Faith in the Halls of Power: an excerpt

One of my favorite law school classes was a legal history seminar that explored the influence of Methodism and other early Evangelical sects on the development of our legal system. Although I grew up in a whacked-out fundamentalist household, I didn’t fully understand the roots of Evangelical Christianity until I took that class. Good thing, I thought then, that we now understand the importance of separation between church and state.

I’ve just started to read D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. The introduction provides both a good explanation of what an Evangelical is — they’re not all holy rollers like the dude with his arms up in the Economist photo (above) — and a depressing look at how fully some of their most extreme representatives have infiltrated our political system and other institutions of power. I’m posting the intro here with permission.

Atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza in one of Manhattan’s most celebrated ballrooms, media mogul Rupert Murdoch stepped up to a microphone. It was September 2004, and gathered before him was a Who’s Who of the New York publishing elite. “When an author sells a million copies of his book, we think he’s a genius. When he sells twenty million, we say we’re the geniuses.”

Murdoch was introducing Rick Warren, a folksy Southern Baptist preacher from suburban southern California. As head of the media conglomerate that published Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, Murdoch had much to smile about. The book had become the bestselling work of nonfiction in history (other than the Bible) and had been translated into more than fifty different languages. Long before this, Warren had made a name for himself in evangelical circles. An earlier book, The Purpose-Driven Church, had sold a million copies, and over the years thousands of pastors had attended conferences to hear Warren and his staff talk about their approach to church growth.

That evening Warren had invited several of his friends from California to the party, and a handful of fellow evangelicals from the East Coast were in attendance as well. This was Warren’s “coming out” party — a recognition that he was now part of the nation’s elite. As I spoke to Warren’s wife, Kay, she casually mentioned that she had met Dan Rather’s wife the night before for dinner. During the party I spotted several Fortune 500 CEOs around the room. Warren was now not just a religious leader but a public leader, endowed with responsibility and influence far beyond the evangelical world.

The mood was festive and lively, but the two groups didn’t mix all that well. I was there at the invitation of a friend who knew I was doing research on America’s leadership and evangelicals. I introduced myself to an editor from another publishing house. Upon hearing that I was from Princeton, she assumed I was part of the publishing crowd. “Do you know any of these evangelicals that are here? I’m dying to meet one,” she asked.

“I do,” I replied, and then introduced her to an evangelical friend who was standing nearby. Mark, a successful businessman, had lived in New York for quite some time. He, like her, had graduated from Yale, so I used that as a point of connection when introducing the two. As I turned to continue mingling, I heard her ask: “Are there many evangelicals at Yale these days?”

It’s a good question. Evangelicals are the most discussed but least understood group in America today. National surveys show that their numbers have not grown dramatically in recent decades, but over that same time they have become significantly more prominent. Everything from presidential campaigns to student groups in the Ivy League has been linked to rising evangelical influence. Social groups can gain power in a variety of ways — by voting a candidate into the Oval Office, by assuming leadership of powerful corporations, or by shaping mainstream media. Evangelicals have done them all since the late 1970s, and the change has been extraordinary. But no one has explained what these developments mean — for the evangelical movement or for America.

Much of the twentieth century was spent disentangling religion from public life. Commerce and piety were once seen as complements to one another. But that connection dissolved with the rise of modern corporations, as the personal was divorced from the professional. Americans embraced pluralism in the workplace, public schools, and civic life, and these institutions worked to minimize sectarian differences among workers and citizens. In the process, religion lost some of its influence, becoming just one of many sources for individual and national identity. Gradually, religion was relegated to the private, personal sphere.

Yet even as this arrangement finally became taken for granted in many quarters of American life, opposing perspectives were emerging. In the 1970s, conservative Christians, many of whom had sequestered themselves in a distinct subculture, began returning to the cultural mainstream. Initially, they met with only limited success, and many observers ignored their entrepreneurial creativity and strong resolve to change America. Also, few connected evangelicals’ activism in politics with activism in other spheres, even though evangelicals regard these as more important.

