Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Book Notes: Faith in the halls of Power by D. Michael Lindsay

"Faith in the Halls of Power" is sociologist D. Michael Lindsay's exploration of American Evangelicalisms relationship with power. Given that it is an extremely thoroughly researched book, written by an academic sociologist, it is a surprisingly fun read - and is absolutely fascinating from cover to cover.

Lindsay, after some introductions about the term 'evangelical' and the definition that he works with, charts the course of this movement within Protestant Christianity. His particular concern is to map the way in which Evangelicalism moved from the margins of American society, to a place close to its centre. Landmarks include the birth of the neo-evangelical movement in the early 20thC, and the work of Francis Schaeffer who propelled the movement towards cultural, philosophical and political engagement with society, rejecting the fundamentalist drive towards withdrawal into voluntary ghetto-isation.

He shows that ways in which parachurch organisations, close social-networks of leaders, and deliberate cultivation of new leaders, have enabled evangelicals to penetrate the worlds of academia, politics and business, more successfully than they have showbiz and entertainment. Thankfully Lindsay is too good a researcher to simply write a parody of the 'religious right' but explores the complexity of the movement, the 'evangelical left', and the vibrant role given to Christian faith within the organisations of the Democratic party. His conclusion is that while US Evangelicals have taken a seat at the top table of American society, their influence as one of many voices at the higher echelons of the various hierarchies has actually been very limited. This despite the sympathies of Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush.

Perhaps symbolic of the whole of the book is the section on C. Everett Koop. He was Reagan's controversial choice as USA Surgeon general, whose approval by Congress was only confirmed after a lot of political wrangling. The choice was controversial because while Koop's abilities as a clinician were not in doubt, his Evangelical Christian faith made him deeply opposed to abortion. Once in office, Koop made no lasting impact on abortion legislation, but angered conservatives by opening the eyes of the US government and public to the threat of HIV aids in the early 1980s, and sponsoring public education about safe-sex and the dangers of needle-sharing.

Helpfully detailing the differences between 'populist' and 'cosmopolitan' Evangelicals, Lindsay makes some fascinating observations about the successes and challenges the movement is likely to face over coming decades.

Too many people in the UK respond to a media-caricature of American Evangelicalism. Lindsay's book (written as a critical, if sympathetic, outsider) explores more deeply into the shades and complexities of the movement and its relationships with elite circles in America. For anyone interested in politics and American religious movements, in the 'religious right' and power, and the multi-faceted nature of US Evangelicalism, this is a great place to start reading.

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