[Paleopsych] NYT: Class Matters: Social Class and Religion in the United States of America
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Class Matters: Social Class and Religion in the United States of America
[Fourth in a series]
On a Christian Mission to the Top
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
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
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
Evangelical Christians are now increasingly likely to be college
graduates and in the top income brackets. Evangelical C.E.O.'s pray
together on monthly conference calls, evangelical investment bankers
study the Bible over lunch on Wall Street and deep-pocketed
evangelical donors gather at golf courses for conferences restricted
to those who give more than $200,000 annually to Christian causes.
Their growing wealth and education help explain the new influence of
evangelicals in American culture and politics. Their buying power
fuels the booming market for Christian books, music and films. Their
rising income has paid for construction of vast mega-churches in
suburbs across the country. Their charitable contributions finance
dozens of mission agencies, religious broadcasters and international
On The Chronicle of Philanthropy's latest list of the 400 top
charities, Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical student group,
raised more from private donors than the Boy Scouts of America, the
Public Broadcasting Service and Easter Seals.
Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and
money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League
universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni
formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to "reclaim
the Ivy League for Christ," according to its fund-raising materials,
and to "shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from
these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural
The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student
centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a
center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and
supporters met in Princeton for an "Ivy League Congress on Faith and
Action." A keynote speaker was Charles W. Colson, the born-again
Watergate felon turned evangelical thinker.
Matt Bennett, founder of the Christian Union, told the conference,
"I love these universities - Princeton and all the others, my alma
mater, Cornell - but it really grieves me and really hurts me to think
of where they are now."
The Christian Union's immediate goal, he said, was to recruit campus
missionaries. "What is happening now is good," Mr. Bennett said, "but
it is like a finger in the dike of keeping back the flood of
And trends in the Ivy League today could shape the culture for decades
to come, he said. "So many leaders come out of these campuses. Seven
of the nine Supreme Court justices are Ivy League grads; four of the
seven Massachusetts Supreme Court justices; Christian ministry
leaders; so many presidents, as you know; leaders of business - they
He added, "If we are going to change the world, we have got, by God's
power, to see these campuses radically changed."
An Outsider on Campus Mr. Havens, who graduated from Brown last year,
is the kind of missionary the Christian Union hopes to enlist. An
evangelical from what he calls a "solidly middle class" family in the
Midwest, he would have been an anomaly at Brown a couple of
generations ago. He applied there, he said, out of a sense of
"nonconformity" and despite his mother's preference that he attend a
"She just was nervous about, and rightfully so, what was going to
happen to me freshman year," Mr. Havens recalled.
When he arrived at Brown, in Providence, R.I., Mr. Havens was
astounded to find that the biggest campus social event of the fall was
the annual SexPowerGod dance, sponsored by the Lesbian Gay Bisexual
Transgender Queer Alliance and advertised with dining-hall displays
depicting pairs of naked men or women. "Why do they have to put God in
the name?" he said. "It seems kind of disrespectful."
Mr. Havens found himself a double outsider of sorts. In addition to
being devoted to his faith, he was a scholarship student at a
university where half the students can afford $45,000 in tuition and
fees without recourse to financial aid and where, he said, many tend
to "spend money like water."
But his modest means did not stand out as much as his efforts to guard
his morals. He did not drink, and he almost never cursed. And he was
determined to stay "pure" until marriage, though he did not lack for
attention from female students. Just as his mother feared, Mr. Havens,
a broad-shouldered former wrestler with tousled brown hair and a
guileless smile, wavered some his freshman year and dated several
"I was just like, 'Oh, I can get this girl to like me,' " he recalled.
" 'Oh, she likes me; she's cute.' And so it was a lot of fairly short
and meaningless relationships. It was pretty destructive."
In his sophomore year, though, his evangelical a cappella singing
group, a Christian twist on an old Ivy League tradition, interceded.
With its support, he rededicated himself to serving God, and by his
senior year he was running his own Bible-study group, hoping to
inoculate first-year students against the temptations he had faced.
They challenged one another, Mr. Havens said, "committing to remain
sexually pure, both in a physical sense and in avoiding pornography
and ogling women and like that."
Mr. Havens is now living in a house owned and supported by the
Christian Union and is trying to reach not just other evangelicals but
nonbelievers as well.
Prayers in the Boardrooms
The Christian Union is the brainchild of Matt Bennett, 40, who earned
bachelor's and master's degrees at Cornell and later directed the
Campus Crusade for Christ at Princeton. Mr. Bennett, tall and
soft-spoken, with a Texas drawl that waxes and wanes depending on the
company he is in, said he got the idea during a 40-day water-and-juice
fast, when he heard God speaking to him one night in a dream.
