Revealer contributor Holly Berman writes: The New York Times series on class, launched with a statistically compelling, if bloodless, overview of class divisions in the United States has continued with three articles wound tightly around individuals’ experiences of class in healthcare, marriage and, in Sunday’s edition, religion. “On a Christian Mission to the Top” by Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, follows Brown University graduate and resident missionary Tim Havens, who heads a new evangelical student center funded by Christian Union.
Havens and Christian Union represent what the authors claim is a burgeoning impulse among of well-to-do Ivy League alums aimed at restoring the Protestant heritage of their alma maters. “If we are going to change the world,” says Havens, “we have got, by God’s power, to see these campuses radically changed.”
Although Havens, our guide through the Ivy League evangelical world, is a likable, white, native-born Midwesterner, the evangelical student groups active throughout private universities are a more ethnically diverse group than the cast of this article implies, buoyed by the faith in both Christ and the stratospheric upward mobility that an Ivy League education has historically promised to the children of immigrants.
And as provocative as this unveiling of a parallel world of Ivy League evangelicals may be, the authors are also too eager to paint Christian Union and evangelical presence as novel. While schools like Harvard and Yale long ago strayed from their Calvinist roots, elite universities have also proven to be fertile grounds for revivals. There are blips—small but noteworthy reversals—within this long narrative of institutional secularization. Campus Crusade, for instance, may be in the midst of a growth spurt now, but it also thrived in the 1960s, alongside SDS and scores of New Left and counterculture groups.]
Secularists with little interest in or knowledge of religion typically view religious fervor among their fellow citizens as a product of class interest — that is, when they are not attributing it individual psychological pathologies. The rich, goes this line of thinking, become religious to find moral justification for the power they wield over others and to assuage the feelings of guilt and doubt such power may deliver. For the poor and working-class, religion justifies their lowly status with promises of spiritual wealth, or it perverts their class resentment.
The New York Times article represents an admirable attempt to escape this narrative by representing the complexities of class and religion. First, the authors are mostly concerned with interclass conflict—the vying of elite fundamentalists for the cultural control of institutions they feel have been ceded to equally elite secularists. Second, they reverse the assumption that faith is more important for poor or working-class subjects than for the wealthy. (Note, for example, the scores of articles on the war that casually note the religious affiliations of grunts but not that of their officers.)
But the authors could have taken a cue themselves from Havens, who says “God has always used wealthy people to help the church.” There’s no evidence in the article that they authors attended Wall St. Bible studies, New Cannan breakfast meetings, or made a serious effort to engage the theology discussed by Havens’s fellow believers at Brown, leaving us to wonder how religion actually shapes elite class identity and where the money changes hands.