American evangelicals are becoming a wealthy lot. This has created opportunities for the wider evangelical world. Rich evangelicals have deployed their financial resources to establish new ministries, expand opportunities for young leaders, and develop initiatives around the world.

But didn't Jesus talk about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? The rich young ruler went away sorrowful in the Gospel of Luke. Money, in and of itself, was not the problem. It was the love of money that tripped him up. He may have been generous, but he wasn't willing to sell everything. I can hardly blame him.

But as the nation's economy continues to spiral downward, we have to consider how the greed of an individual or a group of people affects the structure of our economy. Americans are growing angry over the "golden parachutes" that protect business executives even if their companies fail. After serving eighteen days as the chief executive of Washington Mutual before the bank collapsed on September 26, Alan Fishman stands to receive a $19 million severance package. That is the equivalent of $1.12 million for each day he led the company—a company that subsequently imploded, no less. Analysts tell us that curbing excessive compensation packages for executives will not dramatically change the current financial outlook for the United States. Perhaps that is so, but the nation needs business leaders they can trust. The engine of the free market is not so much capital as it is trust.

The dark side of wealth

Evangelical executives frame their business life as a moral activity. But what happens when they enjoy lavish compensation packages even as workers are called upon to tighten their belts? In 2004, John Tyson was serving as CEO of Tyson Foods, one of the 100 largest companies in the United States. The company experienced a financial downturn and decided to shore up money by demanding wage cuts from line workers. At that same time, Tyson's annual compensation grew by leaps and bounds—upwards of $20 million. Eric Schlosser, writing for the Nation, summarized the feeling of many critics: "During an interview … Tyson outlined his personal theory of labor management, … [citing the importance of] a moral anchor. Tyson said, 'You have to serve the people that work for you … and in effect become a servant to the people that work for you.' He said it with a straight face."

There are some evangelical business leaders who eschew the accoutrements of an executive lifestyle. Ralph Larsen, the onetime chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, and his wife made a conscious decision to live significantly beneath their means. That meant that they did not move to a bigger house or a better neighborhood even as Larsen rose up through the company ranks. They gave away vast sums of their annual income. Evangelicals in Silicon Valley and in other places around the country have made similar decisions. Joel Manby, who once ran Saab USA, told me, "We could afford a second home, [but] with all these people … homeless, I just don't feel right about that … .I'd rather do Habitat for Humanity where I'm building second homes [rather] than living in one."

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The current cultural moment is unique for evangelicals. There have always been a few of them who had great wealth. J. Howard Pew, for example, was an extraordinarily wealthy industrialist in the first half of the twentieth century. With his support, evangelical initiatives such as Christianity Today were established and grew. A century earlier, Arthur and Lewis Tappan funded Charles Finney's ministry during the Second Great Awakening, as had John Wanamaker supported A.T. Pierson, the popular Presbyterian pastor and evangelical leader.

But today's wealthy evangelicals are far more numerous. Among the 101 business leaders I interviewed for Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford), the average amount of money they give away each year is $1.1 million, and their giving ranged from $30,000 per year to $15 million. One knowledgeable source told me that in the space of a few months, he met with 20 families who had a cumulative net worth exceeding $40 billion. Evangelicals have given away millions and in the process filled the coffers of many leading churches and evangelical ministries. At the same time, it has generated new challenges. How should evangelicals respond to their rising wealth, in terms of lifestyle and in the context of the country's economic woes?

Bearing witness to their faith is a core commitment of American evangelicals. In a day and age when executives enjoy exorbitant compensation packages, simply refusing executive perks and stock options or redirecting them toward philanthropic outlets could be a simple, yet clearly noticeable form of evangelical witness. How much is enough for an executive to keep? The annual salary of the president of the United States is $400,000. That seems like a reasonable place to start.

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D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford), which is being released in paperback later this month.

Related Elsewhere:

Andrea Useem also wrote about where evangelicals stand on CEO compensation.

Christianity Today interviewed Lindsay about his research and reviewed his book. His book won first place in CT's book awards in the Christianity and Culture category.

CT also has special sections on the economic crisis and money & business.