Populist & Cosmopolitan


Faith in the Halls of Power

How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite

D. Michael Lindsay

Oxford University Press, $24.95, 352 pp.

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God’s Harvard

A Christian College on a Mission to Save America

Hanna Rosin

Harcourt, $25, 304 pp.
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Evangelicals,” observes Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay in his new book, “are the most discussed but least understood group in America today.” Indeed, the role of religion in public life is the hot topic of our time, and Evangelical Christians have become a chic part of the conversation. Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power and Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard join a crowded list of popular and scholarly examinations of Evangelicalism, which is, without question, a movement undergoing dramatic transition. Both books suggest that a newly emerging class of elites will determine the direction of Evangelical culture and its impact on America and the world.

God’s Harvard reads like a long and, at times, elegant New Yorker piece (and in fact it began as an essay for that magazine). Rosin, a writer for the Washington Post, focuses on Patrick Henry College, the small Virginia college that (in the words of its mission statement) seeks to prepare “Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.” Unlike previous generations of Christian college students, its graduates aspire not to ministry but to influential political and cultural positions. Where Princeton or Harvard students seek jobs in management consulting or investment banking, Patrick Henry students wait with bated breath for the low-level internship with the White House press office. Rosin calls the school a “kind of Beltway training camp.” Its controversial founder and leader, Michael Farris, explicitly calls it “Harvard for homeschoolers,” a slogan that reveals the tension between the school’s desire for legitimacy and its separatist impulses.

In chronicling the year and a half she spent at Patrick Henry-a school that surely has gotten more media attention than its influence could ever warrant-Rosin generally avoids moral panic, conspiracy theory, and the voyeuristic gaze that have characterized many recent books about Evangelicalism and politics. She tries hard to disrupt predictable stereotypes of conservative Christianity, and she is empathetic toward the students she observes, although she occasionally engages in backhanded compliments-relating, for instance, her friends’ surprise at a “charismatic, funny, and adventurous” Evangelical who stays at her house, and describing some antics as “an old person’s idea of young people having fun.”

Rosin has learned the icons and idioms of this subculture. She paints a rich portrait of ambitious students at a pietistic institution that is quietly relaxing its fundamentalism. But the book is light on analysis. Perhaps its most sustained assessment is this: For all their spit and polish, conservative Evangelicals, compared with Catholics, will have “a much harder time leaving the ghetto.” And though Rosin is ruefully affectionate toward some of the Patrick Henry students, none will ever get her vote.

From the beginning, Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power casts doubt on Rosin’s assumption that to understand Patrick Henry College is to understand American Evangelicalism. On Lindsay’s reading, the Evangelicals whom Americans need to understand are not the awkward and eager pups at Patrick Henry, but Evangelicals “of the establishment”-the well-educated, well-employed, urbane Christians who, in Lindsay’s helpful terms, represent “cosmopolitan” rather than “populist” Evangelicalism. His book seeks to show how their interpersonal networks, both formal and informal, are influencing the face of Evangelicalism, and American culture more broadly.

Lindsay spent five years conducting hundreds of interviews with Evangelical elites in politics, education, sports, the arts, journalism, and business. Interview¬ees include former presidents, senior government officials, celebrities, Hollywood insiders, religious leaders, and Fortune 500 executives. He also investigated a vast infrastructure of voluntary associations, organizations, and invitation-only gatherings in order to understand the “rise of Evangelicalism within the nation’s higher circles.” Lindsay’s book began as a dissertation at Princeton, but the heavy social theory is left to long endnotes. Far from being a dry academic text, Faith in the Halls of Power is the most sophisticated and comprehensive study of Evangelical leadership and power in America.

Lindsay’s new Evangelicals-mostly white, male, married, and upper class-share the deep hunger for respect and validation that characterized Rosin’s Evangelicals; he cites a study which found 47 percent of American Evangelicals “believe that other Americans look down on them.” His Evangelicals do not identify with grassroots Evangelicalism, describing contemporary Christian music and Left Behind novels as “gross,” “pathetic,” and “cheesy.” Still, they are no less religiously fervent than “populist” Evangelicals, and they are adopting long-term strategies to change mainstream ignorance, scorn, and prejudice about Evangelical faith and practice.

