18 October 2007

Jesus On The Mainline?

Today over on Opinion Journal, reflects on the new and powerful Evangelical establishment, and the irony thereof:
Once upon a time, a Protestant elite ruled America. Its members were not just any Protestants, though. They came almost exclusively from the "main line," a phrase borrowed from the affluent suburbs lining the Pennsylvania Railroad west of Philadelphia. Mainline Protestantism--encompassing the Episcopal Church, the Congregationalists and other liberal denominations--was far more than a cluster of churches. According to the historian William Hutchison, it "was a personal network" comprising "familial, social, and old-school-tie relationships," including such clans as the Rockefellers and the Niebuhrs. It helped to build such progressive institutions as the University of Chicago and Union Theological Seminary. It was also capable of great bigotry, barring Catholics and Jews from its social clubs and law firms.

In "The Protestant Establishment," E. Digby Baltzell chronicled the "growth and decay" of the WASP aristocracy, describing its patrician families, elite boarding schools and Ivy League universities and noting their waning influence. Writing in 1964, Baltzell saw the election of John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, as a hopeful sign. And, indeed, later researchers documented the opening of the elite to Catholics and Jews.

Missing from most accounts of America's diversifying establishment is any discussion of what happened to the other Protestants--the fundamentalists and evangelicals outside the mainline. A few attained positions of power in midcentury America, but for decades most could be found near the bottom of the economic ladder in the South and Midwest. The victims of class and regional prejudices, these born-again believers had been christened the "gaping primates from the upland valleys" by H.L. Mencken. He wasn't alone is taking such a view.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Buoyed by the upward mobility of postwar America, a critical mass of evangelicals made it into the elite. In "Faith in the Halls of Power," D. Michael Lindsay tells their story, drawing on interviews with 360 prominent evangelicals to gauge the rise of a conservative Protestant leadership class in government, business, the media and higher education. Among the voices to be heard in Mr. Lindsay's fascinating book are those of two former presidents, 100 corporate executives, two-dozen cabinet secretaries and White House officials, and a dozen Hollywood filmmakers and actors.

Who would have guessed that a president of Borders, a Juilliard School dean, the producer of "The X-Men" trilogy, the world-wide head of television for the William Morris Agency, a host of TV's "Talk Soup" (now called "The Soup") and a former director of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger were all evangelicals? At a Manhattan gathering in honor of the evangelical author Rick Warren, Mr. Lindsay overheard an editor at a major publishing house ask: "Are there many evangelicals at Yale these days?" The short answer is yes. An update of William F. Buckley's "God and Man at Yale" (1951) would have to acknowledge Yale's dramatic growth of evangelical student groups. The same goes for Harvard, where chaplain Peter Gomes notes there are more evangelicals "than at any time since the seventeenth century."

Here's the whole thing.


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