Andy Crouch: Well, let’s start by having you just describe how you have spent the last couple of years, where you went, what methods you used and kind of a thumbnail summary of what you have discovered.
Michael Lindsay: Sure, I was interested in trying to figure out how Orthodox Christians, people of deep Christian faith who are also in positions of societal responsibility; so leaders in government, in the White House, cabinet secretaries, heads of federal bureaus and agencies, as well as business leaders like corporate CEOs and folks in Hollywood and professional athletes. How did they bring their faith to bear on what they do through their work? So does their faith make a difference in how they live their lives and particularly in how did they exercise their influence in their different spheres of influence. One of the interesting things I found is that it makes a huge difference. It not only ground some of their convictions and shaped some of their motivations but it can produce actual tangible results in lots of different parts of American society. The project was trying to interview a lot of folks who had been in responsibility over the last 30 years or so and, in total, I interviewed about 360 leaders from lots of different walks of life.
Andy: You mentioned some of the different spheres that they were in but could you give us a sense of who some of these people were, if that’s public knowledge or if you can?
Michael: Sure. I interviewed former president Jimmy Carter, former president George H. W. Bush, about 20 cabinet secretaries and folks like C. Everett Koop who was Surgeon General to Karen Hughes who was counselor to the president. I also interviewed about 40 Fortune 500 CEOs as well as another 50 or 60 CEOs of pretty large companies, both public and private. The CEO of Johnson and Johnson, the CEO of Hughes Supply, the head of Epcot down at Disney World. Hollywood folks, so writers, producers, directors. Folks like Todd Komarnicki who was a producer of Elf. Ralph Winter who has produced a lot of different movies; X Men, Fantastic Four. Scott Derrickson who is the director of the Exorcism of Emily Rose as well as professional athletes like golf, first, Nancy Lopez and Betsy King, as well as football players like Kurt Warner and Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Andy: Wow! Evangelical Christians, I think, in America can sometimes have a sense of being a beleaguered, persecuted minority. But when you list this number of people, it sounds like actually we may underestimate the degree to which people of faith are actually already in positions of cultural power.
Michael: That’s exactly right, Andy, that if you look at it, I mean, there are leaders in very senior positions in American society who are very serious about their faith. I mean, you have to estimate what percentage of the nation’s elite are evangelical. Depending on how you define that, we are still talking about a small number, five to 10%. But when you compare that with where things were 20 or 30 years ago, it’s extraordinary. Evangelicals weren’t even on the radar map 20 or 30 years ago and today they can be found in lots of important places.
Andy: What would you attribute that change to over the past few decades?
Michael: Well, some of it is demographic shifts so that one of the kind of key indicator or ways in which you kind of moved up the social mobility is through access to elite education. So going to places like Harvard and Stanford, Duke and Princeton. Over this span of time, these elite institutions have made a real concerted effort to draw a national student body that’s representative from different regions of the country, different races, different ethnicities. One of the unintended consequences of this is that people of different religious faiths have come to these kinds of schools. So, Harvard has more evangelicals today than maybe it has had in 200 years and that contributed partly.
But at the same time, there has been a real concerted effort by evangelicals and other people of faith to try and bring faith to bear on positions of responsibilities. There’s a lot more initiatives for folks that are in these kinds of positions. Programs to help emerging leaders, folks in their 20s and 30s who have real potential to do something significant if they just have the encouragement and the access and opportunities. Orthodox Christians who have some of those resources have deployed them, have used them to try and help some of their fellow believers to get a leg up.
Andy: Now, you said that when people arrive in these positions of cultural leadership that their faith does make a difference. Can you tell maybe one or two stories of ways that you saw that happening in some of the people you interviewed?
Michael: Well, some of it comes from decisions about what you are not going to do or what you are not going to agree to. There’s an element that faith kind of compels you to give up something, so I had a couple of folks that I interviewed who decided that they had to take a step back from their positions for a time. Karen Hughes, for example, decided that life in the White House was so demanding and that the requirements of her job were really taking a larger toll than she was willing to pay and she wanted just to be able to spend more time with her son while he was still in high school. So, she decided to step back for a couple of years. Since then, he has gone off to college and she has gotten back into the fray and she is now serving as an Assistant Secretary of State in Washington.
Another guy, Gary Daichendt was the number two executive at Cisco Systems and he decided that there was a need to give up his position because he disagreed on moral grounds with a personnel decision that was made. As he told me very few people would understand why he had done it or the events surrounding and he really won’t speak publicly about all that was involved. But for him, to stay in that position was an act of moral cowardice and he had to get out.
So, some of the folks that I interviewed decided that they’ve got to make a change, downshift or readjust their priority. It doesn’t mean that they give up the experiences or the leadership and really in both those cases; they’ve had lots of opportunities since then to get back into the game, so to speak.
At the same time, there are lots of folks who have tried to move the ball forward to try and make a real difference to their leadership. You can see this, for example, there is a lot of exciting developments that happened in the late ‘90s where evangelicals built together a coalition to try and lead the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act that was passed in 1998 by Congress, signed in the law by President Clinton which basically linked human rights and international religious freedom as a hallmark of American foreign policy.
