working with pastors of congregations that are of average size and scope” (198). They think globally and strategically, have financial resources and dreams that go beyond local churches, and tend to view philanthropy as “not about doing good,” but as “strategic stewardship”(203).

In his conclusion, Lindsay points to a major asset of the evangelical movement—what he terms its “elastic orthodoxy.” This is “the ability to maintain a core set of convictions without being so rigid that it cannot cooperate with others who do not share them” (216). Lindsay presents excellent information about the experience of being an evangelical elite, despite his lack of rigorous theoretical or statistical models. Lindsay has taken on a bold assignment and handled it well. In so doing, he has established himself as an elite in his chosen calling.

Cite this article
Richard Cheever Wallace, “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 515-518

Richard Cheever Wallace

Spring Arbor University
Richard Cheever Wallace, Business, Spring Arbor University