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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Last week, Don Lattin spoke with ReligionWriter about the evangelical influences behind the sexual theology of The Family International, a religious sect founded by leader David Berg in the late 1960s. Berg’s spiritual step-son, Ricky Rodriguez, was raised to be the group’s leader — Berg prophesied that Rodriguez would eventually sacrifice his life for the salvation of fellow sect members at the end of time.

In 2005, Ricky did lose his life — he shot himself in the head on a desert road after having stabbed to death one of the many adults who sexually molested him as a child. In the video he made (image left, from xfamily.org) before the murder and suicide, Ricky spoke about how hard it was for him to cope with his past as an adult out in the real world, and how he constantly thought about suicide. But the idea that the group’s leaders, including his own mother, who encouraged and allowed the on-going sexual abuse of Ricky and his siblings, were never punished for their actions weighed on Ricky. “Suicide is the quitter’s way out,” he said to the camera. “I’m trying to do something lasting.”

Today ReligionWriter continues the conversation about Ricky and The Family with Lattin, author of the new book Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge.

RW: These days many journalists, academics and religious leaders are hesitant to use the word “cult,” preferring instead the more neutral term “new religious movements.” But when it comes to The Family, where leader David Berg did apparently control and sexually abuse the group’s children, is it actually helpful to use the word “cult?”

Lattin: There’s a difference of opinion among religion writers if you should ever use the word in newspaper stories, unless you use it in a quote. The Children of God [as The Family was formerly known] was a sect, in the dictionary-definition sense that a sect splits off from something else. The Family was an evangelical sect, part of the Jesus Movement. I know people will take issue with my book title, but I think it’s a good argument that this group came out of the evangelical movement. Cults tends to be a group based around the charism of one leader in an authoritarian or extreme way; we can definitely see The Family was like that.

RW: What sense do you make of The Family — that Berg translated Jesus’ “love of neighbor” to mean free love and ultimately child sexual abuse?

Lattin: It is a cautionary tale of what happens when a self-defined religious prophet goes over the edge. It was not just sexual abuse, but a whole messianic complex that preachers like Berg get caught up in. They exploit people financially, using apocalyptic prophecies to scare people into giving their money away — You can abuse people with Christianity, there’s no doubt about it. Of course I’m not saying all Christians are like that – Berg’s movement was neither a healthy nor a typical expression of Christianity. But if you look at the incredible success of the Left Behind books and movies, you can still see the appeal of apocalyptic teachings. Berg started out, before his “Law of Love” and other sexual teachings, as your standard The-End-Is-Near prophet. Berg said Ricky and mom [Karen Zerby] were going to be the two witnesses of the end-times — that’s right out of the Book of Revelations.

RW: In your book you describe the academic work of sociologists studying the group, who downplayed the adult-child sexual contact and relativized it by pointing to other cultures where children are married in their early teens. Some of this sympathy towards The Family is still visible today. Do you find it alarming?

Lattin: It is alarming, because I think some academics were really compromised by The Family. Some were compromised in nefarious ways [i.e. paid for their research,] but most were compromised because they were more interested in studying The Family and keeping good relations with The Family than they were in blowing the whistle. They didn’t see it as their job to blow the whistle.

What I see in writing about new religious movements are two distinct camps of “experts:” There are the alarmists, who think everything is the next Jonestown, and there are the apologists, who never see anything wrong. A lot of academics, especially sociologists of religion, give groups leeway; it is true that in a lot of culture, kids do marry young, and adults practice polygamy. People who are so horrified by The Family’s child abuse tend to forget that the world is a big place, with a lot of moral questions about what age is proper [for sex] and how many wives are proper. But the fact is we do live in a society where certain taboos and values apply, and these religious groups are part of that society.

RW: Why haven’t children born into The Family, who suffered sexual or other abuses, been successful in prosecuting cases against The Family or individual leaders and members?

Lattin: Second-generation defectors who claim abuse have tried to get lawyers and start investigations, but they never went anywhere. It’s not like no one knew about this stuff; people had accused The Family of child abuse for years. But it mostly happened in ’70s and ’80s, so the statute of limitations had expired, and it mostly happened outside U.S., so it’s difficult to bring a suit, and of course Family members were constantly changing their names, so a lot of kids have no idea who abused them. It’s too bad the second-generation defectors didn’t take advantage recently when California lifted its statute of limitations on civil suits for child molestation. It was just a window of time, and they didn’t get it together. In any case, the abuse itself happened outside of California.

