When I first entered politics in the late 1960s, I had never heard the term “evangelical.” If I did, I certainly didn’t know what it meant. Now it’s a word you hear everywhere—in the news and at political rallies, on college campuses, and even in Hollywood. You especially hear the word in religious circles. However, it is not by happenstance that this word has become so commonplace. “Evangelical” has changed from being an adjective that describes a kind of activity to a noun that defines a particular kind of person. That change is powerfully chronicled in D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power.
This well-written history of the rise of evangelicals in American society provides a scholarly account of the motives and methods of how this new religious movement has reached the peaks of power in politics, academia, business, media, and philanthropy. The book is thorough and full of facts, outlining what makes a person evangelical and how evangelicals have acquired so much influence. Lindsay describes how certain individuals in the past 30 years thoughtfully targeted areas of power, devised plans to infiltrate particular leadership circles, and then implemented networks that often took years or decades to mature. Lindsay interviewed more than 360 influential people in pursuit of his answers, and he delivers a clear picture of how evangelicals have become a dominant force in the United States.
Influential people with religious views have always been an essential part of our cultural fabric. However, Lindsay distinguishes the roots of this particular movement and its goals, asserting that leaders within the evangelical community have sought religious and cultural legitimacy for their collective faith by becoming part of the cultural elite. From a position of power, Lindsay argues, evangelicals feel they can increase their influence in steering the direction of American culture and make changes from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. By being at the table of leadership, evangelicals can make sure their views are heard as well as respected.
FOR PEOPLE WANTING an understanding of how evangelicals have acquired so much power, money, and influence in the past 30 years, this is the ultimate insider’s book. From my reading—and perhaps this is a bit crass—it seems that evangelicals have followed the old adage, “it takes money to make money,” and have thus reasoned that it “takes evangelicals to make evangelicals.” It’s good political strategy, but unfortunately it is inherently flawed from a spiritual perspective.
As impressive as it may be, evangelicals’ rise to power seems like any other group’s rise to power—and that’s what really concerns me. Of all the groups who ought to look like Jesus and act like Jesus, U.S. evangelicals have instead often talked about Jesus without walking the talk. I wish Lindsay’s book could have portrayed the rise to prominence of a group of believers who had abandoned their wealth for the cause of Christ, rather than invested it to garner greater access; a group who had gained power by empowering the poor, rather than expanding their network of influence; a group who had changed the culture because they had brought into the mainstream those left out of it, rather than propelled themselves into the cultural elite in order to justify their cause.
Granted, I am impressed by the cultural saturation of my fellow evangelicals. Like the salt or yeast we are encouraged to be, evangelicals have penetrated America’s halls of power. In pursuit of the reign of God, evangelicals have acquired everything they need: media networks, publishing companies, adviser-directed philanthropic funds, political action committees—pretty much everything Jesus never had.
Lindsay concludes, however, that there are no real direct policy changes that have resulted from their efforts so far. Thus, the book raises a profound question for me: How good is the salt if it loses its saltiness? Will this age of American evangelicalism be noted for its successful entrée into the halls of power, or its great love for God and one another?
Tony P. Hall is a former U.S. Representative from Ohio and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome. He thanks David C. Austin for his assistance with this review.