Jeff rightly calls evangelicals on the carpet for hiding their quest for worldly power behind the mask of “servant leadership.” It’s not Jerry’s notion of servanthood, of course, that Jeff disagrees with. Helping the poor and hungry are certainly worthwhile. David asked what I think is “the most under-reported but promising parts of evangelicalism today (in terms of living up to Jesus’ Gospel).” One thing I can point to is a number of corporate executives who are choosing to forgo the kind of opulent lifestyle we’re used to seeing and are instead using their money to do good works, making a difference in people’s lives. It’s not a revolution, but it’s not nothing.
What Jeff really objects to is the way evangelical leaders have grasped power while pretending they don’t have it. He’ll get no argument from me. Evangelicals certainly aren’t powerless. If they were, I’d have no book. You can’t wear the mantle of the oppressed while sitting in your office on Capitol Hill.
But while evangelicals are certainly interested in political power, they’re not only interested in political power. That’s why they are heavily engaged in many other areas—Hollywood, higher education, business, and the arts, to name a few. What unites evangelicals is that they believe something is wrong with American culture and that they can help set it aright. “Cultural redemption” is a phrase I heard from a lot of the people I interviewed. Is this political? Sure. Is it entirely political? No way. Power and politics may be twin-born, but they are not identical.
This wider cultural agenda is what makes evangelicalism a movement, not just an interest group. And it’s what makes them potentially more powerful than a mere interest group could ever be.
What has made them a successful movement? For all their diversity—and it is real—they remain united around a core group of religious beliefs. Orthodoxy gives them their identity and allows them to define who’s in and who’s out. Good fences make good movements.
But that’s only half of it. Evangelical orthodoxy is not of the (to borrow from Jeff) “my-way-or-the-highway (to Hell)” variety. Instead, it’s what I call “elastic orthodoxy”—the ability to remain distinctive without putting purity ahead of pragmatism—and it has been the key to evangelicals’ rise to power.
It’s this, not just global warming (and, I would add, African poverty or the AIDS crisis), that separates Rick Warren from Jerry Falwell. Warren is the epitome of what I call a “cosmopolitan evangelical.” Cosmopolitan evangelicals look for allies among people Jerry Falwell would simply condemn.
While populists make the most noise, cosmopolitans have the most impact. Often, they get things done by drawing on friendships that grow out of shared faith. If there’s one thing I learned from five years of interviewing powerful evangelicals, it’s that personal relationships among leaders are the key to evangelicals’ power. The bonds of faith are strong, and they last beyond Sunday morning.
Speaking of church, we haven’t really talked much about it. One of the most striking things about the powerful evangelicals I interviewed is that many of them were really disengaged from their local congregations, opting instead to find spiritual support in small fellowship groups, Bible studies, and in programs sponsored by parachurch groups. They’d rather be on the board of a national organization like Young Life than the board of elders at their local Presbyterian church. Art Linkletter described himself to me as a “floating” Christian, so it’s not just young evangelicals.
This is a growing phenomenon, one that could lead to even more significant divisions in the years ahead. What will that mean for evangelicals and their influence in wider society?