Evangelical and elite: Four approaches to power

Michael Lindsay a Belhaven University board member , a remarkable scholar holding positions of significance at Rice University, and an insightful sociologist who studies evangelical leadership in the Church and in the marketplace.

His recent article in the Washington Post, is a wonderful synopsis of the leadership opportunities and challenges of highly visible evangelicals in the marketplace

Evangelical and elite: Four approaches to power

Evangelicals have become significant players on the national stage, so much so that the actions and statements of their leaders ripple across the political and cultural landscape. What happens when evangelicals bring their faith convictions to bear on corporate America or the U.S. government? In particular, how does an evangelical Christian who also leads a major American institution–such as Walmart or the National Institutes of Health–invoke his or her faith when making big decisions?

Bradley C. Smith of Princeton University and I just published a study on this subject in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. It emerged out of a larger study (first published by Oxford University Press as Faith in the Halls of Power) for which I interviewed 360 evangelicals who were top American leaders. These elites included former President Jimmy Carter along with 50 cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials from the last five administrations. I also sat down with 100 CEOs, chairpersons and presidents of major companies including New York Life Insurance, Johnson & Johnson, Tyson Foods, and JC Penney. To round out the study, I met with over 150 leaders from the worlds of nonprofits, the arts, entertainment, and the news media.

I wanted to uncover how these people bring their personal religious convictions to bear on their roles as public leaders. In other words, how does religion seep into their relationships, their work, and the decisions they make?

We found four kinds of evangelicals in the corner offices of major U.S. institutions–the pragmatic, the heroic, the circumspect, and the brazen.

Pragmatic evangelicals are serious about their faith, but they don’t advertise it. In the words of Genworth’s Chief Investment Officer, Ron Joelson, “You don’t want to offend people who are not Christians. . . . [As someone] in a position of power and authority, I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. . . . [That’s] not a particularly good witness.” Joelson’s sentiment was repeated by dozens of other leaders we studied.

Ed Moy, director of the U.S. Mint, takes a different approach. Early in his career, he worked in the private sector and was confronted by his boss after submitting his first expense report:

He shuts the door to his office, and says, “Let me explain something around here. We in sales management never believe that the company is paying us enough, and so…we measure the minimum amount of miles from home to work and back again, and that’s personal miles. Everything else . . . gets dumped in the business column, and that way you get an extra 50 [to] 75 bucks a month. If I were to hand this in, accounting is going to ask some questions, and then there’s a massive audit on everyone, and we can’t have that kind of trouble. So I’m telling you that if you’re interested in a career here, you’re going to change this expense report.”

The next week, when Moy submitted the expense report unchanged, his supervisor threatened to fire him (but, in the end, didn’t). Moy refers to the event as a “seminal moment” in shaping his understanding of the relationship between faith and work.

Moy and other evangelicals embody what we call heroic evangelicalism. Even if it costs them their jobs, these evangelicals refuse to compromise their core beliefs. Now, because evangelicalism is a large, diverse group (comprising about one-third of the U.S. adult population), what one evangelical regards as compromise, another sees as prudence.

The circumspect evangelical are leaders who prefer to signal their faith obliquely, rather than make explicit mention. Michael Duke, the CEO of Walmart, keeps a Bible on his desk and reads from it occasionally, but he’s uncomfortable being too direct about his Christianity.

As the CEO of the country’s biggest business, he has received a number of critiques, many of them challenging how he, as a Christian, could lead a company that pays its workers comparatively low wages and drives smaller businesses into the ground. When asked, he provides answers that would likely please Walmart’s supporters and frustrate its critics. But he doesn’t quote the Bible. He embodies a cosmopolitan evangelicalism that prefers to bear witness to his faith through subtle signals as opposed to explicit reference.

Finally, brazen evangelicals work in environments where they can take remarkable freedom in being bold about their faith. Some private companies give rise to this kind of Christianity, but the easiest examples come from professional sports.

Consider David Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs center who won both the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Robinson felt an obligation to make known his evangelical faith, and he frequently led the team in prayer before games. Not all of his teammates appreciated Robinson’s praying in Jesus’ name, but no one actively resisted, including a Muslim player on the team. Robinson, like other brazen evangelicals, indiscriminately draws upon his faith with no adverse impact on his career.

These four postures of evangelical leadership–pragmatic, heroic, circumspect, and brazen–can be found all around us in American society. My hunch is that there are analogous approaches occurring among devout Jews in senior leadership positions, as well as among practicing Muslims and those of other faith traditions. Naturally, it will always be a challenge for committed people of faith in senior leadership positions to draw upon their faith sincerely and responsibly. But understanding how their beliefs are playing out on the national stage is the first step in helping them do so–and in holding them accountable for it.

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