When ReligionWriter first heard about sociologist Michael Lindsay’s new book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford, August) her first thought was: “Another book about evangelicals?” But after hearing Lindsay speak at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in September, and again at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in October, as well as getting a chance to read (most of) the book, ReligionWriter realized Lindsay has contributed something very useful in a crowded field: a book that is both a definitive study of how evangelicals have risen to prominence, and a clear-eyed evaluation of what they are doing now that they’ve arrived.

Although much of the press attention surrounding the book has focused on the question of evangelical political power, Lindsay gave equal time in his book to evangelicals in academe, entertainment and business — areas that are often overlooked when it comes to religion reporting. In the November issue of the Wharton Leadership Digest, ReligionWriter was able to interview Lindsay last week about the role that faith plays in the professional lives of evangelical business folk; that interview is reproduced below with permission. Lindsay spoke about the evangelical gender gap, how evangelical executives relate to their money, and why evangelical influence will endure far beyond the presidential election of 2008.

Wharton Leadership Digest: Could you say a word about your own religious identity and how, if at all, it affected your research?

D. Michael Lindsay: When I approached people, I told them I was interested in interviewing people of faith in leadership positions. I described myself in that same language, sometimes saying, “I’m also a Christian.” That was the extent to which I felt comfortable [revealing] my own personal identity.

My own religious background is somewhat eclectic: I grew up Roman Catholic; I married a Methodist; I did a Master of Divinity degree at a Presbyterian seminary; I’m a member of a Baptist church, and I send my daughters to a Jewish preschool. I do think that being a person of faith helped me pick up on nuances other observers have missed. At the same time I’m not writing the book as an insider trying to defend the movement nor as a skeptic on the outside trying to critique it. (Photo left: D. Michael Lindsay, © Sean Sime.)

WLD: You describe evangelicals’ rise to power as being driven, in large part, by a sense of purpose: “There is something wrong with the world, and I can fix it.” Does the content of evangelical belief matter? Or is it just their ability to create a sense of purpose and belonging?

Lindsay: I think the content of evangelical faith does predispose evangelicals to being actively engaged in public life. There is a tradition within the Bible of what might be considered “common grace theology.” This idea says, in essence, we humans are endowed by God to be stewards of His gifts. In other words, people can take an active part in doing divine work. Not all religious traditions have that high view of human potential, and I think that is part of what gives evangelicals an edge.

WLD: You write that “parachurch” organizations have played an important role in developing evangelical leadership talent in business. First, what are parachurch organizations, and how does being involved in such organizations benefit evangelical executives?

Lindsay: The term “parachurch” means “alongside the church,” coming from the Greek term paro. So parachurch organizations are special-purpose organizations, classified now in our tax code as 501(c)(3)s. In essence, they serve religious aims outside of a local congregational body. What I found in my research—something that really surprised me—is that evangelical executives tend to be disengaged from their own churches and are involved instead with these parachurch organizations.

In many ways, these parachurch organizations function like corporations, and that’s why a lot of business leaders I interviewed have gotten involved in them; it feels familiar to them. World Vision, for example, is a billion-dollar-a-year [charitable] operation; it is the largest distributor of food worldwide. Through serving on the boards of these organizations, [evangelical executives] build relational ties with one another.

WLD: You quote Gayle Miller, the former president of Anne Kline II, saying she encountered “an evangelical bias against women” in her professional life. Looking ahead, is this a blind spot for evangelicals, one that will limit their growth?

Lindsay: Women are not supported in the same way that men are in their professional pursuits in the evangelical community. At the elite level I studied, many activities such as Bible studies and retreats are men-only. Being a CEO is a very lonely job; you often long for friendship and advice. These informal groups provide that for many evangelical men but there were very few of those organizations for women. I do think that is holding them back. That said, women in general are still under represented at the elite level, not just evangelical women.

WLD: Do those informal professional networks for evangelicals, which provide the equivalent of professional coaching and mentoring, give evangelical business leaders an advantage in the business world?

Lindsay: Absolutely. These [networks] provide a lot of professional value but it’s not reported in the newspaper because it’s not happening at your local church. Evangelicals are not alone in providing this; the gay and lesbian community has a similar type of support infrastructure to help professionals excel. But within the realm of religion evangelicals have the edge. They do it more so and better than any other organization.

WLD: Was that professional networking conscious on their part – “we can all get ahead if we help each other out” – or did it just arise organically?

Lindsay: A little bit of both. Among senior executives, I would say it has been more incidental. [Some networks started because] they were looking for friendship. When it comes to mentoring young leaders, however, it’s more intentional. There is very much a focus on helping young people get an edge in graduate school or in positioning their early career.

WLD: The obvious danger of an elite social network is that people will get ahead simply because they are part of that network, not because they are qualified. Did you find that to be the case among evangelicals?

Lindsay: I did not find nepotism occurring within the organizations I studied, but I do think evangelical CEOs help one another across industries. They may give a leg up by introducing each other to leaders they might otherwise not have access to.

WLD: Are you saying evangelical networks have an internal set of ethics that prevents those kinds of abuses?

Lindsay: Absolutely. I sometimes found that [evangelical executives] bent over backward to demonstrate to their secular colleagues that they’re not giving preference to someone who shares their faith orientation.

WLD: You interviewed many executives who talked about their sense that God has called them to their leadership roles. But is one person’s “call from God” another person’s “strategic fit?” Is it just a matter of language? Are evangelicals actually different from other executives? You point out that Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers were both well-known evangelicals.

