The first shall be photographed for Time, and the last shall blog about it
Lists of "most powerful," "most influential," best, or other superlatives always have some ostensibly high goal. Time magazine doesn't say why it published a cover story on "the 25 most influential evangelicals in America," but the idea seems to be to communicate to the country that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell aren't really the faces of the movement. This is a group that's broader than you think.
The introduction is delightfully sweet: "American evangelicalism seems to defy unity, let alone hierarchy. Yet its members share basic commitments. Time's list focuses on those whose influence is on the rise or who have carved out a singular role."
But really, the de facto purpose of lists like this is to get people talking, to develop some kind of buzz, to spur some kind of debate. And so it has begun.
Here's the list: Howard & Roberta Ahmanson, David Barton, Doug Coe, Chuck Colson, Luis Cortès, James Dobson, Stuart Epperson, Michael Gerson, Billy & Franklin Graham, Ted Haggard, Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes, Diane Knippers, Tim & Beverly LaHaye, Richard Land, Brian McLaren, Joyce Meyer, Richard John Neuhaus, Mark Noll, J.I. Packer, Rick Santorum, Jay Sekulow, Stephen Strang, Rick Warren, and Ralph Winter.
Okay, let's get the obvious out the way: there are 28 names on this list of 25 (due to the inclusion of three couples), and not everyone is an American (CT executive editor J.I. Packer British born and lives in Canada).
Then there's the question of influence: Influencing whom? Some seem to have been included for their influence outside the evangelical community (especially on national politics) while others for their influence on the evangelical movement itself.
But the trickiest word of all is that e-word: evangelicals. Already, several bloggers are questioning the inclusion of First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus and Sen. Rick Santorumboth Roman Catholics. But Time notes this, and offers solid argument for including both: Santorum, the magazine says, is "the darling of Protestant Evangelicals" and "the standard bearer of social conservatives on the Hill." Neuhaus translates "conservative Protestant arguments couched tightly in Scripture into Catholicism's broader language of moral reasoning" and "has worked tirelessly to persuade conservative Catholics and Evangelicals to make common cause."
In the Chuck Colson entry, one thoughtful commentator (okay, it's Weblog) says, "If he gets on a bandwagon, it's likely to move." The same could be true of just about anyone on this list. If you were to issue a document and wanted influential signatories to show that it has important and widespread support in the movement, you'd probably ask Neuhaus to sign it, whether the matter was political, ethical, or theological. If you wanted to propose legislation of particular interest to evangelicals, you'd knock Frist (oops, I mean, first) on Santorum's door.
Others on the list have questionable credentials for the "evangelical" label. Both Doug Coe and T.D. Jakes focus on Jesus to the point of omitting other important Christian doctrines (though their overemphasis takes different forms), and asking "Is Brian McLaren an evangelical?" is a popular parlor game in several circles.
But the mosaic that emerges from these 25 tiles is worthy of note. This is the evangelical movement understood in its historical context. Some of these names would like to pull the movement back into places evangelicalism has expressly rejected in the past: either into a cultural disengagement that "circles the wagons" or into a cultural embrace that compromises the gospel (and no, I'm not naming names; interpret as you will). But evangelicalism as a movement has largely succeeded because it includes both of these voices correcting each other's overstatements. Once we stop having the debate over how to be "in but not of the world," we're in trouble.
One of the articles that goes with the list asks, "Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?" It starts off with a quote from Bob Jones III. While he fits under the "religious conservatives" discussion of the particular article, he may not fit under the larger heading, "Evangelicals and America." Until recently, he proudly wore the fundamentalist name to distinguish himself from the broader evangelical movement led by Billy Graham, Carl Henry, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and others. (He now prefers the term preservationist, since the historical term fundamentalist now has only a pejorative meaning with violent overtones.) He offers a separationist model that is conservative and is a form of Christianity but it's not evangelicalism. Likewise, another article looks at how Democrats are "trying out a more soulful tone." While there are many such species of evangelical Democrats, not all Christians who quote Scripture in that party are evangelicals as the term properly understood: combining the conversionist, activist, biblicist, and crucicentrist doctrines of 1700-1920 "fundamentalism" with the rejection of 20th-century fundamentalism's demands to "touch not the unclean thing."
A list of the 25 most influential evangelicals published by an evangelical group (such as Christianity Today) would surely be somewhat different than Time's list. But Time's reporters clearly did their homework and chose these names with care; they each bring something unique to the movement. Arguing that person x would have been a better choice than person y is fun and can stimulate good thinking, but let's be thankful that evangelicalism and its diverse leadership are becoming better known and better understood by the larger culture. Weblog has been able to meet many of these people in the course of business, and knows that they would rather point the way to Jesus than capitalize on their fame for their own ends. Let's pray that they'll find many opportunities to do so as a result of this package.
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