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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

By D. Michael Lindsay
Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $24.95
The new evangelical elite


Some of the most influential American evangelical Christians, such as Doug Coe, Alonzo McDonald and Bob Buford, don’t appear on magazine covers and aren’t well known to the public. But the networks they spearhead have connected evangelicals at the highest levels of government, the academy, the arts and the business world and have fostered the emergence of an evangelical elite that differs significantly from the more visible spheres of influence of the Dobsons, Grahams and Robertsons.

D. Michael Lindsay describes the world of these movers and shakers, whom he calls cosmopolitan evangelicals, in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. The Rice University sociologist spent five years researching the subject, during which he conducted interviews with 360 evangelical leaders to flesh out his studies of archival materials and scholarly literature. He found that “what outsiders perceive to be a monolithic movement may actually be many mini-movements, each with its own allies and opponents.”

In the political world, cosmopolitan evangelicals have expanded their key issues beyond abortion and homosexuality to include battling AIDS, protesting environmental degradation and promoting human rights around the world. This has led to conflicts between these evangelicals and what Dr. Lindsay calls their populist evangelical counterparts. The latter are often associated with the religious right, are focused on a narrow agenda and are known more for protesting the culture than trying to improve it. Former House Majority Leader Richard Armey, whom most people would consider a conservative Republican, said of his battles with the populist camp, “I am not tough enough to have Christians for friends. … I was never so wrongfully and viciously attacked in all my 18 years in Washington as I was by the Christian leaders.”

In contrast, Doug Coe and his Capitol Hill network known simply as the Fellowship have brought together evangelicals on both sides of the political spectrum at prayer breakfasts and other social gatherings. This has enabled them to see each other as more than stereotypes and to work together on policy matters. According to Dr. Lindsay, “there is no other organization like the Fellowship, especially among religious groups, in terms of its access or clout among the country’s leadership.”

In the academy, evangelicals have patterned their work on scholars who demonstrated a “Catholic way of thinking” in the second half of the 20th century. Many evangelicals have found a congenial home at Notre Dame University and others have networked with their Catholic counterparts through Robert George’s Madison Program at Princeton University. In so doing, they have begun to shuck the stereotype of anti-intellectualism that had previously dogged Catholics.

Some evangelical networks have crossed spheres of influence. The Trinity Forum, founded by Alonzo McDonald, was cited by several cosmopolitans as one of the best examples of how to mainstream evangelicalism at high levels by sponsoring scholarly forums for government and corporate leaders. An organization called Leadership Network was formed by media mogul Bob Buford in 1984 to improve the level of pastoral leadership and organization in local congregations. Again, although Mr. Buford’s is not a household name, 20 percent of the evangelical leaders Dr. Lindsay interviewed cited him as an important influence in their lives.

As evangelicals enter the American elite, they often find themselves more comfortable with secular colleagues than with coreligionists in the populist camp. This, combined with their work schedules, makes it difficult for them to participate as active members of local congregations. For many of the cosmopolitans, para-church organizations satisfy their needs for fellowship and spiritual support.

According to Dr. Lindsay, legitimacy has replaced conversion as a principal goal of cosmopolitan evangelicals. Witnessing to their faith remains important but is often done in symbolic ways such as wearing a necklace with a cross or conspicuously displaying a Bible in an office. At the same time, this toned-down approach is another factor that produces tensions between cosmopolitan and populist evangelicals.

Such conflicts should resonate with Catholics. In an article in America magazine in 1989, Fr. Andrew Greeley said of top-level Catholic artists, politicians and business executives that “the ecclesiastical institution does not know what to do with this elite.” The gap between populists and cosmopolitans may be yet another place where one can increasingly find evangelicals and Catholics together.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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