Power Speaking to Power: How Christians Are Reshaping America

lehmann michaelduke1v Power Speaking to Power: How Christians Are Reshaping AmericaFAITH IN THE HALLS OF POWER: HOW EVANGELICALS JOINED THE AMERICAN ELITE
By D. Michael Lindsay.
Oxford University Press, 332 pages, $24.95

Ever since George W. Bush’s narrow reelection in 2004, American evangelicals have bulked up in the country’s political imagination into a near-mystical source of wonder-working power, to quote the old Methodist hymn. And much like scriptural wonders, the evangelical voting bloc seemed, to many observers, to have sprung from nowhere.

In reality, as Faith in the Halls of Power, Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay’s new study, demonstrates, evangelical believers have gradually stockpiled influence in four major arenas of American life: national politics, higher education, the entertainment industry and the business world.

The co-author of two Gallup studies of religious attitudes, Mr. Lindsay refreshingly bypasses the usual media impulse to treat evangelical leaders, their institutions and followers as exotic outcroppings of the American power elite. Adopting instead a clearly sympathetic view of the exercise of religious ideas in the public sphere, Mr. Lindsay is able to elicit not only the now-familiar story of the evangelical elite’s post-Reagan era prominence, but also the less-appreciated story of how those same leaders’ dalliance with worldly power is reshaping contemporary Protestant piety.

His account relies on interviews with 360 evangelically minded individuals—“the most comprehensive examination,” Mr. Lindsay writes, “of faith in the lives of leaders alive today”—running the gamut from former President Jimmy Carter to NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. The emphasis on interviews dovetails with his analysis of the highly personalized character of networked power in evangelical circles. Not only is the political-evangelical alliance “built primarily on personal relationships” and “connections formed outside of Washington,” but the networks that now bind various professional elites constitute nothing less than a new freestanding grid of social power: Christian philanthropic boards and corporate-sponsored “parachurch” groups promote a new form of elite cohesion, “not by social class or shared backgrounds,” but “by faith.”

Mr. Lindsay is clearly correct in one sense: The leaders he’s talked to are beset with the self-consciousness and status anxiety of an elite still familiarizing itself with the confident exercise of power. The growing ambit of evangelical power—spanning the boardrooms of corporate behemoths like Johnson and Johnson and Wal-Mart up through the top echelons of the Bush White House—has fueled a deepening schism, he notes, between the “cosmopolitan” temperament of movement leaders and the “populist” convictions of the evangelical rank-and-file. The jet-setting, boardroom-friendly leadership seems pointedly uneasy with the “evangelical kitsch” that down-home believers embrace, such as Christian pop or the pulpy Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Movement leaders feel more at home in parachurch groupings, where power speaks to power—and oddly, in the nation’s great suburban megachurches, which mix populist presentation styles with a steady diet of business-friendly homilies. One businessman tells Mr. Lindsay admiringly that his megachurch pastor “could have been CEO of a Fortune 10 company.”

The cosmopolitan strain of elite evangelical life is most evident in Hollywood and other culture industries, where evangelical leaders have actively urged adopting the interest-group politics of their avowed lifestyle enemies in the gay and lesbian community. As one ministry executive explained, “If we could get an Ellen DeGeneres figure who is likable and popular to ‘come out’ as an evangelical, many more people would have positive impressions of the movement as a whole.” Evangelical screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi reports being pleasantly surprised to hear from a staffer of the showbiz TV newsmag program Inside Edition that “Christian is the new gay.”

 

THE MAIN THRUST of Mr. Lindsay’s narrative is the promiscuous blending of business culture with the less worldly rhetoric of the spirit. This is of course an old feature of American belief, but as Mr. Lindsay documents, the worlds of commerce and piety are now conjoined as never before, thanks in large part to a 1997 executive order—from that bête noire of the religious right, Bill Clinton—which designated religious expression in the workplace as protected First Amendment speech. Since then, Mr. Lindsay reports, there’s been a brisk cottage industry in “corporate chaplain cies” and preachers brought on as “executive coaches” helping CEO’s wrestle with the moral dilemmas arising from their decision-making powers in the marketplace.

Here, tellingly, is where evangelical self-consciousness—and Mr. Lindsay’s own analytic scheme—sags noticeably. As Mr. Lindsay points out, polls show that evangelicals are more likely than the rest of the population to support an overhaul of the U.S. economic system. And yet, in the main, a spiritual “calling to business means an acceptance of the capitalist system”—so much so that, for example, Wal-Mart vice chairman Michael Duke matter-of-factly announces that “God’s plan for my life was in business.” One supposes, by this logic, that the company’s pitifully underinsured million-plus employees, sweated Chinese subcontractors, and female middle managers trying to sue their way past Wal-Mart’s patriarchal glass ceiling can merely go to the devil.

The consistent shortcoming of Mr. Lindsay’s otherwise provocative study is that he accepts unquestioningly the movement leaders’ self-interested pronouncements. Hence for all his attention to prayer meetings and networking alliances in and around Capitol Hill and the White House, there’s not any mention of the cronyist appointment of Regents University Law School alum Monica Goodling as Alberto Gonzales’ chief enforcer at the unfathomably corrupt Bush Department of Justice—or of the legions of other Regents grads still toiling away at the DoJ.

Even more puzzling is Mr. Lindsay’s dead silence about the evangelical right’s most striking D.C. power play—the 2005 weekend special session of Congress on the Teri Schiavo case, which permitted hack opportunists such as former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to trifle with the separation of powers for the sake of firing up evangelical constituencies back home. Likewise, in the cultural realm, Mr. Lindsay writes admiringly of the breakout marketing success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—without referring to the film’s overtly anti-Semitic content or Mr. Gibson’s subsequent drunken mewlings on the subject of worldwide Jewish power. These missing pieces suggest there’s something uglier at work in the consolidation of evangelical power than intra-movement disputes over optimal styles of political self-presentation.

American elites neither accumulate nor exercise power in a vacuum: Their victories come at someone else’s expense—and so long as evangelical leaders manage to portray those rollbacks as mere collateral damage in a righteous struggle against dread secular liberal humanism, then they’ve achieved a confident show of strength in the arena of social myth, where power matters most.

Chris Lehmann is a frequent contributor to The Observer. He can be reached at clehmann@observer.com.