By Omri Elisha
Time has just published an annotated list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” The Revealer asked me to write about it. I said I had nothing to say. I bought the magazine because I thought it would make a useful reference guide, and because I had a few dollars of store credit at Barnes and Noble that I wanted to get rid of. I flipped through the list and it seemed appropriate enough. I laid it down on my desk, and headed out for dinner.
Then it hit me.
The list, compiled with the help of “preachers, politicians, scholars and activists” (disclosure: including the assigning Revealer editor for this essay) is very useful indeed. It provides the uninformed reader with a sense of the wide range of public figures whose lives and careers are devoted to spreading the evangelical faith and promoting conservative Christian values. It offers the educated scholar (like myself; I’m an anthropologist who studies evangelical churches) a chance at humility: I’ve never heard of about a third of the people on the list, and I’m supposed to be an expert! But something critical is missing.
I have no intention of nitpicking at the details. I could point out the rather odd if somewhat plausible inclusion of Father John Neuhaus and Republican Senator Rick Santorum — both conservative Catholics, technically, not evangelicals even if they play them on TV. I could bemoan the almost cynical inclusion of only one African-American — Bishop T.D. Jakes — when there are others with at least as much stock in the power of evangelical influence (Eugene Rivers and John M. Perkins come readily to mind, though they are definitely lower on the media radar). I could ask whether it makes sense to count Billy Graham and his son Franklin as one evangelical (the other two-in-ones are married couples, such as Tim and Beverly LaHaye, who are so wedded to their complementarity that it would probably be too cruel to separate them).
I won’t do any of that — at least not from this point on. Time’s list got a well-deserved but hardly uncritical stamp of approval from Christianity Today. The CT weblog states that “Time‘s reporters clearly did their homework and chose these names with care,” even while claiming that CT‘s own list of 25, were it to produce one, “would surely be somewhat different.” Even a qualified endorsement such as this is worth taking seriously when it comes from evangelicalism’s flagship publication.
In other words, the list is good. The list is right on target. But the list is way off track.
Why? Because Time – like many other media outlets — appears to have forgotten that evangelicals do one thing more religiously than anything else: They go to church.
The CT weblog takes Time to task on the very premise on which the list is based. The list of “most influential evangelicals” fails to be clear or consistent about how it defines “influence.” Some evangelicals on the list exert their influence in the halls of political power (Michael Gerson, Diane Knippers, Richard Land, Ted Haggard, for example), some are more influential in the realms of media and culture (Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Joyce Meyer, the Lahayes, Stuart Epperson), and some can do all of that at once (James Dobson, Charles Colson, David Barton). CT also notes that the list has problems — through no fault of its own, I might add — defining the parameters of the label “evangelical.” While acknowledging that “the e-word” is “the trickiest word of all,” CTdescribes some people on the list as having “questionable credentials” to be called evangelical. I don’t blame Time for defining “evangelical” in the loosest possible sense. It’s hard to categorize a cultural identity when the people who identify themselves that way are still arguing about what it means.
In order to grasp the real problem, though, we need to return to the question of influence. If these 25 evangelicals are so influential, what are the paths of influence and who are the intermediaries? Does their influence as individuals matter for how we understand the varied stripes and impulses of contemporary evangelicalism, or should we be looking closer to the ground?
By focusing mainly on recognizable public figures, Time subscribes to the assumption that famous people are the movers of history. This is a kind of pop-sociology (for lack of a better euphemism) that reinforces media analyses that look at social trends from a top-down perspective rather than one that meets everyday people where they stand.
The result is that we often fail to account for (and are repeatedly surprised by) the powerful force of grassroots influences — local churches, Bible studies, prayer groups, parachurch ministries — that are ubiquitous and undeniable. These influences are elusive because they are mundane and hard to condense into list form.
Perhaps I can offer an alternative list. I don’t claim that it’s a better list. As my friends in the South might say, “it’s just different.” It’s a lot shorter than Time‘s, but it seeks to answer a much more pointed question: Who is influencing evangelicals the most? Who is shaping the culture that has come to loom so large within American culture in general?
1) Their pastors, and 2) their friends.
Evangelicalism is a congregational culture. The congregation — i.e., “my church” — is the primary unit of affiliation, and the main context for learning and embodying the disciplines of religious piety. In this context, the church leader — i.e., “my pastor” — is a crucial figure. The elements of a pastor’s charisma — preaching ability, scriptural mastery, and an aura of spiritual authority — are critical factors determining the growth and success of evangelical congregations, especially in an age when denominational affiliations have become less meaningful. In large congregations and megachurches, an entire staff of pastors works under the senior pastor to minister to people’s needs, and maintain a chain of authority along which to communicate religious messages and enforce religious codes. When the lines of pastoral authority are strong, churchgoers believe that they are being “fed” on the Word of God, and they turn to their church leaders, first and foremost, for guidance in all matters of life, both public and private.
Evangelicals are also influenced by their friends, which is to say they are influenced by other evangelicals. One cannot underestimate the quality of time that churchgoing evangelicals spend in the company of like-minded believers, be it in small groups, study sessions, prayer meetings, or recreational outings. Evangelicals are taught by their pastors to seek mutual dependence in one another, to submit not only to pastoral authority but also to the moral and spiritual accountability of others.
This means that while evangelicals are searching for answers to their questions — how to raise their children, what movies to see, how to strengthen their marriages, where to volunteer, whom to vote for, etc. — they may be oriented toward the cultural worldviews of the Dobsons and LaHayes, but those worldviews are being filtered through, if not independently generated within, the social milieux of intimate faith communities. That’s what makes it a movement, not an interest group.
I have never been a fan of lists. I have friends who make annual lists of their favorite new songs or music albums, and I always tease them about it. It is a foreign genre to me, and yet I can see the appeal. Lists are like blueprints of our consciousness, schematics for turning concepts into crystals. They allow our priorities or the priorities of others to be laid out in seemingly unambiguous terms. But lists also conceal and obscure. They diminish that which they exclude. They invite us to step back and gaze upon tapestries of perfect classification, and in the process we lose sight of the intricate weaves and stitches that constitute the fabric hanging before our eyes.
James Dobson may have caused more than few ripples when he linked SpongeBob Squarepants to a cultural conspiracy of gay activism, but that is only one mark of “influence,” and a limited one at that. If you want to understand what it means to have influence, think of all the evangelical pastors who skillfully combine world events, real-life experiences, and biblical exegeses in their weekly sermons. Think of all the churchgoers who listen to the sermons, make little notes in their Bibles, and talk about them with their churchgoing friends.
The most influential evangelicals are not necessarily those in the pulpit, no matter how public or powerful. They’re the ones in the pews.
Omri Elisha, an anthropologist with the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, is a regular contributor to The Revealer. His last essay was “God is in the Retails.”