Now, we produced a list of countries that do not support religious freedom and we are able to name and shame some of those countries into changing their policies. It’s been extremely effective. We also have looked at public agendas for trying to end sex labor, human trafficking. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of that. So, public policy, we can see some real adjustment.
Also in Hollywood, I think we are seeing some real changes. That’s there is a much greater openness. Philip Anschutz is a business leader out of Denver who has the Anschutz Film Group of which Walden Media is one part. They’ve been behind producing the Chronicles of Narnia series. The first movie came out last Christmas. They’re currently working on finishing up a film on the Life of William Wilberforce and trying to bring some of their Christian convictions to bear through public media. I mean, those are just a couple of examples. There’s lots of these kind of activity happening all around us.
Andy: You know you have mentioned maybe roughly four spheres that you focused on kind of political leadership, business leadership, athletics and entertainment. I am wondering if you have a feeling that Christian believers have been more or less effective in one sphere than another. How would you compare how much people have been able to really influence these spheres in those different spheres of culture?
Michael: One of the people that I interviewed, this guy named Al Sikes. He was the Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in the early ‘90s and he says, “Really what I was trying to look at is…” what he calls, “Move the Dial Christianity.” Not a radical change but trying to elevate the influence of Christians in public life. My assessment is that the easiest way to do that in our culture is through politics. Politics is largely based upon voting a particular person into office and you don’t have the same kind of gatekeepers that you do, for example, in the artistic world or in higher education in the scholarly realm. You don’t have the same kind of impediments that you do in the business world.
Politics is the area where I would say there has been the most activity over the last 30 years. Just in terms of influence or at least bringing faith to bear on public discourse, politics has clearly been the area where we’ve seen the most developments over the last 30 years or so.
Today, I would say that there is less enthusiasm for that or my sense is that there is less enthusiasm from evangelicals, the average person in the pew. That there is more excitement about some of the activities going on in places like Hollywood where people where people of faith are trying to bring their convictions to bear on the goods that are produced, on the movies that are made, the TV characters that are introduced, the books that are published.
I see a lot more activity today, for example, going on Hollywood than I do actually in Washington, a lot more entrepreneurial activity. If I had to kind of make a prediction of what I think we’ll see, I think we’ll probably see similar kind of developments that we have witnessed in the political realm probably in the artistic and entertainment realm in the coming decades.
Andy: That is interesting because I do think that even a lot of Christians who have been very active in politics, it seems to have a sort of a high disillusionment rate. One of the expressions that is used a lot in the world of Christians and political leadership is that politics is downstream from culture so that they’re realizing we legislate in this environment that is shaped by other kinds of culture and especially people are paying attention to Hollywood. But it sounds like what you are suggesting is that we may not appreciate how much you actually can do by participating in the political process that it might not be good for us to give up on that.
Michael: That’s right. I mean, what you are saying is exactly what I heard as I interviewed folks in the White House, in Congress and in all over Washington. Those folks who have been there for 15, 20 years do kind of express a sense of disillusionment or frustration at the lack of progress that has been made. I think you could say that that’s true for a lot of folks who have tried to legislate some of their commitments across American society that it’s difficult to do. Politics is a game of compromise and because of that, it’s not easy to get a straight line from your belief and conviction into public policy. There’s a lot of in between gray area which is tougher to navigate.
At the same time, I do think that there has been a lot of forward movement. I look, for example, in my book talking about how you can see an abortion policy and public opinion about abortion; it’s very different today than it was 30 years ago. I would attribute that to a lot of the activism that has occurred among Orthodox Christianity.
In international relations and foreign affairs, just for example, in the Journal of Foreign Affairs this fall, there was a leading article that said that, “Basically evangelicals have become the conscience of American foreign policy”. I think that that signals a seismic shift in what we saw in previous generations.
Then, finally, with faith based initiatives, the interesting thing is that a lot of these debates that has happened since the White House created the Office of Faith based and Community Initiatives in 2001, a lot of the debate has been about is this breaching the separation of church and state? Is it problematic that the federal government is giving grants to religious institutions and organizations?
The funny thing is that, this has been going on for decades in terms of international aid. The federal government has given religious groups grants from United States Agency for International Development, for example, to try and support lots of different initiatives in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America. The difference is that it has come closer to home. Some of these grants are going to ministries and projects that are down the street and in our neighborhoods.
Andy: Right, right. Let’s shift topics a little bit and talk about churches and how the folks that you talked to who are people of pretty significant accomplishments and status, how are churches doing at serving these folks that you interviewed? Turning it around, how did you find they were doing in terms of finding a local church where they were committed to and connected with?
Michael: This is probably the most surprising element to me because these are folks who have a lot of resources. They give a lot of money to different Christian causes and they are, by and large, very serious about their faith. So, I fully expected that most of these folks would be highly involved in their local church and there are some exemptions to the rule. But, generally speaking, most of these folks are not connected to the local church. They might be members and they might attend regularly but that is not where their health and soul is. A lot of the leaders I interviewed, frankly, are frustrated with the local church. They feel that pastors don’t connect enough with the everyday working world of their parishioners and so sermons tend not to be deep enough. They tend not to be real enough, they tend not to grapple with the issues that these business executives say that they struggle with day in and day out.
