Every year our family Christmas letter lists off notable books that we've read in the past year. One book that's certain to make this year's list is Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. Lindsay, a sociologist, conducted 360 personal interviews with an amazing array of evangelicals in significant positions of influence and leadership in government, the academy, arts and media, and the business world. The appendix gives a staggering list of who's who, with former presidents and senators, billionaire executives and philanthropists, media moguls and celebrities, parachurch and seminary leaders, culture makers and influencers of every kind - Jimmy Carter, Kathie Lee Gifford, Pat Robertson, Phil Vischer, Kenneth Starr, C. Everett Koop, Francis Collins, Mark Noll, John Ortberg, Jim Wallis, Cal Thomas, Karen Hughes, George Gallup . . . the list goes on and on. The book shows how evangelical Christians have become prominent movers and shakers across all spheres of American society. These are people who have learned to navigate and wield power.
One of the most interesting points of analysis is Lindsay's description of these new evangelical elites as "cosmopolitan evangelicals," in contrast with what he calls "populist evangelicals." Cosmopolitan evangelicals distance themselves to some degree from the populist evangelical subculture; Lindsay reports that his interviewees went out of their way to say that they had never read Left Behind or purchased a Thomas Kincade painting. Cosmopolitan evangelicals attend invitation-only gatherings with other influential professionals, not populist mass rallies like Promise Keepers.
In politics, populist evangelicals are more likely to mobilize the rank and file to push for legislation and campaign against certain issues. But cosmopolitan evangelicals are more likely to sponsor year-long internships on Capitol Hill for future political leaders. It's a difference in strategy that focuses more on becoming full participants and insiders within cultural institutions and the corridors of power, rather than attempting to combat them or wield cultural influence from the outside.
This makes me wonder a bit about my own social location as an editor in an evangelical publishing house with some degree of cultural influence. Am I a populist who's really a cosmopolitan wannabe? As a Christian professional in the parachurch, am I a cosmopolitan who's distanced from populist issues and concerns? Is my role in publishing to speak to cosmopolitan Christians and influence the influencers, or is it to somehow bridge the cultural gap between populists and cosmopolitans?
I don't know that I have any answers to this. But it also occurs to me that the suburban context is one where we see this interface between the populist and the cosmopolitan. This is a vast overgeneralization, but rural areas may tend to be more populist, and urban metropolises may tend to be more cosmopolitan, especially in terms of contexts like where Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church are ministering in Manhattan. But suburbia is a mix between the two, with multiple, overlapping subcultures. Neighbors and church members may be as likely to gravitate to NPR as NASCAR, country or opera, Joel Osteen or Joan Didion.
I think Lindsay's book is important for anybody working in or ministering among contexts of influence and power, whether in government, media, business or the academy. The people profiled in Lindsay's study give us keen insights for how society and culture can be transformed from within, by savvy Christians wielding their own power and influence wisely.