As its title suggests, Faith in the Halls of Power begins with politics, rehashing the story of Evangelicals’ disenchantment with Jimmy Carter, their alignment with Ronald Reagan and the senior Bush, and their enthusiastic embrace of George W. Bush. Though Evangelicals play a key role in the current White House and can be found throughout the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, they remain a minority in senior positions, and Lindsay found “little evidence to show that Evangelical networks resulted in specific policy outcomes.” But they have succeeded in framing certain moral and humanitarian issues, especially issues concerning religious liberty. At the same time, many of these Evangelical elites “expressed frustration with the Bush administration.” The frustrated include liberal and progressive Evangelicals, but also a growing constituency of “freestyle Evangelicals” who “are social conservatives...also concerned about the environment and fiscal policies that hurt the poor.” In fact, recent studies find that 70 percent of American Evangelicals do not identify with the Religious Right. Lindsay hesitantly claims that Evangelicals are “showing signs of getting out of Republicans’ pockets.”

One of this book’s most illuminating discussions concerns higher education. While leading Evangelical institutions (like Wheaton and Calvin) continue to produce well-educated and high-achieving graduates, these days more and more Evangelicals can be found earning degrees at elite secular institutions, from Yale and Harvard to Stanford and Duke. Moreover, various institutes-perhaps most notably the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts-have nurtured Evangelical scholars at secular universities, especially in the fields of history, philosophy, and sociology. Other Evangelical gains in education are linked to alliances with Roman Catholic institutions and scholars, supporting what Lindsay describes as the new political and cultural “détente” between Catholics and Evangelicals intent on emulating “the Catholic way of bringing faith into conversation with scholarship.”

In another interesting finding, Faith in the Halls of Power distinguishes Lindsay’s elites from most Evangelicals in two respects: most embraced their faith after high school; and most do not identify with a particular congregation or denomination. In fact, they feel alienated from local churches and pastors, preferring parachurch bodies or megachurches, which often imitate the entrepreneurial style of corporate America. Lindsay worries that “it is possible for an Evangelical business leader to be religiously active for years without interacting with a poor person in a religious setting.” He also emphasizes Evangelical failures in race and gender relations, as well as elite insensitivity to “the possibility that Jews or atheists might see their efforts as a crusade for domination.” Still, Lindsay remains hopeful that Evangelicalism, in the words of one prominent pastor, can become a “counterculture for the common good.”

The academic year described by Hanna Rosin ends in schism at Patrick Henry College, with firings and resignations by popular faculty (mostly Reformed rather than Baptist in their theology) who are concerned with academic freedom and frustrated by the administration’s narrow understanding of biblical orthodoxy and the liberal arts. For his part, Michael Lindsay is troubled that “cosmopolitan” Evangelicals are “losing touch with their populist brothers” and sisters. Yet for all their differences, both “cosmopolitan” and “populist” Evangelicals still use the same metaphors, symbols, and rhetoric that have long characterized Evangelical piety; and what Lindsay calls an “elastic orthodoxy” may account for Evangelicalism’s ability to remain vibrant despite change and division.

Faith in the Halls of Power repeatedly shows how involvement in the Evangelical subculture was important for many elites who later moved into the mainstream, especially for academics and artists. Lindsay predicts that “American Evangelicalism, as it becomes more cosmopolitan, will become more palatable to non-Evangelical observers.” What will this mean for the populist Evangelical movement? Neither Lindsay nor Rosin is a theologian, and both explicitly treat Evangelicalism as a social movement. It is striking, nonetheless, how little attention to theology one finds in their books, even among their informants. This may be a sign of trouble for a religious tradition at a crossroads. Will the writings of C. S. Lewis be enough to keep either kind of Evangelicalism moving?

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: 
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Eric Gregory is an assistant professor of religion at Princeton University.

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