Theirs is an ambitious agenda: to bring Christian principles to bear on a range of social issues. It is a vision for moral leadership, a form of public influence that is shaped by ethics and faith while also being powerful and respected. In truth, their vision is much less — and at the same time significantly more — than skeptics and critics think. To the extent that the activities of evangelical leaders point to a cohesive vision, it is not a political or cultural agenda but one grounded in religious commitment. Fundamentally, evangelicals feel compelled to share with others what they believe is the best way to make peace with God. For them, one’s relationship with the divine is primary; all other issues are secondary. This is not new, and, in fact, it is a much smaller vision for society, one that involves changing one person at a time. What is unique to the current moment is the number of high-ranking leaders who have experienced that change themselves, either before they rose to power or while in public leadership. For many of them, the evangelical imperative to bring faith into every sphere of one’s life means that they cannot expunge faith from the way they lead, as some would prefer. In this way, the evangelical vision is sweeping and significantly more comprehensive than outside observers realize. This is much more than a campaign to win the White House or a call for Hollywood to produce family-friendly entertainment. It is a way of life that has gripped the hearts and minds of leaders around the country, and it is not likely to go away anytime soon.

It is not every day that a media mogul throws a party for a Southern Baptist preacher, but things like that have been happening more and more. Harvard Divinity School, not always the most welcoming place for evangelicals, now has an endowed chair in evangelical theological studies. Every person who has been elected president of the United States since 1976 has been affiliated with evangelicalism in one way or another. Evangelicals have been the driving force behind debates over abortion, same-sex marriage, and foreign affairs. Indeed, they are prominent in virtually every aspect of American life today. How have evangelicals — long lodged in their own subculture and shunned by the mainstream — achieved significant power in such a short time? That is the question this book seeks to answer.

What’s an Evangelical?

There are many streams of religious tradition that flow into contemporary American evangelicalism, and those who call themselves evangelicals belong to a wide variety of Protestant denominations — and many to no denomination at all. Even some Catholics consider themselves evangelical. Despite these various tributaries and the different ways evangelicalism has been defined, there is a remarkable consensus among evangelicals about the Bible, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, evangelism, Christian living, and the church. Evangelicals are Christians who hold a particular regard for the Bible, embrace a personal relationship with God through a “conversion” to Jesus Christ, and seek to lead others on a similar spiritual journey. 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 a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming, activist approach to faith.

Evangelicalism is not just a set of beliefs; it is also a social movement and an all-encompassing identity. Because evangelicals must consciously choose their faith — ”accepting” Jesus, in the evangelical vernacular — they often have a stronger attachment to faith than people who simply inherit their parents’ religion. Within many evangelical congregations, when a person converts, he or she is asked to make a profession of faith that refers to Jesus as “Lord of my life,” and the minister often responds by challenging the new believer to dedicate every part of his or her life to God. In other words, evangelicalism is a religious identity but also much more: Evangelicals must live out their faith every moment of their lives, not just on Sunday morning. Typically, this includes talking with others about one’s faith — ”witnessing” — but it also includes things like feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.

As America has become more religiously diverse, evangelicals have begun acting on their faith in more public ways. Evangelicals see the world largely in terms of good and evil and believe that one overcomes evil through spiritual discipline — praying, studying scripture, and the like. This is what fuels their moral conviction and moves them to action. The current public activism of evangelicals is not unlike evangelicalism of previous generations. A desire to reform society spurred evangelical political involvement in the nineteenth century, and we will see several examples from the twentieth century in the chapters ahead. As one senior White House staffer put it, for him it is where “you get your moral passion furnished, your depth of commitment, because you think it’s true and right.”

