Powerful Faith (Michael Lindsay)

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?

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James McGrath

posted October 22, 2007 at 4:50 pm

There certainly does seem to be a shift taking place in Evangelicalism. There is a new generation not just of leaders but of Christians in general who are eschewing extremes and gravitating more towards the center, towards balance. It is good news, because faith is important to a large number of people, including many who have probably kept quiet about it for fear of being tarred with the same brush as the extremists. If we can marginalize the marginal voices of the extremists, it will be a good thing for Evangelicalism, for the reputation of Christianity, and for the country as a whole.

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Jim T

posted October 22, 2007 at 10:49 pm

“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.”
What are those core beliefs, exactly?

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Gary Sweeten

posted October 23, 2007 at 8:55 am

The core beliefs may be summarized as The Apostle’s Creed. Second, if there are 30 to 40 million Evangelicals in Americ one would assume a large number are in politics, business, industry, film, science, etc. Many of us cut out teeth in the Sixties and Seventies so we have good educations, many international exp, varied political experiences, business acumen, an entrepreneurial bent along with our faith in God.
As for our age, we have a wide variety but since we developed our faith among the Boomers we are likely to be over 50 and wizened in the ways of getting things done. The current policies of the government arose from that last wave of Christian evangelicals and Mainline Believers and now it is our time. (See Nobel Economist Robert Fogel.) So, if there are over 30 million Evangelical Boomers in the uSA there is no way to stop the Movement.

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Daniel Smoak

posted October 23, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Using the Apostles’ Creed to define the core beliefs of evangelicals is a mistake. It is too broad. Here’s Lindsay’s working definition, which I think is a good one:
An evangelical is 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.
3. That one should take a transforming, activist approach to faith.

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Jeff Sharlet

posted October 23, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Not sure if Michael meant to suggest as much, but when I referred to “my way or the highway (to Hell),” I certainly wasn’t thinking of evangelical orthodoxy. In the context of my post, it’s clear that I meant Jerry’s “Left Behind” books. Which sounds uncharitable, I know, but there it is — Jerry seems like a gentle soul in real life, but his viction is violent and black & white.
I’m not sure about that distinction between Falwell and Warren. Falwell, despite his public image, was a great compromiser, of course — that’s how he built power. And he accepted as allies all sorts of people an unbending evangelical might condemn. Not the same people Warren works with. Warren’s willing to work with enviros, LGBT, etc. Falwell was willing to work with folks I consider a lot more godless — starting with Grover Norquist, and crawling down the evolutionary ladder to some real thugs who had not an iota of interest in faith.

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Jim T

posted October 24, 2007 at 1:10 am

So what is the Apostles Creed? I’ve never heard of it.

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Aunt Cathy

posted October 24, 2007 at 4:50 pm

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church,
the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.
Contrary to popular belief, the term One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church per se. The term Catholic means “Universal”. This Universal faith in Christ and through the teaching of the Apostles makes us Christians. That is why it is painful to see division among Christian ministries (i.e. Catholic bashing, Mormon bashing, Vineyard fellowship bashing, etc.). When we indeed become “One in the Spirit” and fellowship together; I think the Heavens will truly smile on us. Our day of judgement won’t come at the hands of the Evangelical ministers; it will come by God alone. He is the only One who can judge which behaviors or beliefs are acceptable and which should be condemned. I pray that all who serve Him (regardless of the doctrine chosen)will be righteously rewarded in our time of judgement.

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Hal Drake

posted October 24, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Daniel Smoak comments are right on, except his #1 statement, “That the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice.” doesn’t go far enough. If we believe the Bible is supreme authority, it must include all of life and practice and not just limited to “religious belief and practice”.

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