RW: After reading your book and watching Ricky’s video, it’s hard not to see him as something of a tragic hero. How do you see him?

Lattin: I wouldn’t say he was a hero. I would say he was a misbegotten martyr. It’s so touching and tragic because here’s a guy who was raised to be a martyr for the forces of righteousness in the battles of the End Times — righteousness in that case meant David Berg and Zerby and The Family. Ricky was able to free himself from The Family as a young adult, but he turned that crusade against The Family rather than against “the System,” or the outside world, as he was supposed to. Berg was a horrid master at self-fulfilling prophecy. So Ricky never really escaped his destiny, even when he went against the group. That’s one of the things that’s so compelling about his story.

RW: What is The Family like today? It seems from all their mission work abroad, it must be very international.

Lattin: There are thousands of converts worldwide, but it’s hard to say how many; The Family’s membership figures are notoriously unreliable. But it’s safe to say there probably are between 5,000 and 10,000 active members. They are spread all around the world, in small seemingly independent missionary groups in Africa, Asia, everywhere. According to Family records, 13,000 children were born into The Family between 1971 and 2001, and I think that’s a valid number. A few thousand of that second generation have stayed in — members had such huge families, it was not uncommon to have 5 or ten kids, so if even just two stay in, that adds up.

RW: In the book, you talk with current Family members, even members of the second generation, who claim to have had completely positive experiences in the Family and to have never been abused. How do you make sense of these conflicting testimonies?

Lattin: It’s not that hard to make sense of it. First, hardly anyone in The Family ever met or even saw David Berg. It wasn’t like they had an up-close and personal look at David Berg as Ricky and others in that inner circle, or “The Unit,” did.  You have to differentiate between this “Unit” around Berg and Zerby with their aberrant, bizarre sexual practices, and what filtered out into the wider group.  But the real horrible abuse, in terms of sexual abuse, just happened for a certain period of time. It’s not hard to find someone who was born later, say in the late 1980s or early 1990s, who didn’t have that experience. The Family did try to clean up their act, the farther away you got from Berg, the better off you were.

As far as hearing stories from those who leave the group: When you leave the group, you tend to redefine everything. Leaving a new religious movement is sort of like leaving a marriage. Someone who was once your lover and spouse is now someone you can’t stand, and yet they are the same person. As someone reporting on this, you get used to  hearing wildly differing descriptions of the same movement, and, in some sense, both are true. Most of the parents in The Family were not child molesters, just misguided idealistic young people who thought they were doing something helpful for their children in freeing them from the sexual repression that Berg grew up with. So it’s not simple; it’s not black and white.

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If you’re someone who believes life was better before Google and that “face-to-face interaction” is the gold standard of human relationships then read no further: You’ll only shake your head and be vaguely depressed to learn that people are now “going to church” through their computers and creating virtual faith communities online. Surely this is further evidence that digital technology is eating away at cherished institutions and degrading human interaction?

For those who are devoted to exploring digital society, however, this moment in history feels unique, super-charged, almost exploding with possibility. At the elite end of the technology world, of course, “Web 2.0” — applications of the idea that the web is all about interactivity now — is almost passé already (talk has now turned to Web 3.0,) but for the religious world, Web 2.0 technology is still pretty cutting edge. And who’s out in front? Not surprisingly, it’s evangelicals, the same dynamic, energetic people who brought you megachurches, multi-site churches and even the “emergent” church.

The Dallas-based Leadership Network — a lead think-tank for evangelical innovation — has a new, 11-page concept paper on Web 2.0 applications: Online Social Networking Tools for the Church (available for free download) by Stephen Shields (photo at left.) The paper puts Web 2.0 in a historical context, reports on who is taking the lead in this field and offers some points for reflection. While the paper is written for fellow evangelicals, it can easily be applied to other faith groups.

Here’s what you need to know — and do — to think about using Web 2.0 applications to expand your faith community.

1. LifeChurch.tv is wiping the floor with everyone else when it comes to digitizing the divine. The church, whose tag line is “One Church, Multiple Locations” has an Internet Campus where about 700 people worship each Sunday while sitting at home in front of their computers. An additional 18,000 people attend 11 real-life LifeChurch locations around the country each Sunday. But the concept paper reports that the online worship service is the most successful in evangelical terms:

Lifechurch.tv’s Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel says the Internet Campus site reports more decisions for Christ per capita than any of their eleven other bricks and mortar sites.

