Gayle recently spoke with D. Michael Lindsay, sociologist, newly appointed president of Gordon College, and author of multiple books, including Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. Lindsay spearheaded a study of former White House Fellows (an elite group that includes Jeri Eckhart Queenan, who recently spoke with me about her faith and career). You can learn more about Lindsay here.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter. Today I’m speaking with Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. Dr. Lindsay is also the newly installed president of Gordon College. Dr. Lindsay is a sociologist, and he has done some important work in the area of faith and power. Dr. Lindsay, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Dr. Michael Lindsay: Great to be with you. Thanks very much, Gayle.
GT: Why did you want to research faith and power?
ML: It seemed to me that there’s been a lot of stuff that’s been written about religion in America, but there have been very few projects that talk to people who hold powerful positions who are also deeply committed to their faith. It’s interesting because I’ve particularly focused on American evangelicalism, which is the most discussed but least understood constituency in American politics. And so I set out to try and interview a hundred or so senior leaders who are associated with evangelicalism, and in the end, I was able to do about 350. It was a great project, and the main thing that I got out of this study was a chance to hear directly from the people who are in powerful positions about the relevance of their faith in public life.
GT: What is an evangelical?
ML: Evangelicals are characterized by three big items. They believe in the importance of a personal relationship to God through a conversion to Jesus Christ which can be a dramatic experience. That’s what some refer to as a “born again” experience. Or it can be a gradual process of renewing one’s faith or coming to faith. Second is that they believe in the importance of the Bible. It’s more important than church teaching or church tradition, which is why evangelicals differ from faithful Roman Catholics in some significant ways. And they have an activist approach to faith. So faith compels them to lead their life a certain way, and they try to bear witness to their faith in both word and deed.
GT: What is populist evangelicalism versus cosmopolitan evangelicalism?
ML: This is one of the things that I encountered when I was working on Faith in the Halls of Power. Most of the time when people study evangelicals they say, “Oh, it’s a generational difference.” The old evangelicals are very conservative. The younger evangelicals are more progressive or liberal. Or they say it’s fundamentally about political division, so you have evangelicals on the left and evangelicals on the right. What I found is that actually the dividing lines don’t work nearly that neatly. I found that there was a whole group of evangelicals who had this sort of worldliness about them — worldly in a very positive sense. They were people who were rubbing shoulders day in and day out with people of other faiths and people who have no faith at all. They were people who read the New York Times, but they also read Christianity Today. They could listen to contemporary Christian music but also were big fans of NPR. And this worldliness influenced the way that they approached their faith. It shaped their understanding about evangelism and about church involvement. It shaped their priorities in their life of faith. You compare that with what I call populist evangelicalism which is principally the image that most people have when they think of evangelicals. This is the arena of the megachurch, of the Christian subculture, and that’s a very vibrant and important dimension of contemporary religious life, but I actually find that many of the people that I interviewed fit into the cosmopolitan category as opposed to these more populist evangelicals.
GT: You interviewed former White House power player Karen Hughes. How is Karen Hughes representative of other evangelicals in public life?
ML: She’s an interesting figure because when I sat down to interview her, she talked about how she had been very involved with President George W. Bush’s political career, had worked for him as a close aide when he was governor of Texas, and she was very committed to his election in 2000. But she said, “I had a bit of a crisis moment when I realized that he was inviting me to come work at the White House because I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing for me to do.” And you’d think this is the kind of obvious thing that people would be thinking about. But I think for her and for many other public leaders, it’s a more evolutionary process, and she felt conflicted about moving to Washington in particular because she had a teenage son, and she knew that he was happy in Austin and was concerned that the pace of life in D.C. would be difficult on her family life. And this is probably one of the biggest struggles that everybody faces, but it’s particularly challenging for women and even more challenging for religiously conservative women because for them motherhood is not just a calling, it’s a deep, deep commitment. And when you’re working the hours that people work if you’re in a senior position in the White House — oftentimes getting to work at 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning, which means that they had to wake up at 5 or 5:15 and not getting home sometimes until 9 or 10 o’clock at night and keeping that pace up five, six days a week and often working on the seventh day — it’s corrosive to building a close relationship with your spouse and with your kids. So I think that Karen Hughes represents this whole cohort of people who now find themselves in positions of power who are also deeply committed to their faith and oftentimes feel quite conflicted about the different allegiances those two require.