Lindsay: We have to acknowledge that [talking about] faith is in some ways expressive and rhetorical. Yet I do think on the whole that evangelicals demonstrate a higher degree of accountability, and, of course, there are glorious exceptions like Lay and Ebbers, who prove that evangelicals are also capable of large-scale fraud. I found that evangelicals are often the clean-up crew for scandals, and a great example of this is Eric Pillmore, who was hired as senior vice president for corporate governance at Tyco after all of its scandals; he was an evangelical known across the industry as someone who had high moral standards. The same thing happened with Johnson & Johnson after the Tylenol scandal when they named Ralph Larsen as CEO.

WLD: If you are leading a secular organization, are you better off being an evangelical?

Lindsay: If you’re a cosmopolitan evangelical, the answer is yes because you have an overarching sense of meaning and transcendence that’s not dependent upon quarterly projections. [Your faith] allows you to endure the challenges of the executive lifestyle. A CEO’s power can be intoxicating, yet I think the evangelical faith encourages [its leaders] to hold onto that power lightly.

WLD: At what point does an expression of faith from a leader begin to turn off employees or drive away customers? You gave the example of Alaska Airlines’ CEO Bruce Kennedy’s decision to include Bible verses along with every in-flight meal; it’s easy to imagine a lot of people disliking that decision.

Lindsay: When I asked Kennedy about it, he said 90 percent of the letters he received were encouraging. Over the last 20 years or so, a lot of CEOs have felt safe to bring faith into their organizations, [in ways] such as mentioning God in their mission statements. In certain contexts that may turn off potential customers or clients, but on the whole it becomes a way to differentiate their company. It can provide a competitive edge.

WLD: Can a specific religious faith really be the backbone of a strong corporate culture?

Lindsay: In order for corporate cultures to succeed, they have to generate profitability, and they have to be difficult to imitate. Religion does provide those elements for several of the companies I profiled in the book. The spiritual journey of the CEO, for example, may become part of the company lore. You hear stories about loan officers praying over loans in Jesus’ name with customers, but such [explicit statements of evangelical faith] are very rare. I do think that using God-language, or creating an environment where faith expressions are welcome, have opened up huge opportunities for some companies.

WLD: If evangelicals have done well in the business world, will other religious groups, whether it’s American Muslims or traditionalist Catholics or atheists, try to do the same? Could such mutual promotion societies pull apart the secular workplace?

Lindsay: This is the real tension of allowing [employee-organized] affinity groups in the corporate context, but research shows that employees want to be valued as whole individuals. They want to bring in their faith in ways that are not off-putting but allow them to be true to who they are. A CEO or business leader has to think strategically about how much faith expression to allow because you can’t let identities divide your workforce; you have to look for ways to build bridges. The affinity group movement has enabled people to build relationships that have, on the whole, worked positively.

WLD: You described the dilemma Ralph Larsen faced in deciding whether Johnson & Johnson should get involved in the emergency contraception business. How do evangelical executives handle decisions that relate to divisive cultural issues like abortion or homosexuality?

Lindsay: The evangelical faith is very individualistic. It’s very possible for one evangelical business leader to come to a particular decision on an issue out of moral conviction, while another evangelical looks at the same data and comes to a very different conclusion and also justifies his or her position based on faith commitments. This individualism results in some surprising differences across cases. I know of moments when a CEO would say [about a fellow evangelical executive,] “He made that decision. I would have gone in a very different direction.”

WLD: When it comes to personal wealth, you wrote that evangelicals share an ambivalence toward it, though not a sense of guilt. You also point out, somewhat critically, that evangelicals have not been outspoken on the issue of executive compensation. Could you comment?

Lindsay: I do take these evangelical CEOs to task [over executive compensation.] If they are really interested in working for the common good, they ought to figure out ways where they can be a little less self serving. That’s really strong language, I realize, but it seems to me this is one area where they can really stand apart from their secular peers and, on the whole, they don’t. I did come across evangelicals who presented attractive examples of trying to live out their faith [amidst great wealth,] but these were notable for being rare. Ralph Larsen of Johnson & Johnson and Kevin Compton of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins both told me they had decided they would not live in bigger houses as they moved up in net worth, and David Grizzle, senior vice president of Continental Airlines, has decided to live an intentionally lower lifestyle than he can afford – but again, these are rare examples.

WLD: In the political arena the new conventional wisdom is the evangelical movement is fragmenting and therefore will be less influential in 2008 presidential contest; we’ve even seen some early obituaries of the religious right. What do you see ahead for evangelical leaders in business? Are they going to be affected by a decline in evangelical political power?

Lindsay: I don’t buy the idea of declining political power [of evangelicals.] The data doesn’t show that at all. What’s happening is that they’re diversifying their influence and that actually builds a wider power base. They are becoming a bigger voice in the Democratic Party, from which they’ve been excluded over the last 30 years. Rather than dissipate, their power will continue to grow. In terms of business, there is an entire generations of young leaders now in training at Harvard Business School and other elite institutions who are really serious about their evangelical faith. Evangelicals have done a good job of building an infrastructure for long-term cultural change.

WLD: Are these changes for the better? Do we all benefit as a result of evangelical influence in business and other arenas of American life?

Lindsay: The jury is still out on this. Evangelicals have moved into powerful positions within the last 30 years, and it’s too early to tell if this is something that indeed serves the common good or if it’s just a triumph of another interest group with its own particular vision for society. What I can say is that evangelical participation in civic life is most definitely a very good thing. Evangelicals are more giving of their time and resources and are more ethical in their behavior. If they dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, we would be in really bad shape.

Also available in November’s Wharton Leadership Digest: An excerpt from the conclusion of Lindsay’s book.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Hospital Reading: America’s Most Religious College Students | Religion Writer.com on December 10, 2007 10:40 pm

    […] an interesting conversation between Rosin and Michael Lindsay (interviewed earlier by RW,) see this Pew Forum event featuring the two authors (and copy-edited by yours truly.) […]

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