Lifechurch.tv now also has a 16-acre “island” in the virtual world of of Second Life, where it held an Easter Sunday service this year. If you’ve never been on Second Life, just take half an hour some day to download the free software and roam around this online world.

2. Whether you like it or not, many people have what the concept paper calls a “rich online life:”

In a way older generations might have difficulty imagining or even believing, new generations today engage in relationships and community mediated by digital technologies. In fact, they become so used to these technologies that even the awareness of them can fall away as they focus on the individuals with whom they are communicating.

In other words, as the telephone is to you, so online interaction is for others: a normal way of communicating.

3. Beware, say religion 2.0 leaders in the concept paper: Online virtual worlds like Second Life or social networking sites like MySpace are, by nature, open to anyone. Threats come in the form of easily accessed pornography, “griefers” (online denizens who destroy virtual property or harass others,) or even simply addiction to online interaction. Writes Sheilds:

With the ‘gee whiz’ aspect of new technologies, the faithful evangelist and discipler must always remember that in the final analysis they are only tools and contexts. No amount of technological sophistication or online savvy replaces the critical importance of walking with the Holy Spirit.

4. Religious-minded folks have responded to the unvetted nature of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook by creating popular faith-based networking sites like MyChurch.org, or, MuslimSpace.com for Muslims, Schmooze.com for Jews, Sikhpal.com for Sikhs, LDSLinkup.com for Mormons, etc. etc., you get the idea.

While these Web 2.0 innovations remain on the fringes of faith life for the moment, they are likely to continue to gain ground, particularly as the digital natives grow older and take charge.

Related content from ReligionWriter:

Is Your Church Ready to Blog?

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When ReligionWriter’s husband first saw a press copy of CNN’s new six-hour documentary, “God’s Warriors,” lying around the house, he said he looked forward to learning about famous heroes and soldiers in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He was disappointed, then, when the first segment, “God’s Jewish Warriors,” which will air next Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. EST, instead focused on a parade of unrepentant Jewish terrorists, unsmiling Israeli settlers and vaguely frightening Jewish Americans who raise money for illegal Jewish settlements.

In her stand-up intro to all three segments, Amanpour defines God’s Warrior’s this way:

Over the last 30 years, each faith [Judaism, Islam and Christianity] has exploded into a powerful religious force, with an army of followers who share a deep dissatisfaction with modern, secular society and a fierce determination to bring God and religion back into daily life, back to the seat of power. We call them “God’s Warriors.”

This definition would seem to leave room for Jews who take their religion seriously and use it for ends more positive than the construction of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. Or the heroes of Jewish faith that ReligionWriter’s husband had hoped to learn about.

After watching the Jewish segment, one would have the idea that “God’s Warriors” is simply a novel, neutral phrase to refer to fundamentalists, extremists and the religiously unreasonable.

But if you watch the other two segments, the definition of “God’s Warriors” is expanded to include other more harmless, even positive examples. In the “God’s Muslim Warrior” segment, which will air next Wednesday, Aug. 29, Amanpour focuses on a 20-something American Muslim woman from Long Island who insists that jihad for her means wearing dressing modestly and observing her faith within the context of an often-unsupportive American culture. She engages in her own free-form translation of jihad.

Holy war? Really, who made that up? That is a very bad translation. It’s [actually] a self-struggle. Living in a secular society where you have to work to maintain your Islamic values? That’s jihad.

Since Amanpour allows this American Muslim to define faith in her own non-violent, personal-piety-focused American way, it seems strange that the Jewish segment did not include a similar profile. Instead, the only counterpoint comes in the form of a quiet Israeli veteran of the 1967 war, who prefers classical music to religion and likes bacon on his sandwiches. Why not also show an American Jew who, instead of using the Torah to insist on the Jewish right to occupy land, uses that same text to work towards reforming American society?

For the viewer, then, it’s never quite clear who “God’s Warriors” are, in the same sense that it’s never quite clear from the “War on Terror” who the enemies are.

Why now?

As the viewer watches footage of Israeli teens weeping while the Gaza settlements are bulldozed, hears ominous drum beats while photos of Osama bin Laden flash across the screen and sees pro-life demonstrators marching on Washington, the questions arises: Why make this series now?