Evangelicalism also encourages spiritual improvisation and individualism. Evangelicals are urged to “work out their faith” (as stated in Philippians 2), which typically entails regular spiritual disciplines like worship, prayer, and Bible study. The individualistic component of evangelicalism is important because it allows very different ways of acting on one’s faith. It is why evangelicals can, in good conscience, arrive at very different opinions about how to act on one’s faith even though they may rely on the same interpretation of the Bible and share religious convictions and sensibilities. (In this book, I use “convictions” to refer to norms, reasoning, and ideology — matters of belief. “Sensibilities” refers to matters of religious practice — routines, demeanor, perceptions, and way of life.) Also, evangelicalism does not have a religious hierarchy, which permits believers the freedom to disagree with their pastors and, on occasion, church teaching.

Evangelicals further believe that they hold a responsibility to care for society. This notion of being entrusted with a mandate to work for the “common good” is seen as a covenant between God and His people. In the Bible, this covenant referred to an arrangement with the Jews, but evangelicals — along with most other Christians — believe the New Testament extended that covenant to them. This provides evangelicals with hope and encouragement to persevere in trying to overcome evil. Things may be wrong in the world, but they, working with God, can set the world aright.

These beliefs have been critical to evangelicalism’s success as a social movement. While evangelicals hold many different opinions, they have remained remarkably united in their campaign to interject moral convictions into American public life. They aim for their leaders to exercise “moral leadership” informed by faith and are guided by a particular moral vision of the way things ought to be.

Movements depend upon more than individuals; they need resources like money and power, and these resources are usually channeled through organizations. American evangelicalism has spawned a large number of voluntary associations and organizations, ranging from publishing houses to educational institutions to social service agencies. These organizations serve as the movement’s skeleton, connected by ligaments of social networks that join leaders in common cause. Through these networks evangelicals can talk about their public activism, which both mobilizes people to act and maintains momentum once their work has begun. We will look at these institutional and expressive dimensions of American evangelicalism and how they have contributed to the movement’s forward momentum. The goal of this movement — as in any movement — is to advance: to secure legitimacy and then to achieve shared objectives.

American Evangelicalism: A Short History

In the nineteenth century, American evangelicalism was so influential that, in the words of one historian, “it was virtually a religious establishment.” Conservative Protestants populated the faculties of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Evangelicals were also active in politics, helping to drive the temperance and women’s suffrage movements as they had done decades earlier with abolitionism. But forces soon began to emerge to challenge the evangelical establishment, first in the academy and then in wider society. At places like Harvard, higher biblical criticism and scientific naturalism put evangelical intellectuals to the test. At the same time, strictly nonsectarian institutions such as Johns Hopkins University were established. Evangelical dominance was also threatened demographically, as waves of new immigrants began to reach American shores. Roman Catholics and Jews emigrated from eastern and southern Europe, making America much more religiously diverse. Urbanization and industrialization posed novel challenges to the existing welfare infrastructure. Soon, religious bodies were no longer able to meet the growing need for social services, and the federal government and expanding corporations were called upon to provide them.

Nonetheless, in the early twentieth century theological conservatives fought for the continued relevance of their faith. The turning point came at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Though they won in court, “fundamentalists,” as they were called by then, were ridiculed in the national media as reactionary and anti-intellectual. As a result, they set aside many of their goals for transforming society and turned their energies inward toward their own religious communities. In what has been called the “Great Reversal,” they withdrew into pessimism and separatism. Although they continued to generate new organizations, they separated from the cultural mainstream and maintained strong boundaries between themselves and wider society. Dancing, smoking, wearing makeup, and playing cards were deemed improper, and a legalistic attention to avoiding them became hallmarks of fundamentalism.

In 1942, the Reverend Harold J. Ockenga of Boston’s Park Street Congregational Church convened a group of religious leaders for a meeting. These “neo-evangelical” leaders, including Billy Graham, wanted to enter the public square again without abandoning their religious identity. They also sought to recover the tradition of rigorous intellectual inquiry wedded to a religious worldview. They founded the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the modern evangelical movement was born.

