Why Institutions Don’t See Evangelicals as Legit
“Institutions don’t have a good reputation among evangelicals,” writes Uli Chi. “We tend to focus on the merely personal.” That’s largely why we’re not viewed as legit.
Uli Chi is a Senior Fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller furniture company, famously said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If evangelicals defined reality, they’d recognize their suspicion of institutions is why they’re not viewed as legit.
By legit, I mean taken seriously by serious institutions. The Western church is in exile, an outsider when it comes to our nation’s influential institutions. I felt this as a pastor. I was invited to give the opening prayer at the Senate—but was politely asked to leave when elected officials got down to business. Religion is not viewed as legitimate player.
Evangelicals can’t correct this without a correct view of institutions. Chi says they are meant for the common good. Government, for example, is a human authority structure intended as “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). That’s true for business as well. If evangelicals had a positive view of institutions, Chi asks how they could assist institutions. He turns to Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.
Crouch argues that human institutions need trustees. These are leaders who sit on boards that have formal responsibility for an organization’s mission and well-being. They serve an institution by helping it fulfill its purpose that leads to human flourishing.
Crouch is right. His emphasis on institutions was absent in his previous book, Making Culture. Or maybe I missed it. I’m not critiquing Crouch. Truth be told, I didn’t think about institutions for decades. I’m learning. But as I learn, I have a question. Trustees are given powers of administration because they’ve earned them. These leaders are viewed as legit. What would it take for influential institutions to view evangelicals as legit?
We’ve have to earn it. Legitimacy is a credibility to be listened to and taken seriously. It is earned. Scripture defines it as the power to name things, to define human flourishing, for example. Naming is how God caused the cosmos to come into existence. Adam continued creating cultures by naming the animals. Individuals have to earn the credibility and authority to name things. It’s called “legitimate naming.”
This is how a networks of leaders changed the world in the late 1800s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and William James were part of a generation of leaders who shaped influential institutions. They were viewed as legit, so they had the power to reframe facts as the sole province of science and values as the sole province of religion. Facts deal with truth. Values are merely personal—preferences—like preferring pepperoni pizza. The result is that evangelicals, by focusing on the merely personal, are viewed as not in the reality business. They’re not legit. It’s tragic.
The issue of legitimacy is mainly why I could not at this time sit on Kevin Plank’s board. Plank is founder of Under Armour. I have not yet earned the cultural capital necessary to be viewed as legit by Plank. In the Babylonian exile, the sons of Judah had earned the right to be taken seriously by Nebuchadnezzar. They had previously served in King Jeconiah’s courts. That’s why Nebuchadnezzar selected them to be among his trustees.
Evangelicals don’t have a good reputation in institutions largely because institutions don’t have a good reputation among evangelicals. Evangelicals could one day be viewed as legit—but they’d have to start taking seriously the legitimate influence of institutions.
 Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 89.
 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), preface.
Originally published on Doggie Head Tilt.