Israel/Palestine, in spite of many protestations that it lies at the heart of turmoil in the Middle East, is on the political back-burner in the U.S. right now. And the story of Osama bin Laden and even Egyptian writer Seyyid Qutub has been oft-told. (Indeed, the footage and narration on Qutub, whose book, Milestones on the Road, is credited with birthing jihadist ideology, covered almost the exact same ground as PBS’ documentary, Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda, which aired this June.)

We know about these phenomenon: Why not help us understand them? Amanpour wisely turned to religious historian and popular writer Karen Armstrong for explanations. Armstrong’s 2001 book, The Battle for God, which explores the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is, in the view of ReligionWriter, one of the best popular titles on religion, period, and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand religious extremism in the modern world.

Unfortunately, Armstrong appears only fleetingly through the documentary, and the central insights of her book receive only passing treatment. What Armstrong deftly and definitively showed in her book is that fundamentalism is a direct reaction to secular society and that the primary enemy for most fundamentalists is not the far-away enemy of other people, but their coreligionists who have a more lax religious outlook. This last point comes up in “God’s Jewish Warriors,” in the form of Rabin-murderer Yigal Amir, when Amanpour points out that Amir was enraged by what he perceived as Rabin’s intolerable compromises and sell-outs. More context like this is needed to make sense of fundamentalists.

On the first point — the relationship between fundamentalists and secular society — “God’s Warriors” is less sympathetic than Armstrong’s book, and as a result less effective. In her book Armstrong narrates how, in the late 1960s, after quitting the nun-hood and leaving the nunnery, emerged to discover a culture that had changed profoundly in her absence. She describes attending a party, where the Beatles’ “I want to hold your hand” was blaring while young people danced, drank and kissed. She writes (ReligionWriter is paraphrasing): “Here these singers were screaming out an emotion that I could barely articulate to myself, let along announce to a crowd of people.”

Armstrong helps us understand that for many people in America and around the world, secular society is experienced as a visceral assault to the senses, not to mention a direct challenge to deeply held values.

“God’s Warriors” rightly identifies an opposition to secular culture as the force that motivates fundamentalists, extremists and even run-of-the-mill religious folks in various traditions to press for social and political change. What the series fails to do is help us sympathize with this outlook. Even the most secular parents are probably unhappy that their son is addicted to violent video games, or that their daughter’s friends are losing their virginity in junior high.

So what makes some people turn to violence or extremism to solve those problems? That important question remains unanswered.

The Good Parts, and Why We Want More from Amanpour

Where the series shines brightest, ReligionWriter felt, was in telling individual stories. Ed Hussein’s journey out of radicalism is fascinating, as is the story of the Palestinian family whose son became a suicide bomber, as is the story of the American homeschooling family with five children.

One of the most interesting segments, part of “God’s Christian Warriors,” deals with the evangelist Ron Luce and his teen ministries, including BattleCry and Teen Mania. Luce talks heatedly to Amanpour about “virtue terrorists” who are “raping” teenage America in the streets, and he insists that if his message of “purity” is “divisive,” well, don’t blame him: “Jesus’ message was divisive.”

This segment comes alive in part because Amanpour steps out of her objective and sometimes deliberately wide-eyed reporting style to challenge Luce. When they are discussing Luce’s live-in ministry program, where TV, pop music and R-rated movies are banned, and where girls must wear skirts of a certain length and boys can’t use the Internet unsupervised, Amanpour tells Luce this makes her think of repressive societies around the world (i.e. probably Iran.) When Luce justifies the female dress code on the basis that the boys will then not be distracted by the girls’ sexuality, Amanpour replies tartly that this is the same reasoning used by the Taliban.

Indeed, the viewer begins to want more critical interjections like this from Amanpour. It doesn’t seem right that this most senior of journalists, Iranian by birth and a veteran of numerous conflicts, should be asking anyone (in this case, Karen Armstrong, who is no Iran expert) to explain the basics of the Iranian Revolution. And when Dutch ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists that women are being killed “right now” across Europe by their own repressive, religion-mad families, Amanpour offers skeptical “Really?” to this breathless, data-less assertion but presses no further.

Another rare and refreshing moment of Amanpour frankness comes when she interviews a former member of the Egyptian terrorist organization that assassinated President Anwar Sadat. As he ponderously explains that in Islamic law women have rights, but they can never be political leaders because they have other (i.e. domestic) responsibilities, Amanpour waves a devilish finger at the man, a sign that she feels his argument is not only stupid and wrong but obviously disproved by her very presence in front of him. (The man, resorting to his broken English, smiles abashedly and says, “You would angry from me now.”)

