The Evangelical Elite

by Lesley on November 17, 2007 · 3 comments

in christianity

Read an interesting article on Christianity Today: The Evangelical Elite. I’d really encourage reading it but for those that want a condensed version, I’ve posted a few answers by Michael Lindsay, the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite:

How are these (“elite”) evangelicals different from more “populist” evangelicals?
The cosmopolitan evangelicals I write about are people who are just as committed to their faith, just as involved in mainstream evangelical life. By and large, they are very orthodox in their beliefs. Yet they rub shoulders with a much more diverse population. They’re far from insular or inward-focused. The majority of their working day is spent with people of different faiths or of no faith. They have reached higher levels of education. One in ten of those whom I interviewed earned a degree at Harvard, either undergraduate or graduate. It’s a very elite group, but it’s not really about class sensibility—it’s more about an orientation to the world. They read Christianity Today, but they also read The New York Times. They might go to a Christian rock concert, but they also go to the symphony. And they have a broadmindedness that goes alongside their faith.

I was really struck by how these cosmopolitan evangelicals in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago look more like each other than they do the folks who go to church with them. They might go to a regular congregation, but their faith is broader, or at least espouses a greater appreciation for pluralism and diversity. I would say one of the key differences is that populist evangelicals are very interested in converting the other. That’s a real driving mechanism—trying to persuade others that Christianity is right. I didn’t find that quite as prominent among cosmopolitan evangelicals. They were more interested in legitimacy. They wanted their faith to be seen as valid, something that smart, intelligent people could embrace, that you didn’t have to check your brain at the door to accept. You’ve got this more intelligent, savvy, well-traveled experience that naturally shapes the cosmopolitan’s faith.

A lot of the elites I interviewed are really not that different from their peers. They stay in fancy hotels, they drive nice cars; some of them own their own airplanes. They are high flyers, and they aren’t necessarily living like the poor. Many people I interviewed are living a considerably lower lifestyle than they can afford, because their faith compels them to. But still, many of them stay at hotels like the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton, and they have conferences at exotic locales. Their faith extends into these elite corridors. It’s something they incorporate into their elite world; it isn’t something they leave behind.

How do these leaders connect with each other?
For many of these leaders, local church involvement is not the principal source of spiritual solidarity. Rather, it comes from being involved in small groups, often among peers. Business leaders meet with other business leaders for a prayer breakfast or a Bible study the first Tuesday of every month. Or folks in the White House get together for the White House Christian fellowship. And these informal, loose alliances have over time built a dense web of overlapping networks of really powerful people, so that evangelicals in Hollywood know evangelicals in Washington. Social networks or spiritual friendships or faith-formed small groups have come to be so prominent among the nation’s elite. I think these webs have played a big role in advancing evangelicalism over the last 30 years.

What types of networks are most important to them?
There are two major constellations of networks. One of those is constituted by board membership on parachurch evangelical organizations. So board members for World Vision all know one another, though they come from different places and different social contexts, and are intentionally drawn from different spheres of influence. Everyone on that board is a person of influence, and everyone who is there runs in similar circles, only in different towns. That occurs for every national evangelical parachurch ministry. Because those boards meet on a regular basis, long-term, meaningful ties are formed.

The parachurch sector has been the fulcrum of evangelical influence over the last 30 years. I found hundreds of leaders who are far more committed to being involved in a particular small group or in parachurch ministry than they are to being involved in their local church.
The other constellation of networks is the various, widely dispersed special initiatives toward members of the American elite. Campus Crusade has launched the Christian Embassy, a ministry to reach people in Washington and the diplomatic corps in NYC. They have something called Impact 21, which is designed to reach top business leaders across American society. Focus on the Family had a ministry called CEO Forum. Prison Fellowship, Walk Thru the Bible, lots of different ministries hold special weekends that are donor-relations events, and they try to reach folks who might financially support the ministry in a powerful way, but they also are opportunities to reach out to peers. I found those things happen all over the place. In almost every American city, there is a monthly gathering of top leaders that is by-invitation-only. In Boston there’s a First Tuesday group, convened by Tom Phillips, former CEO of Raytheon. In NYC there’s a group that meets monthly at the Link Club, with a guy named Doug Holladay. In Washington there are several groups, largely supported by the National Prayer Breakfast ministry and a group called “the Fellowship”; in LA there’s a group that meets at the Screenwriters Theater monthly; a pastor in St. Louis flies out to speak to and encourage them.
And these have sprung up independently of each other.
That’s the amazing thing—it’s like 1,000 flowers blooming.

What do you think is behind that?
Two things. One is that evangelicals have been very focused on gaining traction among elite constituents in this country. And second is the entrepreneurial edge of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of using entrepreneurial energy to make a difference. They are constantly trying new strategies. They dedicate a lot of energy and resources to making things happen. This is part of the religious DNA of American evangelicals. That entrepreneurial spirit matches well with parachurch organizations, which are constantly innovating, but it may not fit so well with the ethos of a local church.
Parachurch board members told me, “I relate more deeply to the people on this board than I do to anyone at my church. We live in the same world and we face the same kinds of problems. That’s usually not true of the members of my church.” Most evangelical elites continue to attend a local congregation, but they’re often not involved or engaged in the way they are with parachurch ministries. They get impatient with what they consider incompetence. They go to a committee meeting that may be poorly run, and they can’t stand to waste so much time getting so little accomplished. They realize that for some committee members, just being there is a high point of the week, a real source of stimulation. But for them it’s mostly a waste of time. So they engage elsewhere, where things are run with a higher degree of professionalism. I was also surprised to find many who feel considerable tension with their pastor. This seemed particularly true of some business leaders I interviewed. Sometimes it’s because the pastor is not a good administrator or a good leader in the same mold as the corporate world’s leaders. And then too, most felt that the pastor just doesn’t have any idea about the world they inhabit. Sometimes, in fact, he or she is downright hostile to it. I talked to one CEO whose pastor preached against Christians who owned second houses and enjoyed perks like personal drivers. Well, this CEO was the only one in the church who had a second house and a driver. Why didn’t the pastor come to talk to him, instead of preaching about him to the rest of the church? It’s not surprising, therefore, that if I found a church where three or four CEOs go, it was almost always a megachurch. In a large church they could blend in, or they had a large amount of respect for the senior pastor, who many times has the same kind of entrepreneurial ability and experience and drive they have.

Thoughts: I have so many I’m not sure how to organize them. But, I can’t help but have so concern about many of these “elite” groups that only want to spend time with each other, rather than extending themselves into the rest of the body of believers. God gave each of us different gifts and talents, one of which can be financial wealth, and if we surround ourselves with only those similar to us than we don’t have an opportunity to use our gifts with those who need them, nor do we have an opportunity to be given to. Plus: the combination of wealth, power and exclusivity is never a good combination– I think it breeds a focus on the self and not on the Creator.

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