GT: How have evangelicals modeled the gay and lesbian community in the workplace and entertainment industry? How is “Christian” the new “gay”?
ML: This comes from a quote that one woman who I interviewed in Hollywood recounted to me a story that she had where the conversation basically was a Hollywood producer telling her that it had become new and interesting for committed Christians to “come out” in Hollywood. And they actually used that language of “coming out” where one publicly identifies in this way. I think what it really reflects is although historically Christianity has been a very powerful force in this country, within the pockets of elite cultural life — in Hollywood, at universities like Harvard and Yale and the rarefied heights of arts and entertainment — being a deeply committed person of faith, whatever that faith tradition may be, is seen as unusual or odd. There’s pressure when you’re in those high positions not to be too public about your faith and certainly not a faith that is evangelistic in approach because that’s seen as overbearing or narrow-minded. And so that has been the framework for the last 20 to 30 years. Over the last 10 years, however, there has been a gradual opening up of opportunities for committed Christians to become more open about how their faith is relevant to what they do in public life. So you have journalists, Hollywood writers, directors, as well as other public figures who are willing to talk about the relevance of their faith. You can think of Patricia Heaton, the actress who co-starred on Everybody Loves Raymond. She’s a committed Christian, and there are more possibilities for someone like her to be public about their faith. In the same way, folks who are gay and lesbian once felt they couldn’t be public about their identity, but now are feeling a little bit freer, so also are Christians in public life.
GT: What is signaling behavior by evangelicals in leadership positions?
ML: This was a very surprising phenomenon. What I found was that very few of the evangelicals that I interviewed would be evangelistic about their faith in the sense that they would turn to a colleague and say, “Let me tell you about Jesus.” They were uncomfortable with being that overt or direct. Instead, they oftentimes employed these signals that were sent out whereby fellow believers would recognize their faith but those people who didn’t recognize the signals, it would just pass them by. For example, I was at Renaissance Weekend, which is a gathering held several times a year for leaders from different walks of life, and I was at one particular gathering in Charleston, South Carolina. The Renaissance Weekend became really prominent because Bill and Hillary Clinton had attended it for a number of years. They were at some at the very beginning. There was a senator speaking before this group of probably 1,000 people, and in the course of the conversation he was being asked what were meaningful influences in his life. He didn’t say Jesus or God, but he said, “You know, I’ve found a great deal of solace in the writings of C.S. Lewis,” and then he described some of the things that he’d read by Lewis and why it had made such a difference in his life. Now, for every other committed evangelical in the crowd, mentioning the name of C.S. Lewis is a way of alluding to one’s faith because Lewis was a professor at Oxford and Cambridge and is known as an apologist of the Christian faith in the mid-20th century. But for those people who don’t know that part of Lewis’ life, they just think the senator was quoting from some particular writer from England. So these signals I found to be all over the place. I had a very good faculty friend who was a secular Jew, and she also was at Renaissance Weekend and she said, “I think there’s lots of God talk going on but I don’t always recognize it.” That’s pointing to this phenomenon of signaling behavior.
GT: What do you think of Peter Wehner’s book, City of Man, and his view of the changing nature of evangelical political involvement over the years?