The Final Word

If you have six hours to spare next week, and you are hungry to understand the rise of fundamentalism in the monotheistic faiths today, ReligionWriter recommends you read the Armstrong book rather than watch the CNN series.

But if you have time, the best thing would be to both read the book and watch “God’s Warriors.” The two complement one another not in terms of ideas, but in terms of medium. The footage of “God’s Warriors,” collected over eight months of reporting, is fascinating and edifying to watch and makes a good complement to the more in-depth and contextual analysis of Armstrong’s book.

(All photos used with permission from CNN.)

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If you missed it when it came out ten years ago, Robert Duvall, in the movie he wrote and directed, The Apostle, plays a Holy Ghost-filled preacher who works to redeem himself before his dark side catches up with him. (The Apostle is also ReligionWriter’s top recommendation for those interested in religion-themed films.)

In addition to presenting an almost anthropological look at Southern Pentecostalism — “praise JEEZ-zus!” — the film offers a meditation on human personality. How can this preacher, Eusliss “Sonny” Dewey be so prayerful, so inspired, so…likable, and yet so guilty of serious sin?

The movie opens with Sonny happening on the scene of a roadside accident, where he sneaks past police to the wreckage, looking for battered souls to win for Christ. Isn’t it quite outrageous to chase ambulances looking for converts? But the depth of Sonny’s faith — and the obvious gratitude from the young man teetering on the edge of death — makes the viewer look beyond, to love something about Sonny’s spontaneous, full-blooded and utterly doubt-free connection with the Almighty.

This very same man who leads worshipers on Sunday morning to near-ecstatic levels of faith has “womanizing ways,” and a bitter wife to prove it. When Sonny discovers his wife is having her own affair and taking over leaderships of his church, Sonny stays up all night shouting and talking with God (”I love you, Lord, but I’m mad at you!”) Alas, this release valve does not resolve his feelings: He takes a baseball bat and bashes his wife’s lover in the head, killing him. On the run from the law, Sonny baptizes himself as an apostle and builds a church in a tiny Louisiana town grateful for his energy, optimism and electric preaching.

The movie ends, of course, with the police pulling up to his church, where he says his tearful yet cheerful good-byes, leaving behind his watch and wedding ring to be pawned to support the church.

Roll credits, and we see Sonny as a convict, working on a chain-gang on the side of a dusty Southern road, leading his fellow convicts in a Jesus chant: “Yea, though I walk through the valley, who is my savior?” The men grunt: “Jesus!” As much as the viewer doesn’t want Sonny to suffer, it feels inevitable, even right, that he must spend his time in jail — Sonny himself seems to accept his punishment.

Why is this image of Sonny, the still-faithful convict, so much more satisfying, narratively speaking, than that of disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, currently working toward a master’s degree in psychology at his new home in Phoenix?

When it comes to stories of redemption, the guilty protagonist wins back sympathy by taking his medicine. Haggard has been fired from his jobs and publicly shamed, yes, but he is not facing any criminal charges for his behavior, which allegedly included hiring a prostitute and buying drugs. Although Haggard is surely grateful not to be facing even the potential of jail time, he may also be missing an opportunity to create a satisfying tale of redemption. Just as Chuck Colson.

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Walk into almost any church, and the hierarchy is visually clear: up front on a stage, pulpit or podium stands the person ready to impart wisdom. Sitting quietly in rows are the worshipers, hoping for a good sermon. Why does this arrangement sound familiar? It’s exactly the structure used to describe “old media” like newspapers: know-it-all reporters deciding what’s important for the audience to consume.

Just as bloggers are busy busting that hierarchy to bits — claiming that news and information is all about having a conversation rather than being lectured to — so some Christians see that same potential in blogs: to break down church hierarchies and draw a wider audience into an authentic conversation.

In the Jan., 2007, book from Jossey-Bass, The Blogging Church: Sharing the Story of Your Book Through Blogs, Brian Bailey, writing with Terry Storch, shares his “unabashed enthusiasm” for church blogging. He writes that blogs are:

An incredible opportunity to share the story of the church with a new generation. … Too often, the church is seen as an exclusive club for the already convinced instead of a hospital for sinners. Through blogging, you can connect with your members in an honest, relevant way. You can engage the curious, the lost, and the tire kickers.

