Skip to main content

American Evangelism: D. Michael Lindsey on the Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding Evangelicals

June 2nd, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One of the most widely praised books of 2007 was D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power, a sociological examination of evangelicals in America. If you don’t have time to read the full book, I commend to you this discussion of American evangelicalism, where Lindsay highlights eight myths about evangelicals that were dispelled during his research.

The conversation, which was hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is fascinating not only for its insights into American evangelicalism, but for its insight into the press’s attempt to understand a demographic that it has for so long misconstrued. Many prominent members of the chattering class ask rather sophisticated questions in what seems to be genuine attempts to understand a demographic that clearly mistrusts them.

Lindsey’s observations, though, are necessary reading. He clearly has his finger on the pulse of evangelicalism. His distinction between the “cosmopolitan” and “populist” evangelicals is exactly right. One need look no further than the divide between the evangelical leaders who supported Romney and the evangelical followers who were for Huckabee to begin to see evidence for his thesis. While Lindsey claims that Huckabee has the ability to appeal to the cosmopolitan crowd, the evidence for that is questionable. It was the cosmopolitan crowd–the evangelical leadership class–who refused to pledge support to Huckabee until it was too late.

One of Lindsey’s most unique observations, however, comes on the issue of faith and politics:

The sixth fallacy I had is that faith in politics, if we have to look at how religion fits into politics, it is most centrally about domestic issues. It is most centrally about abortion and about same-sex unions, those kinds of things. When in fact the real story, the real interesting story, is foreign affairs. Fifty years ago, evangelicals were vehemently opposed to foreign aid. They were opposed to interventionism. In fact, some of the strongest opposition that President Woodrow Wilson received for some of his policies when he was in office was from fellow conservative Christians. They said that we should not be involved in multilateral relationships. This was quite upsetting.

The major turnaround that evangelicals have made on issues about foreign aid and foreign investment is quite significant. Today, for example, evangelicals are very, very positive, very high on USAID and the State Department. Why is this? Well, over the last 20 years, we have witnessed a de-professionalization of foreign missions — and that’s a significant development. You see, 50 years ago, evangelicals were sending missionaries by the droves to China, to India, to all over. What has happened is that there has been a paradigm shift within the evangelical community. Now you don’t necessarily send somebody for the rest of his or her life to go and do foreign missions; now you send a lot more people for shorter-term ventures. People go for two weeks, for a month, for a summer, for a year, for two years, and this has changed the dynamic. What it’s done is exposed a lot more average evangelicals to a global culture. So you’ve got 7,000 members of Saddleback Church who have now traveled to Rwanda to go and do development and aid in very interesting ways.

The correlation in the decline of full-time world missions and the openness to state intervention in foreign affairs is an interesting shift that deserves deeper reflection.

There is much to be gained from the discussion. Lindsey accurately dispels many of the myths of evangelicals (i.e. that we’re in the pocket of Republicans and that we care about politics more than culture), and identifies the many nuances to the evangelical community. For those who are confused about what an evangelical is, what he thinks, or how he votes, this discussion is an excellent starting point.