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University of Georgia’s Christian Faculty Forum: Dr. Michael Lindsay on Evangelicals and Cultural Influence

I just got back from the Christian Faculty Forum’s monthly meeting. This month’s speaker was Michael Lindsay, professor of sociology from Rice University. He discussed his new book Faith in the Halls of Power. This blog post will be based on notes I took during his talk and the ensuing question and answer period, and I will email Dr. Lindsay once I’ve posted to ask his contribution to the discussion.

The rise of evangelicals’ prominence in business, politics, entertainment, and the academy interested Michael Lindsay during the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The consensus among the news media seemed to be that since the “evangelical vote” had become a factor that it simply was not thirty years before, there must be more evangelicals now than there were then. Upon an initial investigation, Lindsay discovered that although an increase in population had increased the evangelical population proportionately, there had not been a real rise in the percentage of evangelicals commensurate with their rise in influence. Thus he set out to interview some of the prominent evangelicals in the aforementioned four arenas that influence the culture at large.

The Sample

Because his research needed a working definition for “evangelical,” Lindsay included both both people who openly self-identified as evangelical and those who met three basic criteria:

  1. Public evangelicals hold the Bible as the primary religious authority.
  2. Public evangelicals consider their religious status as following from some conversion experience, often referring to themselves as “born again.”
  3. Public evangelicals hold that their faith is not exclusively an interior piety but influences the shape of their work in the world.

He noted that many he interviewed were not at first comfortable with the label “evangelical” because of the word’s association with “culture war” and with the Republican party of the twenty-first century, but he said that all those interviewed (including self-identified Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and folks who don’t identify with any of the above) did agree with those three criteria.

The Anxiety of Influence

Of all the questions Lindsay asked, the one that troubled most of those interviewed was what Christians ought to do with power having been given it. He joked that many of those interviewed said that they looked forward to reading the book so that they could keep working on figuring that out. He did note that, contrary to alarmist opponents, most of these public evangelicals had little or no interest in using public influence to proselytize, noting both ethical problems relating to power relationships and fears of litigation. Instead, most of these figures worked out their faith in their public roles through “social services delivery,” often the province of Faith-Based Initiatives in America and Catholic charities abroad. If there is a common “evangelical element” in governmental, cultural, and economic power, it is the conviction that the world has gone wrong and that it stands to be righted. (I wanted to ask about H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in Q&A, but those pesky tenured professors hogged the air time.)

Surprisingly to Lindsay, evangelicals have become noticeably more comfortable with “government” as an agent of common good over the last twenty years. Whereas conservative Christians considered the State department the most secular place in Washington during the Reagan years, now many high-level State department officials are themselves evangelical. In the eighties evangelicals like Gary Bauer held that AIDS was a punishment from God, not a public health problem to be addressed with the tools of government, yet evangelicals widely praised George W. Bush’s sizable spending on combatting AIDS in Africa. Likewise, when the draft ended in the seventies, the Pentagon underwent a significant evangelical shift as the armed forces came to be composed less from liberal mainline congregations and agnostics and more from conservative evangelical congregations from the Midwest and South. In all, the spread of evangelical influence in the government has been fairly evenly distributed.

With regards to entertainment, Lindsay pointed to significant sympathy for evangelicals in shows like Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven but said that the real seismic shift was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s very-Catholic crucifixion movie stands in symbolic contrast to Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ almost twenty years earlier. Last Temptation, Lindsay said, drew thousands of evangelical protesters. Passion drew millions of evangelical ticket-buyers. He also noted that the gigantic success of such an openly Catholic movie demonstrates that the evangelical rise relies on a “Catholic-evangelical synergy.”

A New Kind of Christian?

Towards the end of his talk Lindsay noted that the days of evangelical culture warriors are coming to a decline if not an end. Many of the most famous culture warriors (like Falwell) are, in a very straightforward sense, dying off, and others like Dobson are in their sixties and seventies. Lindsay referred to this older model of evangelical engagement as “populist evangelicalism,” and he said that its defining characteristic is a narrative of embattled struggle against the powers that be. He noted that there are some younger culture warriors but that they represented a minority among those interviewed.

By contrast, those influential evangelicals that Lindsay calls “cosmopolitan evangelicals” are far more comfortable with the structures of power both in Hollywood and in Washington. Lindsay said that their engagement with the world happens less in terms of protest and more in terms of patronage and that their involvement with parachurch organizations tends to be greater, with local congregations less.

As an example of the cosmopolitan evangelical, he cited the CEO of Jockey, an underwear manufacturer. Underwear ads involve flesh, and Jockey’s CEO conceded that a complete refusal of that would be an exit from the industry. However, in a subtle symbolic gesture towards Christian sexuality, any time a male model appears in a shot with a female model, both wear wedding bands. Lindsay offered a great story about calling up friends in Europe and keeping his eyes open for underwear ads as he went back and forth in the world, and he assured us that in fact that artistic move is common to all Jockey billboards and magazine ads.

My general impression of the talk was a good one. Lindsay’s study bears out much that we here at CRM have noted about (what many of us see as) the excesses to which some go while trying to be evangelical in the world. The book’s premise also resonates with the anxiety about which some of us have written that although the world ought to oppose the gospel, there are far too many cases in which it’s not the gospel but the jerk who thinks she or he is the carrier of the gospel that breeds distrust and antagonism.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “University of Georgia’s Christian Faculty Forum: Dr. Michael Lindsay on Evangelicals and Cultural Influence

  1. >Thanks for reporting on this, Nate. Sounds like a good book. Thanks for dropping by Dr. Lindsay. I don’t know if you’ll have time to stop by and read this or not. The subtitle to your book really caught my attention: “How evangelicals joined the American elite.” That’s a stark contrast to the evangelical fundamentalism of the 20s-40s and even the neo-evangelicalism of the 50s and beyond. It seems that evangelicals have gone from purposefully separating themselves from the common culture by creating alternative societies with new colleges, music labels, publishing houses, etc. to purposefully engaging the dominant structures. – Have you found that the majority of evangelicals have an “engaging” rather than “separatist” mindset today? – Did any of the evangelicals you interviewed speak of their engagement in terms of a purposeful reaction against the separatism of previous generations? Nate mentioned that some of the people you interviewed were not comfortable with the label “evangelical.” – Did any of them have a term that they prefer to identify themselves as?- Regardind those who were skeptical of the term, did any of them identify with the 3 criteria of “evangelical” yet still refuse to associate themselves with the term? Or were they indifferent? I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks again for stopping by. If you have time to interact with our readers some more, that would be great. If not, we understand. Mid-week is a slow time for blogs in general so hopefully we’ll get some more comments in the next day or two. Take care.Jeff

    Posted by Jeff Wright | October 26, 2007, 2:02 am
  2. >Thanks, Nathan, for talking about my book. I worked five years on it, and I’m eager for folks to take a look at it. I hope your readers find it interesting. It was great to meet you in Athens!

    Posted by D Michael | October 25, 2007, 7:14 pm

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