The book provides much of the nuts-and-bolts how-tos offered in other general-audience blogging books, such as Bob Walsh’s Clear Blogging, but the authors constantly set the more technical information against a church background. For example, on the question of having more than one church blog, they write, “There is always a need for church-wide communication, but you eventually reach the point where people in the singles ministry might be uninterested in this summer’s junior high beach retreat.”

Perhaps the most humorous and original chapter is entitled “Build a Really Bad Blog,” which has ten quick ways to torpedo your own efforts. Some examples of church blogging deadly sins:

  • Start your blog without getting buy-in from church leaders;
  • Force staff members to start blogging,
  • Or, worst of all, have someone else write a post and sign the pastor’s name (think Katie Couric’s library card.)

To find out how church blogging actually works on the ground, ReligionWriter emailed church-planter Ben Arment, pastor of Reston Community Church in Reston, Va., whom Bailey and Storch praised as an innovative church blogger. Arment responded to these questions by email.

ReligionWriter: How much time does blogging add to your ministry work load?

Ben Arment: I try to be very disciplined about the time I spend blogging. I think of post subjects throughout the day, jot them down, and then publish them on the following morning. It takes me just 30 minutes a day max to write them, so not long at all. I do spend another 30 minutes each day skimming through my blog roll.

RW: Are there any specific initiatives or projects that have evolved directly out of your blog (e.g. a church member makes a suggestion, and it snowballs…)

Arment: Our church recently moved to a new location, which required raising capital for new equipment and promotional expenses. I launched “the One Hundred” project on my blog, where we asked for 100 people to contribute $250 each. We raised $28,000 in just six weeks, and many of the contributions came from my blog readers.

RW: It’s often said that blogs are a “conversation.” Do you find that to be true? In your case, does it lead directly to interacting more with your church members?

Arment: Not for me. I think our congregation enjoys reading my blog to find out what’s going on in my life. It makes me more accessible as a pastor in that way. But I post much too often to stay on the same subject for very long. The comments and feedback I receive are wonderful however.

RW: For you, has writing a blog also meant “joining the blogosphere” — that is, reading and commenting on other people’s blogs?

Arment: My blogosphere is the community of church planters across the country that I have befriended through blogging. So yes, I comment and read other church planters’ blogs on a regular basis. When I attend ministry conferences, they are a lot like “blogger reunions” because I know many of the attendees from the blog world.

RW: What’s the biggest headache you have with your blog? And what’s the thing you’re most proud of?

Arment: Occasionally, people will take their frustrations out on me in the comments section. I’ve been criticized in this public forum, which is not much fun. =) I am most proud of seeing the impact of my ideas ripple through the church community. I see other pastors using my sermon series and outreach ideas at their own churches, which is really rewarding for me.

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Male circumcision rates in the

U.S. have dropped steeply over the last few decades, as an Associated Press article by Rachel Konrad highlighted this week:

According to data from the National Health and Social Life Survey, the

U.S. circumcision rate peaked at nearly 90 percent in the early 1960s but began dropping in the ’70s. By 2004, the most recent year for which government figures are available, about 57 percent of all male newborns delivered in hospitals were circumcised. In some states, the rate is well below 50 percent.

For Jews and Muslims, the question of whether or not to circumcise their infant boys often hinges around questions of faith, since male circumcision is a deeply rooted tradition in both religions.

But what significance does circumcision hold for American Protestants and Catholics?

According to the 2005 book, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, by public health analyst David Gollaher, the practice of “routine” infant circumcision was introduced in the U.S. in the late 19th century, carried by arguments that the surgery was a way to avoid disease. One doctor who advocated routine circumcision wrote in 1882 that American Christians would do well to borrow a leaf from the Jewish tradition:

Moses was a good sanitarian, and if circumcision was more generally practised at the present day, I believe that we would hear far less of the pollutions and indiscretions of youth; and that our daily papers would not be so profusely flooded with all kinds of cures for loss of manhood.

As Konrad notes in her AP article, a number of factors have led to the decline of routine circumcision in the U.S., including immigration from Asian and Latin American cultures where circumcision is not common and the popularity of “natural” childbirth and breastfeeding, beginning in the 1980s.

But evangelical Christians have also been considering the issue from a scriptural point of view. The question of circumcision raises the thorny and never-quite-answered question of how Protestants should relate to the Laws of Moses.