In 1946, Carl F. H. Henry, one of the architects of modern evangelicalism, published Remaking the Modern Mind. In it, he advocated a resurrection of a faith that could “do battle in the world of ideas.” A year later, in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Henry urged fellow evangelicals to engage pressing social concerns like race, class, and war and leave aside internal debates over doctrinal minutiae. Repudiating the fundamentalist model of religious separatism, the NAE allowed denominations that were already part of the liberal Federal Council of Churches to join their association as well. These evangelical leaders established institutions and networks that could sustain their lofty vision. When they founded their flagship magazine, Christianity Today, in 1956, they housed it not in some suburban enclave but in an office suite overlooking the White House.

While they were committed to engaging with society, evangelicals were relatively minor players among the powerful social actors of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some evangelicals became part of a loose network of political conservatives that emerged in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 failed presidential bid. At the same time, a group of progressive evangelicals launched a news journal called The Post-American, which urged fellow believers to mobilize for social action. Jane Fonda and Malcolm X grabbed headlines much more frequently than Billy Graham or his contemporaries did. Nonetheless, Graham continued to maintain strong relations with public leaders like Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Nixon, in fact, invited Graham to be the inaugural preacher at the weekly White House church service he established.

With America’s bicentennial in 1976, evangelicals saw an opportunity to renew their commitment to public affairs, and as they saw it, “at age two hundred, the nation sought more than improvement; it longed to be born again.” That year was a turning point for American evangelicalism. First-generation leaders — like Graham and Ockenga — began to give way to new leadership. It was dubbed the “year of the evangelical” as Time and Newsweek published cover stories on the emergence of a publicly oriented form of evangelicalism. Since that time, evangelicals have become even more prominent. From the White House to Wall Street, from Hollywood to Harvard, evangelicals today can be found in practically every center of elite power and influence. When Newsweek ran its story on evangelicals in 1976, one individual — Jimmy Carter — figured prominently. When Time ran a similar cover story in 2005, the magazine profiled twenty-five leaders — and, as this book will show, they could have chosen hundreds more.

Looking at Leadership

At its core, this is a book about leadership and power. It explores the subject by looking at some of the most important people in the country and examining what drives them. Though most of us know that there are growing numbers of evangelicals in leadership today, we know virtually nothing about them. Information on evangelicalism as practiced by the masses is plentiful and accessible, but the same is not true for leaders. National surveys do not interview enough of them to draw general conclusions, and most empirical studies have not examined their religious lives. When religion is considered, it is seen only as one box to be checked and has been glaringly omitted from discussions about the personal side of public leadership. Is religion playing a greater role in public life?

To find out, I tried to interview as many evangelicals in leadership positions as I could find. There are two kinds of leaders who are evangelical: those who lead institutions within the evangelical movement — also referred to as movement leaders — and public leaders from government, business, and culture. Altogether, I spoke to 360 of them, making this the most comprehensive examination of faith in the lives of leaders alive today.

The movement leaders I interviewed included pastors at large churches, college and seminary presidents, and heads of evangelical organizations. The public leaders each held at least one leadership position of societal prominence between 1976 and 2006. They include two former presidents of the United States as well as two dozen cabinet secretaries and senior White House staffers. There are representatives from each of the five administrations in office during that time, with a significant number coming from the administration of George W. Bush. This is due, no doubt, to the prominence of evangelicals there, but it also reflects the time at which the interviews were conducted. While in office, officials are more readily available and responsive to interview requests.

From the business community, there were over one hundred chairmen, chief executives, presidents, or senior executives at large firms (both public and private), from fifteen different industries, forty-two Fortune 500 companies, and six members of the Forbes 400 wealthiest families. The leaders I interviewed were alumni, faculty, and administrators from 159 educational institutions, including every major university in the country. And there were leaders from television, film, journalism, and the visual and performing arts, as well as selected nonprofit organizations and professional sports.

