Sunday, September 23, 2007

[Review] Faith in the Halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay

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

Author: D. Michael Lindsay

Copyright: 2007; Oxford University Press USA; ISBN 0195326660

Length: 352 pages (including approximately 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; religious studies, sociology

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America - politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay's essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don't necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay's documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don't always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result.

One might think that this would be a seriously dry book (not to say downright dull), but Dr. Lindsay,
a member of the faculty at Rice University, is actually quite readable despite the contrary view of the critic at The Economist. While I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "exciting" as the publisher's marketing blurbs do, I found the book to be an engrossing read. He maintains a relatively objective view, more carefully balanced than you find in most discussions of religious behavior. He's not dismissive of evangelical beliefs and behaviors, but he does note as necessary where some parties have tried and fallen short. Faith in the Halls of Power confirmed what I largely suspected from personal encounters with evangelical Christians, but deepened my knowledge on the actual thought processes and intentions of the evangelical movement. If you are curious about or have an interest in understanding this aspect of American society, you will find this book a useful one.