Monday, June 18, 2012

Parsing the Role of Evangelicals in American Society: Review of "Faith in the Halls of Power" by D. Michael Lindsay

Before he was named President of Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay was a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University.  During his time there, he launched a comprehensive project of interviewing hundreds of self-proclaimed evangelicals who are leaders in industry, government, entertainment, academia, church and parachurch ministries.  The results of this research are cataloged in this in depth study of "Faith in the Halls of Power - How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."  In his research and his writing, Lindsay stands on the shoulders of Mark Noll, whose 1994 book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," served as a prod to many evangelical Christians to take a hard look in the mirror and be honest about their failings as thought leaders able to influence the broader culture.

In this book, Lindsay offers a clear definition of, and paints a full-color portrait of, the American evangelical microcosm as it exists at the beginning of the 21st Century.  Evangelicals are often misunderstood and mislabeled - even within the Body of Christ - so the author's clear and unambiguous definition sets the stage beautifully for his treatment of some of the movement's key leaders and influencers:

"I define an evangelical as someone who believes (1) that the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming, activist approach to faith." (Page 4)

Among the men and women (the author points out clearly the paucity of women in leadership positions within the evangelical world) profiled in this far-reaching study and analysis, I have been privileged to know several dozen of them, so I am able to personally affirm the conclusions that Lindsay has drawn about their character and breadth of their influence.  The point of the list that follows is not to engage in "name dropping," but rather to add my own small individual voice to that of Dr. Lindsay in corroborating the influence that I have observed these individuals have had and continue to have on society.  I have observed them to be committed men and women of God.

Rick Warren was a classmate of mine in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary
Chuck Colson was head of Prison Fellowship during the 10 years I worked for him.
Max DePree was a professor of mine at Fuller.
I have sat under the preaching and teaching of Bill Hybels, Tony Campolo, Eric Metaxas and Tim Keller
I spent two weeks with President Jimmy Carter on a Habitat for Humanity project in Chicago
Nancy DeMoss was a gracious hostess and benefactor for many programs at Prison Fellowship.

My point is that these strong evangelical leaders have had a profound personal impact on me, and I am pleased to see that Dr. Lindsay has taken the time to share with the readership of his book their stories.  He chronicles with great care the individual and collective roads traveled to bring evangelicals into the "Halls of Power."  He also very careful differentiates the progressive evangelical leaders from the populist fundamentalist figures often see on TV.  To the outside world, the differences may be subtle or even invisible, but within the family of believers, the differences are significant.

Implicit throughout much of this book are the questions: "What are evangelical leaders doing with their new-found access to the halls of power?  Are they handling that power as wise stewards?"  One of the most enlightening observations comes near the conclusion of the book when Lindsay discusses the phenomenon of "convening power":

"Public leaders wield a particular kind of power, one that comes from their location within these influential networks.  Convening power is the ability to bring disparate people together, like introducing a congressional staffer to a senior media executive.  It is the ability to set agendas and to coordinate activity.  Sociologist Harold Kerbo argues that elite power is the power over social networks, and this certainly proved true among the leaders I studied.  Convening power is what this structural strength gives leaders.  It enables them to marshal resources, to share information, and to deflect criticism.  Elite power is the power to convene, and it is through their privileged positions within various social networks that leaders exercise it, bringing people together wand then introducing and recruiting others to join their causes." (Page 215)

Certainly, this book will be of interest and of value to anyone who proudly claims the label of "evangelical."  It will be of equal interest and value to those outside of the evangelical circle who seek to understand its history and mission.



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