"He was speaking to me very strongly that he wanted to see an
increasing and dramatic spiritual revival in a place like Princeton,"
Mr. Bennett said.
While working for Campus Crusade, Mr. Bennett had discovered that it
was hard to recruit evangelicals to minister to the elite colleges of
the Northeast because the environment was alien to them and the
campuses often far from their homes. He also found that the
evangelical ministries were hobbled without adequate salaries to
attract professional staff members and without centers of their own
where students could gather, socialize and study the Bible. Jews had
Hillel Houses, and Roman Catholics had Newman Centers.
He thought evangelicals should have their own houses, too, and began a
furious round of fund-raising to buy or build some. An early
benefactor was his twin brother, Monty, who had taken over the
Dallas hotel empire their father built from a single Holiday Inn
and who had donated a three-story Victorian in a neighborhood near
To raise more money, Matt Bennett has followed a grapevine of affluent
evangelicals around the country, winding up even in places where
evangelicals would have been a rarity just a few decades ago. In
Manhattan, for example, he visited Wall Street boardrooms and met with
the founder of Socrates in the City, a roundtable for religious
intellectuals that gathers monthly at places like the Algonquin Hotel
and the Metropolitan Club.
Those meetings introduced him to an even more promising pool of
like-minded Christians, the New Canaan Group, a Friday morning prayer
breakfast typically attended by more than a hundred investment bankers
and other professionals. The breakfasts started in the Connecticut
home of a partner in Goldman, Sachs but grew so large that they had to
move to a local church. Like many other evangelicals, some members
attend churches that adhere to evangelical doctrine but that remain
affiliated with mainline denominations.
Other donors to the Christian Union are members of local elites across
the Bible Belt. Not long ago, for example, Mr. Bennett paid a visit to
Montgomery, Ala., for lunch with Julian L. McPhillips Jr., a wealthy
Princeton alumnus and the managing partner of a local law firm. Mr.
Bennett, wearing an orange Princeton tie, said he wanted to raise
enough money for the Christian Union to hire someone to run a "healing
ministry" for students with depression, eating disorders or drug or
Mr. McPhillips, who shares Mr. Bennett's belief in the potential of
faith healing, remarked that he had once cured an employee's migraine
headaches just by praying for him. "We joke in my office that we don't
need health insurance," he told Mr. Bennett before writing a check for
Mr. Bennett's database has so far grown to about 5,000 names gathered
by word of mouth alone. They are mostly Ivy League graduates whose
regular alumni contributions he hopes to channel into the Christian
Union. And these Ivy League evangelicals, in turn, are just a small
fraction of the large number of their affluent fellow believers.
Gaining on the Mainline
Their commitment to their faith is confounding a long-held assumption
that, like earlier generations of Baptists or Pentecostals, prosperous
evangelicals would abandon their religious ties or trade them for
membership in establishment churches. Instead, they have kept their
traditionalist beliefs, and their churches have even attracted new
members from among the well-off.
Meanwhile, evangelical Protestants are pulling closer to their
mainline counterparts in class and education. As late as 1965, for
example, a white mainline Protestant was two and a half times as
likely to have a college degree as a white evangelical, according to
an analysis by Prof. Corwin E. Smidt, a political scientist at
Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Grand Rapids, Mich.
But by 2000, a mainline Protestant was only 65 percent more likely to
have the same degree. And since 1985, the percentage of incoming
freshmen at highly selective private universities who said they were
born-again also rose by half, to 11 or 12 percent each year from 7.3
percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at
the University of California, Los Angeles.
To many evangelical Christians, the reason for their increasing
worldly success and cultural influence is obvious: God's will at work.
Some also credit leaders like the midcentury intellectual Carl F. H.
Henry, who helped to found a large and influential seminary, a
glossy evangelical Christian magazine and the National
Association of Evangelicals, a powerful umbrella group that now
includes 51 denominations. Dr. Henry and his followers implored
believers to look beyond their churches and fight for a place in the
There were also demographic forces at work, beginning with the G.I.
Bill, which sent a pioneering generation of evangelicals to college.
Probably the greatest boost to the prosperity of evangelicals as a
group came with the Sun Belt expansion of the 1970's and the Texas oil
boom, which brought new wealth and businesses to the regions where
evangelical churches had been most heavily concentrated.
The most striking example of change in how evangelicals see themselves
and their place in the world may be the Assemblies of God, a
Pentecostal denomination. It was founded in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1914
by rural and working-class Christians who believed that the Holy
Spirit had moved them to speak in tongues. Shunned by established
churches, they became a sect of outsiders, and their preachers
condemned worldly temptations like dancing, movies, jewelry and
swimming in public pools. But like the Southern Baptists and other
conservative denominations, the Assemblies gradually dropped their
separatist strictures as their membership prospered and spread.