One evangelical mother, quoted in a 2000 Christian Parenting Today article, saw the issue this way:

I figured if God ordained circumcision for his people in the Old Testament, there probably were some good spiritual reasons as well as health reasons.

But other anti-circumcision Christian advocates point to passages in the letters of Paul, where the apostle writes:

I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.

Catholics have been joining the debate as well, as this discussion on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s site demonstrates.

The question for now: Will opposition to routine circumcision in the

U.S. increasingly take on a scriptural, religious bent?

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(Below: UK actor and comedian Dave Thompson plays Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies set near Stratford-on-Avon, England, in 1996. Photo courtesy of Dave Thompson.)

This morning ReligionWriter asked Michael Lewis Mayfield-Brown, a 17-year-old student and video-gamer, what he knew of televangelist Jerry Fallwell, who died yesterday at age 73.

“I just know he said Tinky Winky was gay,” answered Mayfield-Brown, who was born the year after Falwell’s Moral Majority was dismantled.

As reporter Hanna Rosin writes today in the Washington Post, Falwell hails from a bygone era of conservative Christian activism. How relevant, then, is Falwell’s legacy to a new generation? According to Mayfield-Brown, at least, Falwell’s criticism of the purple Teletubbies’ character may be his most notable public act.

Wrote Falwell in his 1999 “parents alert:”

Further evidence that the creators of the series intend for Tinky Winky to be a gay role model have surfaced. He is purple – the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.

To learn more about Tinky Winky, ReligionWriter called up UK comedian, actor and writer Dave Thompson, the man who first played Tinky Winky on the show, which features four round creatures “who love each other very much” and is now popular in Iran and

Indonesia, according to Thompson.

In the edited transcript below, Thompson describes his own interpretation of the character and how Falwell’s 1999 “alert” about Tinky Winky helped propel the fictional children’s character to cult fame.

ReligionWriter: Artistically speaking, what kind of character was Tinky Winky?

Dave Thompson: The show was for children from zero to five, so we were told to make contact with that part of us that was still under five.

RW: Why does Tinky Winky carry a handbag?

Thompson: All of the Teletubbies have a “favorite toy.” This is based on a concept from psychological research called the “transitional object.” Very young children often have a little teddy bear, or doll, or blanket, which they associate with the familiarity and security of their mother. It’s a stepping stone between the mother and the outside world.

Each Teletubbie has a transitional object.

Po had the scooter, LaLa had the ball – which was actually an inflatable balloon – Dipsy had the hat, and Tinky Winky had the handbag.

RW: Did it ever cross your mind, when you were playing Tinky Winky, “I have this triangle on my head, I’m purple, maybe I’m supposed to be gay?”

Thompson: I didn’t know about purple being a gay color, or about the triangle being a gay symbol. I am straight and married myself.

(Photo: According to Dave Thompson, seen here taking a break on the Teletubbies set, the show is now very popular in Iran and Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Dave Thompson)

Some people said Tinky Winky was light on his feet. But if you’ve ever seen Charlie Chaplain’s films, you’ll know he’s very graceful and light on his feet. Light and graceful is funny, clumsy and heavy is not. Because Teletubbies are essentially clowns, and I have experience of doing that sort of physical comedy, I always made a point of making Tinky Winky graceful and light on his feet. Teletubbies are supposed to be funny, to make children laugh.

RW: When Jerry Falwell wrote that Tinky Winky was obviously gay, what was your reaction?

Thompson: Teletubbies are presexual beings, and the children who watch the show are innocent and just enjoying their childhood. Sex is not something they are consciously aware of. For an adult to impose adult sexuality on children’s cuddly toys is stealing the childhood from the kids who are enjoying the show.

RW: Did Falwell’s comments strike a chord in

England at the time?

Thompson: Yes, they did. Tinky Winky is a huge gay icon. When they sell the cuddly toys, a lot of gay people buy them.

RW: Did Tinky Winky become a gay icon because of what Falwell said?

Thompson: His comments helped the process along. It was in the news over here when he denounced Tinky Winky as gay, but the idea was already there.

When Teletubbies was released in the

UK, it was on early in the morning, so children could watch it while their parents got breakfast or got ready for work. But in those early morning hours, people were also coming back from rave clubs, and taking ecstasy or other hallucinogenic drugs. They would come home, sit down to chill out, turn the tele on and see the Teletubbies. The show was like a simple innocent place where there was no aggression, which is what tiny kids need, but also what people who’ve been out all night in a night club like. So it became a big phenomenon in the student and drug culture, and off the back of that it went into the gay culture.

