Thursday, November 29, 2007

Faith in the Halls of Power: Cosmopolitan vs. populist Christianity

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.


Adam said...

Good to hear your thoughts on this. I read the article on it from Books & Culture and stimulated my imagination. I'm in the same boat as you in terms of asking myself where I am considering my position in Christian publishing.

The question I was asking myself while reading B&C was, "What about the rest of the Christians who aren't working in "the halls of power"? Does this book have any relevance to them? Does Lindsay advocate seeking those positions of influence in government, media, business or the academy?

Real Live Preacher said...

That's an interesting idea. I had a prof in seminary who said the history of denominations and other Christian groups was one of upward mobility. Baptist began to take hold in our country in rural areas, using revivals. They were definitely populist folks. Their Christianity called for them to work hard, and they did. Their kids went to school. The next generation to college. Educated and sophisticated, the religion of the tent meeting didn't satisfy them. And so were born progressive and moderate Baptists.

You watch. In 20 years Pentecostals will be sipping wine and discussing higher criticism. ;-)

Heather said...

This sounds like an interesting idea. I think I've been working through these ideas without those terms.
By the way, I've just discovered your blog through The High Calling and am excited to read more about suburbia and Christianity. I lived in the city, where homeless stand on the corners a block away from money, where to not minister to the poor and oppressed is to squeeze your eyes shut on the way from your apartment to your car.
Now I live in the burbs. Completely different world here. I have to seek out ministry opportunities to the poor. I have to fight to get to know my neighbors. Walking as a Christian looks different here, and I'm excited to see your journey.

Gary Sweeten said...

I like Faith in the Halls... a lot but think he gave a short shrift to Middle Class Believers who are educated, influential and massive. Real Live Preacher is right, Christianity has always been a source of upward mobilization. However, Lindsay missed the Jesus Movement as the genesis of all that is happening. He uses 1976 as the year that it all started but he is one decade too late. It was 1968 that the JM was really launched and by 78 it was much more imbedded in the campus and church. Read Robert Fogels great Book, The Fourth Great Awakening that describes Revivals and Awakenings un America. He won the Nobel Prize for his work in Economics for his work on Awakenings. Lindsay, and most Evangelicals completely missed it. This means we are not quite as sophisticated as we thought.

The Fourth Great Awakening is here and the Elites are a key part of it but so are the 50 million Seasoned Boomer Believers who were touched by IV, Campus Crusade and Chai Alpha in the Sixties and Seventies. Barney Ford was a key player back then and the revival at University of Cincinnati as well as hundreds of non-elite universities paved the way for what is happening now. So, Al, IV is still affecting students who will be leaders in three decades.

By the way, are you involved with the Anglican Mission from Singapore? I have ministered there for 15 years. Bishop Tay is a friend.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, Gary. Good observations. Some of today's up-and-coming leaders, like Gary Haugen and Sharon Cohn of International Justice Mission, are fairly recent IV alum (graduated within the last fifteen years or so). And yes, the influence of campus ministries like IV is significant far beyond the elite schools.

Our particular AMiA congregation has had more direct connection with the Rwandan churches, but yes, I think the Singaporean churches/bishops provided oversight and guidance in the early stages of the movement.