This is a relatively homogeneous crowd. While the evangelical movement can include a variety of people, its leadership — like that of most social movements — does not reflect that diversity. Their ages ranged from thirty-two to ninety-three, with the average age being fifty-four. Practically all were married with between two and three children. White evangelicalism is still largely separate from the black church, and almost all of the leaders I interviewed are white. Just 10 percent of the public leaders I interviewed are women, underscoring the dominance of men in America’s elite ranks. These include women who have held senior positions in government (such as Karen Hughes), business (such as Borders president Tami Heim and Enron executive and “whistle-blower” Sherron Watkins), and culture (like Kathie Lee Gifford and actress Nancy Stafford). This percentage is not dramatically different from the percentage of women in Congress or the percentage of women who are corporate officers, but it is much lower than the percentage of women in the U.S. labor force and even those who fill MBA slots at top schools.

In other words, women in elite circles are still few and far between, but there are some important differences between women in general and women within the evangelical world. Gayle Miller is a good example. The former president of Anne Klein II, Miller spent her working lifetime in the world of retail fashion. When we met for her interview in Los Angeles, she spoke at length of the challenges she faced at the start of her career in the 1950s: “No one wanted to give us credit, no one wanted to sell us fabric. [The thinking was] ‘How can two dumb blondes make this on their own?”’ In the end, of course, she did make it, becoming head of the country’s market leader for professional women’s attire. During the course of her career, she turned away from her Mormon background and became a charismatic Christian through the Vineyard Church. Over the years, she has joined the boards of evangelical organizations, often serving as the lone female director. On several occasions, she encountered an evangelical bias against women, especially as she sought to recruit more women to boards or as speakers for various programs. She told me, “When I would say something like, ‘You know, women are very good organizers and speakers, and we also know how to talk to people of power,’ [the men] would just laugh.” Asked if evangelical women sense the exclusion at these various groups, she responded, “Sense it? They might as well have a sign out on the [door].” Several of the women I interviewed, like Miller, did not have children of their own, and they said that gave them more time for work. Among those with children, all said their husbands shared equally in family duties, something that is not true of most evangelicals or of most men in this country. In fact, many women executives said their husbands serve as primary caregivers for their children. Marjorie Dorr, president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, whose husband stayed home for seven years with their sons, told me, “You can’t do this without that [kind of support].” In similar fashion, Tami Heim’s husband stayed home to take care of their daughter and her aging mother — who was suffering from Alzheimer’s — while Heim traveled the globe as president of Borders. As she began to rise within the organization, Heim’s husband quit his job as a research scientist at Eli Lilly and became the family “anchor.”

As much as these women appreciate the egalitarian perspectives of their husbands, all of them talked about their family situation with a tinge of regret. Marjorie Dorr hates that she doesn’t get home until eight at night because it makes her feel like she is avoiding family responsibilities. Karen Hughes, counselor to President George W. Bush, shocked the political establishment when she resigned to spend more time with her teenage son. “I felt like I was … shirking my obligations as his mom,” Hughes told me when we met. “When I worked in the Texas governor’s office, I had a very busy job and a very big job. But … the White House is different … It’s pretty constant and frenetic. And it is hard to balance [work and family there] … I found … that I was torn all the time. I felt like I wasn’t really able to have time for my true priorities.” She returned to Washington in 2005 after her son went away to college.

The tension between professional obligations and family expectations, grueling for all women, seems especially so for evangelical women. Some observers, especially feminists — even evangelical feminists — were “mad,” Hughes said to me, when she left her powerful position in the Bush White House “because they thought that it … made it look as if women couldn’t get to the top without leaving it all for their family.” Hughes said her evangelical faith did not compel her return to Texas; if anything, she felt that it sustained her as she tried to balance work and family. Nevertheless, even though most of their own families do not exhibit the patriarchal tendencies typical of American evangelicalism, these leaders feel torn between family desires and professional ambition. From talking with many female leaders, it is obvious that the evangelical community does not support them enough in juggling these competing demands, a topic to which we will return later.

The vast majority of the evangelicals I interviewed are Protestant, and most are involved in some type of faith-based small group. They are not particularly loyal to a single congregation or even a single denomination. Almost three in five have switched congregations and denominations more than once, and the figure is even higher (80 percent) among younger leaders. Surprisingly, more than half of all leaders talked about embracing the evangelical approach to faith — ”deciding to follow Jesus,” in evangelical parlance — after high school. Evangelicalism’s most prolific pollster, George Barna, has found that “if people do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chance of their doing so at all is slim.” This suggests that American leaders’ spiritual journeys are noticeably different from those of the general population. Faith is important to them, but they often embrace it later in life.