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The Dallas-based Leadership Network - the closest thing the evangelical world has to a church think-tank — released in February a glossy publication covering the newest and best ways to “do church.” The 63-page Innovation 2007 starts off with a provocative sampling of relevant statistics. Did you know the average American spends only seven minutes a day on religious practice? Or that the largest 10% of congregations contain 50% of all American church-goers? And that 37 million Americans live in poverty?

Changing social, religious and demographic realities make innovation “inevitable,” writes Warren Bird, executive editor and primary writer of Innovation 2007, in an email to ReligionWriter. “Language changes, technology arrives. Since culture is constantly shifting, so our way of bringing the same, unchanging Good News may change.”

If you haven’t heard these buzz words before — multi-site, externally focused, encore generation - Innovation 2007 offers journalists, church leaders and interested observers a chance to bone up on church trends. A quick sampling of successful innovations:

  • Using video cast sermons and other Sunday-morning content to create a “multi-site” church with multiple locations.
  • Preaching regularly on helping those beyond the church walls.
  • Creating house churches where believers gather for an intimate worship and discipleship experience.
  • Making church a place where people can admit and overcome substance abuse and other addiction issues.
  • Ministering to the needs of the “sandwich generation,” which cares for children and elderly parents at the same time.
  • Modeling financial generosity at the leadership level.
  • Helping people navigate complex health care services.
  • Pinpointing underutilized talent in a congregation and encouraging “ministry entrepreneurship.”
  • Viewing university outreach as a strategic investment, not simply an obligation.

But how to distinguish between genuine innovations and “what’s cool?”

“Innovative practices are changes that produce results - results that support values represented by the

Kingdom of

- and work across multiple geographies and denominations,”writes Bird in his email. “By contrast, ‘what’s cool” is fun alone and may not have any significant impact.”

Though the Leadership Network is focused exclusively on Christian congregations, Innovation 2007′s insights could potentially be applied in any faith community. Indeed, non-evangelicals may wish their faith communities had their own Leadership Network, where best practices are research, distilled and disseminated.

(Warren Bird says church innovation is “inevitable.” Photo courtesy of WarrenBird.com)

NOTE: Innovation 2007 is available for purchase


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A new study out this morning from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the

Pew Hispanic Center includes a chapter on religious conversion among Hispanics in


Basic Data on Latino Conversion:

The vast majority of Latinos (82%) give no indication of ever having changed their religious affiliation. However, almost one-in-five (18%) Latinos say they have either converted from one religion to another or to no religion at all,” study authors write. Most Hispanics are Catholic, and most of those who convert join evangelical churches, study data reveals.

Notable Findings on Conversion:

Second-generation immigrants are eight percent more likely to convert than first-generation immigrants. “Though it is impossible to determine the precise extent to which conversion is a product of assimilation, it does appear that migrating to the

United States, learning English and undergoing the other changes that occur with exposure to American ways do seem to be somewhat associated with changes in religious affiliation,” study authors write. Of those Latinos who convert, nearly one in four leave religion in favor of secularism – and men are twice as women to make this move.In spite of extensive media coverage of Latino conversion to Islam in America, the study found that less than 0.9% of Hispanics are Muslims. (See examples of media coverage here and here and here.)

Questions The Data Raise:

Does conversion happen simply because Hispanics who leave Catholic-dominated countries are now exposed to Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular, in the Protestant-dominated

United States? In other words, is conversion simply about exposure to new religions? Or is there something about “becoming American” that is associated with religious seeking and conversion?

Related Content:

“For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given,” by Andrea Useem, Religion News Service, Feb. 12, 2007. This article begins with the story of a Mexican-born Catholic woman who now practices a Hindu-influenced New Age faith with her Jewish American husband .

“Religion in a Globalizing World,” transcript of a talk by religion scholar Peter Berger at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Dec. 4, 2006, in which he argues that modernity and globalization inherently destabilizes religious identification.American Religious Identification Survey 2001, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). This survey is one of the most comprehensive studies to date on American religious identification. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing categories was “no religious identification.” According to this morning’s study from Pew, 7.8% of American Latinos identified as secular: Will this number continue to grow with assimilation?

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