Marketplace Christians

February 27, 1996|By Andres Tapia

CHICAGO -- Attention is fixed in this presidential year on the Christian Right's goal of seeking political power through the ballot box. But a parallel and largely overlooked trend is gaining momentum -- evangelicals seeking power in corporate America.

They call themselves ''marketplace Christians'' and they see increasing their numbers in the boardroom as a way to spread ''biblical'' principles through mainstream society.

''Traditionally when Christians have thought of serving God with their careers they have become missionaries or entered the helping professions,'' explains Pete Hammond, executive director of Marketplace in Madison, Wisconsin, which motivates and trains evangelicals to work in professions not usually associated with the soul.

''We believe that one's faith can affect how you design a house or make loan decisions or deal with nuclear physics.''

Christian guilds

Some 100 Christian guilds, each geared to a specific profession, now operate nationwide, including the Christian Legal Society, Christians in the Arts, the Christian Nuclear Scientist Fellowship, even Models for Christ. Among 200 books on the subject is ''Lambs among Wolves: How Christians are Influencing American Culture,'' by Bob Briner, an evangelical TV producer.

A related organization, the Strategic Careers Coalition, of Colorado Springs, seeks to help professional Christians enter the marketplace to infuse it with Christian ideals. Its founder, Jim Rutz, hopes that as a result ''the moral atmosphere will be elevated and hostility toward Christianity in the government, media, arts, higher education and sciences will be reduced.''

To motivate more Christians to join the movement, evangelical institutions are subsidizing education at elite secular universities in fields considered ''culturally strategic and where evangelical Christians are under-represented,'' says Sue Crider, a Houghton College journalism professor working with the Washington-based Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities. The coalition provides scholarships for undergraduates.

Mustard Seed

At a related program run by the Mustard Seed Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, graduate-school fellowships are offered to ''encourage Christians to consider vocational options where they can act on important social issues,'' says a representative, Susan Powell.

''How often have we complained that Christians are ignored or ridiculed in the media?'' asks Ms. Crider. ''Yet the church has not encouraged our people to go into those arenas and make their faith be felt. Until there are Christians in those positions, the church cannot have influence there.''

Critics of the movement complain that conservative Christians are infiltrating secular institutions so as to impose their will on society.

''Since the 1992 election, the Christian Right thinks it has the power of Congress and this is its chance to accomplish what it wants,'' says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison.

Faith and careers

But marketplace Christians believe it is precisely through integrating their faith with their careers that they can benefit all society.

''The issues go beyond being gracious with co-workers and fair with employees,'' says Mr. Hammond. ''We believe that in each profession Christians can find something that is inherently godly about the work itself and bring to bear values based on their faith.

''Economists need to have their economic formulas take into account the person on the street, nuclear physicists to wrestle with the moral issues behind Star Wars defense, bankers to ensure they don't discriminate racially in lending money.''

In his book ''Lambs among Wolves,'' Mr. Briner writes that ''Our job as Christians is not to take over the various communities in our world; it is, however, to penetrate them, to be present, to provide God's alternative to evil, to demonstrate Christ's relevance there.''

The media is a prime area on which Christians are setting their sights. Nicki Hevesy, who studies television and film at the University of Southern California, hopes to use the mainstream entertainment industry to reach people with ''more hope and better values.''

Truth every week

Martha Williamson, executive producer and writer of the CBS television series ''Touched by an Angel,'' says the show portrays the existence of a Judeo-Christian God ''that loves us and wants to be part of our lives. If you can get that truth across every single week, you have changed television.''

These voices signal a departure from evangelicalism's isolationist bent. When it began a century ago, it sought to keep its members ''clean'' from the ''impurities'' of the world. In the process, evangelicals created their own $3 billion parallel retail and corporate economy.

Now they are seeking ways to reconnect with mainstream society through the marketplace, the better to ''affect the world for Jesus Christ.''

Andres Tapia, a writer for Christianity Today, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service. Susan Brill, a free-lance journalist in Minneapolis, contributed.

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