What does the typical evangelical public leader look like? Meet William Inboden. Educated at Stanford before earning a PhD in history at Yale, Inboden is like many other leaders I interviewed. He held several influential positions before assuming his current role at the National Security Council and was a primary author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, legislation that reflected growing evangelical activism in foreign affairs. As Inboden has worked into the upper echelons of government, he has not jettisoned his evangelical convictions; in fact, he regards them as deeply enmeshed in his work. He told me, “My work and [professional] gifts are a stewardship from God to be used for his glory … [It requires] me to act with honor and integrity and to love those whom I work with as [ones] created in the image of God.” Like others I interviewed, Inboden embraces an irenic, ecumenical spirit that has emerged in recent years among Protestants and Catholics, and he believes there is an “imperative” that he share his faith with others. Inboden has also been involved with various networks of influential evangelicals, groups that have helped advance his own career. To support his studies at Yale, he received a Harvey Fellowship, which is a scholarship for talented evangelical graduate students. And while in Washington he has participated in evangelical groups like Faith and Law and Civitas. Inboden’s vision is shared by many I interviewed: an evangelical engagement with the political, intellectual, and cultural currents of the day in such a way that people of faith not only “follow the culture [but actually] shape it.” That, in brief, is a snapshot of evangelical leaders today and what they hope to accomplish from within the halls of power.

Since 1976, hundreds of evangelicals like Inboden have risen to positions of public influence. But they have not done so by chance. The rise of evangelicalism is the result of the efforts of a select group of leaders seeking to implement their vision of moral leadership. They have founded organizations, formed social networks, exercised what I call “convening power,” and drawn upon formal and informal positions of authority to advance the movement. Sociologist Randall Collins has argued that recognition and acclaim are bestowed upon leaders and ideas through structured, status oriented networks. Over the last three decades, the legitimacy that has come to the evangelical movement has come through the political, corporate, and cultural leaders who were willing to publicly associate with it. Evangelicalism, with its history of spanning denominational boundaries, is well suited to help evangelicals build connections with important leaders and prestigious institutions. They have formed alliances with diverse groups, giving the movement additional cachet and power in surprising ways. Leaders are often at the vanguard of a movement, and this book shows how evangelicals endowed with public responsibility have been at the forefront of social change over the last thirty years. By building networks of powerful people, they have introduced evangelicalism into the higher circles of American life. The moral leadership they practice certainly grows out of their evangelical convictions, but it also reflects the privileges they enjoy and the power they wield. Indeed, their leadership is an extension of — not a departure from — the elite social worlds they inhabit.

As I left the News Corp party that Rupert Murdoch threw back in 2004, I was handed a gift package with a note from Rick Warren inside. It read:

Thank you for honoring me with your presence this evening. No one is more amazed than I am with the Purpose Driven Life phenomenon. Who could have predicted it would make publishing history? It’s both astonishing and humbling. Because you are a leader that has expressed some interest in living with purpose, I’d like to invite you to be part of a very exclusive group. Each Thursday morning I lead an international study by conference call for influential leaders. It is a by invitation only group that has included some of the best known leaders in entertainment, business, politics, education, sports, media and the military. It is quite a mix of people, with the only common denominator being people of influence who have a desire to live with more purpose in their lives. If you are interested in listening in on one of these calls, just email [me] and I’ll send you the details.

Around the country, leaders have joined groups like these: exclusive, regular gatherings where participants discuss matters of faith. They are occurring not only in the Bible Belt, but in places like Manhattan and Hollywood. I responded to Warren’s invitation to join his weekly conference call, and though I never received a reply, my interviews were a gateway into this rarefied world. This book provides an inside look at American evangelicalism’s rise to power and the leaders who have made it happen.


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