Everything You Thought You Knew About Evangelicals Is Wrong (Maybe)

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Key West, FL
Greetings from a dim conference room. Today’s diversion from the beach was a presentation from Michael Lindsay in which he presented “eight myths about evangelicals.” Lindsay is the author of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” and had conducted some of academia’s most thorough and sensitive research on evangelicalism. His “myths” are after the jump.

(This is an especially interesting set of statements in light of tomorrow’s release of “An Evangelical Manifesto” at the National Press Club, which — according to Lindsay — seeks to clarify to the relationship of evangelicals to public life; specifically, to assert that politics is not the main locus of evangelicals’ engagement with public life.)

DISCLAIMER: I’m presenting my notes from his presentation, not really commenting on them. I’ve tried to provide supplementary links where explanation seems helpful, but I don’t necessarily hold these views myself or think of them as — ahem — canonical. I just thought readers might be interested in some of the latest academic research on this significant force in American culture, and politics. Think he’s wrong? Pushback from the peanut gallery is welcome. (And I’ll take them to Lindsay if clarification is needed and will, obviously, update if I — or you — find a problem in my own interpretation of his points.)

Evangelicals succeed because of conformity and unity. LINDSAY: Divisions about issues (such as globals warming) and priorities vary widely. He cited an example of how some churches have chosen to scale down pro-life activism — which they fear might be fruitless in the short term — and instead focus on eliminating or cracking down on pay-day lenders, an issue that is in their own backyards, that they can do something about, and that has just as strong a Biblical justification.

The 2004 election represents the pinnacle of evangelical political power. LINDSAY: In terms of lasting effect and ability to organize a wide coalition, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act is a better example of the power that evangelicals wield.

There are king makers who can sway the entire movement. LINDSAY: The movement is full of strong personalities — like James Dobson — who have a national presence, but who cannot necessarily turn out people on the ground level. The strongest leaders are the pastors of major churches — he cited Saddleback , Willow Creek and Redeemer as examples — who can motivate people to real-world activism. “The movement has lots of strong leaders but weak national institutions.”

The centers of evangelical power are where the national institutions are: Wheaton College, Colorado Springs, etc. LINDSAY: The centers of evangelical power are where all the other centers of power are for the rest of the culture: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC. What’s more, these centers of power tend to culturally identify as “elite” just as much as they do “evangelical.” Lindsay called them “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and said that they tend to reject the “signifiers” of “populist” evangelicals; he said that more than once in his interviews, a subject volunteered, without prompting, “I’ve never read those ‘Left Behind’ books,” or “I would never hang a Thomas Kinkaide painting in my home.” (He predicts that “the cosmopolitan evangelical will be the new face of evangelicalism in the coming years.”)

The emergence of cosmopolitan elitists and younger evangelicals will lead to a political re-alignment. LINDSAY (arguing an interesting variation of Gerson’s point from yesterday): Young evangelicals are center right, and they are among the MOST loyal Republicans. Bush’s approval has fallen the least among this group. They will not compromise on abortion. And in the ways they’ve become more liberal, the Republican party as whole seems to be moving as well: young evangelicals AND young Republicans have embraced “faith-based environmentalism,” and young evangelicals do not see same-sex civil unions as an assault on the culture. But rather than young evangelicals changing their affiliation to reflect these more traditionally “liberal” views, they will likely just change the party.

Evangelicals tend to be isolationist in their view of American aid to the world. LINDSAY: Evangelicals have done a “180” on world aid. They “love” USAID. This has to do with professionalization of missionary work: More people do missionary work for shorter periods of time, and global outreach has become central to the mission of major urban churches. Fully seven thousand of the members of Saddleback church have gone to do humanitarian volunteer work in Rwanda.

Church life drives political involvement, i.e., the more you go to church, the more politicalLY active you’ll be. “Cosmopolitan evangelicals,” who are the most politically active, have the lowest level of church involvement. Instead, they have high involvement in “para-church” institutions like Bible study groups and other kinds of fellowship. What’s more, the notion that there is some organized movement among evangelicals to bring about the apocalypse through political involvement distorts the large majority of what politically active evangelical conservatives are interested. “MOST of the people that I’ve talked to couldn’t even tell you the doctrinal theory of how to do that.”

Politics is the main focus of their activism. LINDSAY: The largest, and most effective evangelical activist groups are focused on aid or cultural issues more than pushing specific political policies. WorldVision, which distributes the bulk of USAID’s food donations, was his primary example.

Provocative stuff, and backed up by reams of data, but not without some logical and methodological holes. A smart review looks at some of them here.