As the denomination grew, Assemblies preachers began speaking not only
of heavenly rewards but also of the material blessings God might
provide in this world. The notion was controversial in some
evangelical circles but became widespread nonetheless, and it made the
Assemblies' faith more compatible with an upwardly mobile middle
By the 1970's, Assemblies churches were sprouting up in affluent
suburbs across the country. Recent surveys by Margaret Poloma, a
historian at the University of Akron in Ohio, found Assemblies members
more educated and better off than the general public.
As they flourished, evangelical entrepreneurs and strivers built a
distinctly evangelical business culture of prayer meetings, self-help
books and business associations. In some cities outside the Northeast,
evangelical business owners list their names in Christian yellow
The rise of evangelicals has also coincided with the gradual shift of
most of them from the Democratic Party to the Republican and their
growing political activism. The conservative Christian political
movement seldom developed in poor, rural Bible Belt towns. Instead,
its wellsprings were places like the Rev. Ed Young's booming
mega-church in suburban Houston or the Rev. Timothy LaHaye's in
Orange County, Calif., where evangelical professionals and businessmen
had the wherewithal to push back against the secular culture by
organizing boycotts, electing school board members and lobbying for
conservative judicial appointments.
'A Bunch of Heathens'
Mr. Havens, the Brown missionary, is part of the upsurge of
well-educated born-again Christians. He grew up in one of the few
white households in a poor black neighborhood of St. Louis, where his
parents had moved to start a church, which failed to take off. Mr.
Havens's father never graduated from college. After being laid off
from his job at a marketing company two years ago, he now works in an
insurance company's software and systems department. Tim Havens's
mother home-schooled the family's six children for at least a few
Mr. Havens got through Brown on scholarships and loans, and at
graduation was $25,000 in debt. To return to campus for his missionary
year and pay his expenses, he needed to raise an additional $36,000,
and on the advice of Geoff Freeman, the head of the Brown branch of
Campus Crusade, he did his fund-raising in St. Louis.
"It is easy to sell New England in the Midwest," as Mr. Freeman put it
later. Midwesterners, he said, see New Englanders as "a bunch of
So Mr. Havens drove home each day from a summer job at a stone supply
warehouse to work the phone from his cluttered childhood bedroom. He
told potential donors that many of the American-born students at Brown
had never even been to church, to say nothing of the students from
Asia or the Middle East. "In a sense, it is pre-Christian," he
Among his family's friends, however, encouragement was easier to come
by than cash. As the summer came to a close, Mr. Havens was still
$6,000 short. He decided to give himself a pay cut and go back to
Brown with what he had raised, trusting God to take care of his needs
just as he always had when money seemed scarce during college.
"God owns the cattle on a thousand hills," he often told himself. "God
has plenty of money."
Thanks to the Christian Union, Mr. Haven's present quarters as a
ministry intern at Brown are actually more upscale than his home in
St. Louis. On Friday nights, he is a host for a Bible-study and dinner
party for 70 or 80 Christian students, who serve themselves heaping
plates of pasta before breaking into study groups. Afterward, they
regroup in the living room for board games and goofy improvisation
contests, all free of profanity and even double entendre.
Lately, though, Mr. Havens has been contemplating steps that would
take him away from Brown and campus ministry. After a chaste romance -
"I didn't kiss her until I asked her to marry me," he said - he
recently became engaged to a missionary colleague, Liz Chalmers. He
has been thinking about how to support the children they hope to have.
And he has been considering the example of his future father-in-law,
Daniel Chalmers, a Baptist missionary to the Philippines who ended up
building power plants there and making a small fortune. Mr. Chalmers
has been a steady donor to Christian causes, and he bought a plot of
land in Oregon, where he plans to build a retreat center.
"God has always used wealthy people to help the church," Mr. Havens
said. He pointed out that in the Bible, rich believers helped support
the apostles, just as donors to the Christian Union are investing
strategically in the Ivy League today.
With those examples and his own father in mind, Mr. Havens chose
medicine over campus ministry. He scored well on his medical school
entrance exams and, after another year at Brown, he will head to St.
Louis University School of Medicine. At the Christian Union conference
in April, he was pleased to hear doctors talk about praying with their
patients and traveling as medical missionaries.
He is looking forward to having the money a medical degree can bring,
and especially to putting his children through college without the
scholarships and part-time jobs he needed. But whether he becomes
rich, he said, "will depend on how much I keep."
Like other evangelicals of his generation, he means to take his faith
with him as he makes his way in the world. He said his roommates at
Brown had always predicted that he would "sell out"- loosen up about
his faith and adopt their taste for new cars, new clothes and the
other trappings of the upper class.
He didn't at Brown and he thinks he never will.
"So far so good," he said. But he admitted, "I don't have any money
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