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How America's Evangelical Leaders Wield Power

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As explained in my book Faith in the Halls of Power, evangelicals are the most discussed but least understood constituency in American public life, especially when we're talking about evangelicals in power. In a study just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Brad Smith (of Princeton University) and I identify four types of evangelical leaders, based on how they make decisions at work. The research emerged out of a massive five-year study in which I interviewed face-to-face nearly 400 evangelical leaders of major organizations.

These evangelicals, it turns out, are a lot like other leaders. Some are bold and brash; others second-guess themselves or try to keep a low profile. The people I interviewed are CEOs of big companies such as Walmart, ConocoPhillips, Johnson & Johnson, and Pepsico. They include cabinet secretaries and college presidents, heads of major nonprofits and leading figures in the arts. But they all share major characteristics that distinguish evangelical Christians from other people: they have 1) a very high regard for the Bible; 2) a belief in the importance of a born-again religious experience; and 3) a desire to bear witness to others through what they say and how they act. Ninety-three percent of the leaders I interviewed said that their colleagues at work know about their Christian faith, either because they have talked about it directly or because word has gotten around.

One of the most direct ways evangelicals in power bear witness to their faith is through workplace decisions. Should the company change its policy on domestic-partner benefits? Does the organization fire a senior manager who slept with his assistant? Do you restrict celebrity endorsement deals to those known for moral behavior?

Leaders I interviewed have wrestled in their roles as executives with these and other tough questions. If the media caricature of evangelicals is to be believed, one would expect to find these leaders using their powerful positions to proselytize and to foist their religion on others. But as I logged 300,000 miles conducting these interviews and visiting the organizations led by a diverse group of men and women, I found very few instances of evangelical triumphalism.

Of course, a few cases do stand out. One CEO had a large placard hanging over his desk that quoted Mark 8:36. No one meeting with him in his office could ignore the big red letters: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" Then there was General William G. Boykin who framed the U.S. military's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as a battle against Satan.

Yet these were not the norm. Our study found four common decision-making postures among evangelicals in power: pragmatic, heroic, circumspect, and brazen. The categories emerge from the intersection of two important dynamics: how evangelicals express their faith at work and how it is received. To understand how evangelicals handle power, you have to assess not only their direct actions but also what scholars call the organizational "ecology" where those actions take place.

Pragmatic evangelicals are religiously subtle, and most work in environments hostile to outright religious expression. This hostility can come from within their organizations or from outside forces, such as the state or wider cultural pressures. Sometimes their colleagues are uncomfortable with faith expressions in business decisions. In other instances, the offense is reflected in company policies (such as scrapping "Merry Christmas" for "Happy Holidays").

Dr. Neil Clark Warren represents this pragmatic style. Warren, the likable psychologist who first became a celebrity in Christian circles for his best-selling book Finding the Love of Your Life, applied his 30 years' clinical experience and started eHarmony in 2000. In just a few years, the internet-based matchmaking service became wildly successful, and while the firm did not screen its customers on religious terms, evangelical Christians were some of its biggest boosters.

Warren and his company faced a difficult decision when a man filed a complaint with the New Jersey attorney general in 2005. He claimed that eHarmony was illegally discriminating against him by not offering a same-sex matchmaking service. Despite howls of protest from evangelicals (such as Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family), Warren and his colleagues opted in 2008 to settle with the attorney general and launch a second matchmaking site for same-sex couples, Compatible Partners. Warren, like many evangelical CEOs who lead large businesses in our increasingly pluralistic society, had to make a pragmatic decision. In the end, he determined that this was not, for eHarmony, a hill worth dying on.

Some other evangelicals take what we call a "heroic" approach. Right or wrong, their actions are staunchly evangelical, even if it costs them dearly.

When Marriott purchased a controlling stake in Ritz-Carlton in the 1990s, Horst Schulze, longtime head of Ritz-Carlton, was strongly urged by his new superiors to provide "adult" programming through in-room entertainment systems in his hotels. He refused. Pressure continued to mount, and eventually, Schulze threatened his bosses: "I'm gonna call a press conference and ... say, 'Now [Ritz-Carlton is] in the pornography business.'" Marriott backed down. "I'm a loose cannon," said Schulze. "I say what I want."

Other evangelicals in power are much more circumspect. These leaders operate in workplace environments more amenable to faith expressions than do the pragmatics, but they are not as comfortable as heroics are in taking explicit stands.

Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart, told me, "Faith is a sensitive topic, [one that has] more meaning after a relationship [between coworkers] has been established. ... The best way to demonstrate one's faith is in how a person treats other people." When asked about the many challenges he's received from religious leaders criticizing some of his company's policies (such as low wages and poor benefits), Duke is clearly circumspect, even when pressed: "I don't necessarily think that I could say that we're a Christ-honoring company ... but I often say we certainly have been blessed by God."

Some evangelical leaders encounter virtually no resistance to their faith expressions at work. Professional athletics is the example par excellence. NFL quarterback Kurt Warner declared at the end of Super Bowl XXXIV, "First things first. I've got to thank my Lord and Savior up above -- thank You, Jesus!" And NBA superstar David Robinson would lead his teammates in prayer before every game. Evangelical athletes are able to be brazen about their faith without much pushback from fans, coaches, or owners.

Encompassing about one third of all U.S. adults, American evangelicalism is a broad enough tradition that every approach has its fans and critics. What one evangelical may see as selling out, another regards as prudent. And as mentioned above, organizational ecology must always be considered. Brazen faith might well shrivel when an evangelical's job in on the line. Or circumspect faith might have its heroic moment once a certain company policy starts to hit too close to home for a leader.

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