Hey, everybody! It’s great to have the chance to interact with a group that has thought so much about the ascent of American evangelicals.
After interviewing several hundred elite evangelicals, I’ve concluded that the evangelical movement is a lot more than we generally think—and also a lot less.
It’s a lot more in that evangelicals have never seen themselves as principally about politics, even though Washington is where they have made the most gains over the last three decades. I fully agree with Jeff that the religious impulse is what makes American democracy unique. It was true when Tocqueville visited in the 1830s, and it remains true today.
But pundits miss the mark when they think of American evangelicalism as mostly a political movement or an interest group. As Hanna has shown, elite evangelicals are entranced with the cultural authority of Hollywood. They are active in intellectual and corporate life. There’s no doubt that they have entered not just the political elite, but also the cultural and economic elite.
But it’s also a lot less than people think. Even if evangelicals wanted a “messianic empire,” the ship of state is too difficult to turn around. Institutional inertia keeps evangelicals from radically transforming the culture.
Plus, as David has written, evangelicals are not even united within a single White House. Evangelicalism is dominated by big egos. Few are the humble servants that Jerry admires and hopes for. The hubris of these larger-than-life personalities often keeps them from working together. They couldn’t take over the country if they wanted to.
I found deep differences between populist evangelicals and a group I call “cosmopolitan evangelicals.” They may agree on basic religious principles, but they disagree both in their visions for America and in how to achieve them. Populist evangelicals aim to mobilize the masses–theirs is the domain of Christian talk radio. Cosmopolitan evangelicals, on the other hand, prefer subtler strategies. They’d rather send evangelicals marching off to Harvard than to a rally.
So I have to disagree with Jeff that the elite and populist branches of evangelicalism have merged. If anything, I think they have grown farther apart. Populist evangelicals go on as they always have, trying to storm the gates. But cosmopolitan evangelicals are already on the inside. They’re not a new power elite, but rather, as Jeff suggests, a part of the old one. And they’re shaking it up in important ways, for good or ill.