May 22, 2005


On a Christian Mission to the Top (LAURIE GOODSTEIN and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, 5/22/05, NY Times)

For a while last winter, Tim Havens, a recent graduate of Brown University and now an evangelical missionary there, had to lead his morning prayer group in a stairwell of the campus chapel. That was because workers were clattering in to remake the lower floor for a display of American Indian art, and a Buddhist student group was chanting in the small sanctuary upstairs.

Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain's office now recognizes "heathen/pagan" as a "faith community."

But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens's prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups - more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.

The growing power and influence of evangelical Christians is manifest everywhere these days, from the best-seller lists to the White House, but in fact their share of the general population has not changed much in half a century. Most pollsters agree that people who identify themselves as white evangelical Christians make up about a quarter of the population, just as they have for decades.

What has changed is the class status of evangelicals. In 1929, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described born-again Christianity as the "religion of the disinherited." But over the last 40 years, evangelicals have pulled steadily closer in income and education to mainline Protestants in the historically affluent establishment denominations. In the process they have overturned the old social pecking order in which "Episcopalian," for example, was a code word for upper class, and "fundamentalist" or "evangelical" shorthand for lower.

Evangelical Christians are now increasingly likely to be college graduates and in the top income brackets.

It does seem to be the case that what so terrifies the secular Left these days is that the fundamentalists are their peers and superiors, who can't be dismissed as in the past as ignorant rubes. Meanwhile, the Europeans can't even process the fact that as they fade into oblivion the hyperpower is so overtly Judeo-Christian and has been since the Reagan restoration.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2005 9:56 AM

My father turned me on to this site, and I am now a loyal reader. I was hoping the story would turn up here. Thank you for keeping people informed.

Posted by: Tim Havens at May 22, 2005 10:59 AM

I think the roots of this realignment began before Reagan, specifically during the Viet Nam war and the social disintegation of the 60s. The Jesus Movement of the late 60s and early 70s had a profound effect on the spiritual culture of this country. The gospel message left the pews and the sanctuaries and flowered in the academies and the marketplace. Those who embraced the message carried the faith to their "worlds". The faithful continue to reap the harvest planted during those times. The true Church in action cannot be stopped. As Jesus pointed out to his disciples, "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." I expect Brown will not prevail against it either.

Posted by: Pilgrim at May 22, 2005 11:21 AM

Mr. Havens:

Thanks! Please do feel free to e-mail stories of interest.

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2005 11:48 AM

Mr. Havens:

Thanks for your labor in the vineyards of academia. It's stories like this that give me hope as I prepare to send my children into the 'lion's den' in a year.

Posted by: TimF at May 22, 2005 1:54 PM


Welcome! Please feel free to post comments on subjects that interest you. As you probably already know, we have quite an interesting and eclectic collection of people who congregate here.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 22, 2005 7:01 PM

I graduated from Yale in '97. I came from an extremely small, conservative, highly intellectual (for people without college degrees) plymouth brethren church in Iowa. Everybody there thought they were losing me when I went East. Yale turned out to be a great, non-hostile environment, partly because of strong well-populated Christian student groups like CCC and Yale Christian Fellowship. I actually found more evangelicals at Yale (many of them Korean) than I had met in 18 years at home.

Anyway, Tim, good work.

BTW, by coincidence, three of my four Freshman roommates happened to be evangelical Christians. It would perhaps warm your heart, Orin, to know that there are now seven kids between us (which isn't that unusual for people now turning 30, but it is for my Yale cohort).

Posted by: rds at May 22, 2005 7:44 PM