Michael Crowley’s New Republic cover story on how powerful Republican conservatives have taken over the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., is a fun read. From a journalistic perspective, it makes no pretense of political balance. Liberal elitism has merit and rich yuppie conservatives are bad. But if you can put that aside, you can treat yourself to an interesting look at how conservative, sometimes evangelical, Republican politics has changed a sleepy suburban community.
As a profile of a community, the article naturally touches on religion, right along with a discussion of the schools and architecture. Here is the section that deals with McLean’s churches:
Even churchgoing has a political cast in McLean. Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist Church, just off McLean’s main drag, listen to sermons from pastor Kathleene Card, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. (The church’s signage recently advertised a somewhat belated sermon on Christianity & World Religions: Understanding Islam.) For evangelicals, there is McLean Bible Church, a $90 million complex that seats 2,400 parishioners. (“The Wal-Mart of churches,” one former church employee told the Post in 2004.) McLean Bible is led by the crusading Reverend Lon Solomon, who preaches a particularly doctrinaire and conservative gospel with the aid of elaborate mood lighting, 92 speakers, and the occasional fog machine. Solomon has attracted such prominent Republicans as Kenneth Starr, Dan Coats, Don Nickles, Don Evans, Senator John Thune, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and a clique of young Bush White House staffers. “It’s really because of Lon Solomon that I go,” the conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who sometimes takes notes during Solomon’s sermons, told the Post. “He does things that many others don’t do. He’s not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He’s very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual [marriage].” In one sermon during the Clinton impeachment, Solomon reportedly issued a thinly veiled Clinton-bashing spiel about how lying to the American people is wrong. That would be little surprise, given that Solomon is close to Ken Starr, to whom he sent encouraging personal notes during the Clinton inquisition. Perhaps because of Solomon’s fearless mixing of religion and politics, McLean Bible is a networking hub for young Washington conservatives, and many a GOP power couple has formed there. One McLean lobbyist, a former aide to Senator Phil Gramm named Jay Velasquez, told Roll Call that he met his future wife in the church’s lobby when she complimented his cowboy boots.
McLean Bible Church, described earlier in the piece as “a holy destination for GOP senators and Bush aides,” contains a whole host of fascinating religion story ideas worth exploring from the political perspective.
First, I’d like to take issue with this idea that a church would be used as a hub for networking. I mean, that’s suggesting sacrilege! Who would find their life mate at a church?! But seriously, reporters should note that this idea that a church could be seen by the young and ambitious as an opportunity to meet people and even rub shoulders with the rich and powerful is nothing special. Is it unfortunate? Sure, but it is really not that surprising.
The New Republic piece sets the stage for some potentially fascinating articles over the next two years. There is a very real chance that the balance of power could shift substantially this fall to the Democrats. And who knows what could happen in 2008? If the church is indeed a destination for the GOP powerful and subsequently those hoping to be in the good graces of the powerful, a change in power would create an interesting social dynamic within the church.
If Crowley’s thinly researched but plausible hypothesis — that conservative Christians attend these churches to be near the powerful — is correct, should we expect to see a decline in attendance at McClean Bible in the event of Democratic takeover? A change in the political power in Washington is always interesting from a cultural standpoint, but it’s also going to be interesting from a religious perspective. Crowley and others will have a chance to measure the validity of the concept that certain churches attract crowds because of their high-powered political members.