ML: Pete Wehner and Mike Gerson are two very smart folks. They are both committed evangelicals, and both were involved in the George W. Bush administration. And Pete and Mike talk about how evangelicals throughout the 1970s were trying to get a seat at the table, to feel like they had significant political muscle. It wasn’t really until the beginnings of the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s activities in the late seventies which coincided with the administration of Jimmy Carter who is a fellow evangelical, but who did not always share the policy positions of Falwell and Robertson. Wehner’s book looks at this process by which evangelicals who for many years were clamoring for a seat at the table and then finally realized that they actually had that seat at the table. There was one incident where Jody Powell, who was head of communications in the White House for President Carter, reaches out to Jerry Falwell and asks him not to oppose President Carter’s agenda. And Falwell realizes at that moment, “I’ve finally arrived. The White House is now calling me for political cover and support.” Carry that process forward 20 and 30 years later and with the administration of George W. Bush, you have more evangelicals in senior positions in the federal government than at any other time in the last 50 years. The difference between President Carter and President Bush is not one of theology. They actually agree on most of the important theological questions. It’s on strategy. President Carter had very few people who shared his faith commitment in senior positions whereas President Bush had a number of people — including Pete Wehner and Mike Gerson — in the inner circle of political power, who shared the president’s faith commitment. And I think that also reflects a maturation of evangelical political activity, so that whereas in the seventies, evangelicals are just begging to get the scraps from the table in D.C. — they just wanted to be part of the conversation — whereas by 2002, 2003, they are actually setting significant policy agendas. And you think about PEPFAR, for example, which resulted in the largest allocation of U.S. government aid in history for a nonmilitary action which was allocating $15 billion for AIDS relief in Africa. That really came as a result of two people working together and building a coalition within the administration and then eventually in Congress: Michael Gerson, who was President Bush’s speechwriter and a committed evangelical, and Josh Bolton, who’s actually Jewish but who also shared a deep commitment to ending human suffering in Africa. The two of them worked together and were able to build a coalition, and this is an example of how evangelicals work together with people of different faiths or no faith at all in order to get their policy agenda. In the seventies, working with people who didn’t share their religious conviction would have been unthinkable to most evangelicals in politics.
GT: Right. You learned that President Jimmy Carter, while in office, evangelized world leaders. How does evangelicalism influence U.S. foreign policy?
ML: It’s a much more significant influence than most people realize. When most people think about evangelicals in politics, they think about abortion and same-sex marriage, which are largely domestic policy issues. I’ve found there is much greater latitude given to a president and his administration in foreign affairs, and that’s because the national media doesn’t cover the topic nearly as deeply and the general American public isn’t as interested in foreign affairs. So President Carter, for example, in opening up more relations with China, he was able to take some of his Christian convictions and bring that into the conversation with the Chinese premier when he came to Washington, I think it was in 1978. And you can see it carried all the way through to President Bush or even President Obama, both of whom are committed Christians. Foreign policy is the domain where there is a little bit more flexibility for the relevance of faith. International religious freedom being seen as a basic human right: that’s probably one of the most important developments in religion and public policy in the last 25 years. It came through a bill passed by Congress in 1997 and signed into law by President Clinton: the Religious Freedom Act which said that because freedom of religion is a basic human right, we’re going to have the State Department monitor religious freedom around the world. We’ll set up an independent commission which will identify countries that are not allowing religious freedom, and we will work to strongly urge those countries to reverse course. In some of those countries it works and in some it does not. We’ve seen in Southeast Asia, for example, there’s been some real significant movement, and that’s something that’s come as a direct result of this legislation. Foreign affairs is the arena that I think is a more interesting place where you can really see the relevance of faith to public policy.
GT: After all of your extensive research, do you find that evangelicals are effective leaders?
ML: Being an evangelical does not necessarily make you a more effective leader compared to other religious traditions, but I do think that being an evangelical makes one have a deeper sense of purpose and mission in life. It gives you an opportunity to be concerned about issues that go beyond the near term and helps you to see that, at its very finest, Christianity is a message of hope and renewal for the flourishing of our world. And that’s a fundamental framework that people of all faith traditions and of no faith tradition can embrace. To the extent that evangelicals can be involved in business, the arts, public policy, law, entertainment and media, to the extent that their activities can help lead to the flourishing of our society, a place where religious freedom is allowed, a place where people suffering from AIDS are given medicine that can lead to the extension of their lives, to the extent that scientific discovery can occur and be informed by people who are deeply committed to ending human suffering: These are all good and important things, and I found them time and time again while I was researching Faith in the Halls of Power. Evangelicals can be enormously effective leaders, and ones who can draw upon their faith to advance not only their particular agendas or their religious identities but, perhaps even more significantly, can work for the common good.
GT: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Dr. Lindsay.
ML: Great to be with you Gayle.
First published in First Things in August 2011