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Well-known author, former pastor and educator Tim LaHaye was named by a Wheaton College institute as the most influential leader in the evangelical Christian movement.

Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals gave LaHaye the distinction in the current issue of its quarterly publication, Evangelical Studies Bulletin. LaHaye is best-known in secular circles for his co-authorship of the wildly successful “Left Behind” series of novels based on the biblical book of Revelation.

The institute named LaHaye the most influential evangelical leader in the United States of the last quarter century. He and his wife, Beverly, the leader of Concerned Women for America, have been a driving force in the organizational efforts of evangelicals, including the Moral Majority and the respected political think tank Council for National Policy. Other contenders for the distinction included renowned evangelist Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Bill Bright and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson.

As explained in the ESB article, written by the institute’s Larry Eskridge, Graham was not chosen “because of his advancing age and his trimmed-back schedule during the last 10-12 years …” Bright, who founded Campus Crusade in 1951, saw the success of the “Jesus” film, shown all over the globe in dozens of languages. But since “Campus Crusade has been more or less in organizational overdrive in the 90s,” Bright’s personal leadership did not make the cut for the institute’s distinction. Dobson was declared “No. 2, but not the most influential.”

It was LaHaye’s personal influence on the tone of evangelical Christianity that gained him notice by the institute. His book, “The Spirit-controlled Temperament,” led to a series of books from “Spirit-controlled Family Living” to “Transforming Your Temperament.” And his “Battle” book series – including “The Battle for the Mind,” “The Battle for the Family” and “The Battle for the Public Schools” – was a best-seller in Christian circles and helped bring the culture war center-stage for evangelicals. He even wrote the detailed Christian sex manual, “The Act of Marriage,” which, according to Eskridge, “went beyond telling married Christian folks that it was alright to, uh, ya know … do stuff; it actually told them some of the … stuff.”

Indeed, LaHaye’s extensive bibliography made him a standard in adult Christian education with churches across America, particularly through his “Spirit-controlled” series. In those books, LaHaye attempted to classify the personality types of Christians to pinpoint their spiritual needs.

Said the institute’s Blinky Killeen in the article, “Eventually, it seemed like nearly every evangelical church in the country had some sort of a Bible study or adult Sunday School class with folks trying to become more Christ-like by figuring out if they and their spouse were Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine or Melancholy, or some combination thereof.”

“The amazing thing was that this stuff was little different than numerology or astrology for Christians … and yet under an aura of psychological and biblical authority, evangelicals swallowed it whole,” wrote Eskridge.

But it was LaHaye’s coup d’etat in the “Left Behind” series that clinched the institute’s distinction. Tyndale House Publishers has sold more than 40 million copies of the eight adult end-times novels and related products. Another four adult titles are scheduled over the next four years – starting with book nine, “Desecration,” to release on Oct. 30, 2001. The line includes a series of kids’ novels and audio recordings of the books and a feature film starring Kirk Cameron. To date, there are approximately 75 products in the “Left Behind” series line.

The book series has been a best-seller in both secular and Christian circles, including the New York Times best-seller list, since it first came on the scene. While the books are co-written by popular author Jerry Jenkins, it was LaHaye’s notoriety and prophecy expertise that gave the series its public appeal. And though Eskridge expresses a sense of doubt when it comes to the “biblical, uh, facts in the series,” he wrote, both Eskridge and Killeen believe LaHaye’s influence on the American evangelical movement is undeniable.

“He’s interesting because in so many ways he’s someone who was influenced by all the changes swirling around evangelicalism, rose out of the ranks of the movement, and then in turn played a strategic role at key points that have cemented – for good or ill – the direction [evangelicalism] will be taking in the next few decades,” said Killeen.

Religion Watch, a non-denominational, interfaith newsletter that observes movements in contemporary religion, called the institute’s selection of LaHaye “surprising.” However, it acknowledged that LaHaye “pioneered and helped popularize creationism” in the early 1970s and then was “instrumental in translating therapeutic ideas into an evangelical context” with books about the “Spirit-controlled temperament,” the group said.

Evangelical Christianity stresses the need for a definite commitment or conversion to faith in Jesus Christ and the duty of all believers to persuade others to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. Evangelicalism crosses denominational lines and can be manifest in various forms, from a Billy Graham-style revival in which an evangelist preaches to large groups of people to individual deeds done in the name of Christ to show Jesus’ love to others. The National Association of Evangelicals is an interdenominational, cooperative body of evangelical congregations based in Wheaton, Ill., and has about 2.5 million members.

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