How do you make a decision as a person of faith when you realize it’s going to put people out of work or it’s going to radically change the local community? These are big tough issues where they are not easy answers and perhaps it’s unfair to expect the pastors can preach and answer in 25 minutes or less. But I did sense a real hunger, a real desire for more authentic connection between the working world of folks in the church and those who are leading the churches.
That said, I did interview some folks who are extremely loyal to their church and when I asked, “Well, why are you so committed? Why are you so involved?” Invariably, they said it’s because they respect the senior pastor as a real leader, that they hold a senior pastor up as someone who can make tough decisions, who recognizes that there is a lot of complexity in leading an organization. Because of that, they sense a heartfelt connection with their pastors.
Andy: It strikes me that Christians and maybe pastors in particular have kind of a black and white approach to power, which is to say, either when we preach about people in positions of influence, it’s almost always these negative examples of the damage you can do with power. Or we become so intoxicated with and maybe envious of and attracted by power that we just celebrate anyone who, for any reason, has some level of success and accomplishment. Yet it sounds like what you are describing is that these folks who really were plugged into a church had a pastor who didn’t have either of those extremes but was more aware of the complexities that come with being in a position of leadership.
Michael: That’s right. When you think about how the Bible talks about power, I think that the overriding message is that people of faith ought to be in the world but not of the world. You have to keep in mind that when you are talking about human action, power and meaning always go hand in hand and we ignore it at our peril. The Bible talks a lot about how we deceive ourselves and I think one of the key ways in which we deceive ourselves is we don’t pay attention to the really big, important issues. I can’t think of the last time I heard a sermon about power. It’s almost always if we talk about it, it’s in the context of stewardship and, frankly, financial resources.
Andy: Right, giving your money.
Michael: Exactly. It’s not talking about how do you steward the influence that you are given. Regardless of your station in life, all of us have a circle of influence where we can make a difference at the personal level and sometimes at the organizational level just by introducing subtle things in the workplace or just by trying to be more present, let’s say, in your local PTA or in your local community. There are definite ways in which power can be exercised in a soft, gentle, loving way but a way that makes a real difference. The Bible in the Old Testament had three kind of characters that were often described. They were the prophets, they were priests and they were kings. Sometimes you would have a character who was two of those roles but you never had somebody who was prophet, priest, as well as king. In fact, the only person in the Bible who is described in that kind of language is Jesus.
A lot of times, what you are talking about where we become infatuated with power is where you have the priest trying to also be the king. Whenever you have a pastor who is actually seeking power, particularly seeking political power or worldly power, it’s always a scandal waiting to happen.
I think that probably the most effective thing that we can do in the church is to help folks recognize that it’s natural and human to seek power and to want influence but we have to bridle that. It has to be channeled through, frankly, the Gospel and the ways in which the Gospel ought to change our orientation. It ought to be not just something that we bring into our life, it ought to radically transform our life.
I think that what we will see in the years ahead is that those leaders who are able to recognize that there is great opportunity, that there is a real chance to make a difference by exercising secular power, by bringing their faith to bear on what they do in the working world. Yet at the same time recognizing that you have to do it in different ways and that it has to be bridled but there has to be accountability and that, frankly, the church has to speak out a lot more about what it means to be a leader as well as a deep follower of Jesus Christ.
Andy: One last question for you, you have surveyed the recent history of a lot of evangelical believers and cultural power. As you think about the prospects for the next couple decades, let’s say, what are you hopeful about? What are you worried about? What’s your assessment of the prospects for evangelicals and cultural leadership in this very pluralistic complex culture that we are in?
Michael: Well, I would say that there is a real opportunity. Power gets exercised through networks or what we would call in the church community. We exercise our power by our ability to get folks together by able to convene groups, by being able to create new ideas and new opportunities. By having a wide enough outreach that you have kind of a cosmopolitan approach. I mean, that’s creative, convening cosmopolitan power is where I think there is real hope we’ll find that I see going on in the church. In that regard, I think that there is a lot of resources that we have within the church, not just from the biblical tradition but also from the communities that we are part of that can be encouraging and helpful as we seek to try and bring our faith convictions to bear on our individual spheres of influence.
At the same time, we need greater accountability. We have to recognize that there are secularists who are really fearful of the Christian quest of power because they see it as a journey of the majority where Christians simply try and baptize this sense that we are in the majority and so we are going to squelch out any minority dissent.
Actually, if you think seriously about what the gospel has to say, Christians ought to be the ones who are speaking up the most for the least and the lost. I think that that’s probably the most tangible specific witness that Christians who are in positions of responsibility can bear is that I am not just interested in serving my own interest but I am genuinely interested in the common good.
Andy: Well, thank you very much, Michael, for speaking with us and for sharing the results so far of your work.
Michael: Sounds great. Thanks, Andy.