Moral Ambition

Kelly Baker

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Omri Elisha speak about his field work on evangelical Christians and megachurches conducted in Knoxville, Tennessee. Elisha's book, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches is now available in paperback and Kindle versions. This book is taunting me from my Kindle as we speak, and I'll blog more about my impressions of the book soon. What was striking to me is Elisha's discussion of social engagement among evangelicals and the tensions that arise in megachurches over how socially involved congregations should be. Socially engaged evangelicals were a small and vocal minority, and Elisha traces the struggles of individuals within megachurches to elicit social change. Marie Griffith describes Elisha as "a wonderfully talented ethnographer—‘empathetic’ in the very best sense: critically engaged, attentive, and clearly committed to forming genuine relationships." The University of California Press describes Moral Ambition in this way:

In this evocative ethnography, Omri Elisha examines the hopes, frustrations, and activist strategies of American evangelical Christians as they engage socially with local communities. Focusing on two Tennessee megachurches, Moral Ambition reaches beyond political controversies over issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and public prayer to highlight the ways that evangelicals at the grassroots of the Christian Right promote faith-based causes intended to improve the state of social welfare. The book shows how these ministries both help churchgoers embody religious virtues and create provocative new opportunities for evangelism on a public scale. Elisha challenges conventional views of U.S. evangelicalism as narrowly individualistic, elucidating instead the inherent contradictions that activists face in their efforts to reconcile religious conservatism with a renewed interest in compassion, poverty, racial justice, and urban revivalism.

Additionally, the press includes an excerpt on their site. Here's a sample:

In order to get their messages across despite such hindrances, the socially engaged evangelicals I observed in Knoxville-not unlike Christian social reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-always portrayed charitable social outreach as a legitimate and necessary component of evangelism. They demonstrated that ministries of social outreach were basically meant to achieve the same goals as most highly regarded revivalist and missionary enterprises, namely, to spread the Word of God and "make disciples" by religious conversion. The discourse of outreach mobilization was rife with tales of personal, cultural, and spiritual transformation, filled with alluring tropes of faith, compassion, redemption, and sacrifice. The tendency among many conservative Protestants to insist on a firm distinction between humanitarian effort and religious proselytization (privileging the latter) was rejected by those who favored a more integrative, holistic approach, the kind that prioritizes "words and deeds" and regards both as equally crucial for effective evangelism among society's poor, distressed, and marginalized populations. Making the case for holistic evangelism in the evangelical churches of Knoxville-whether this meant arguing for broader conceptions of the church's role in society or simply arguing that, as one pastor put it, "You can't talk to an empty stomach"-was a vital strategy by which the socially engaged evangelicals I observed appealed to their conservative base (Elisha 2008b). Their appeals consistently upheld religious virtues that are commonly valued among conservative evangelicals, drawing on existing cultural repertoires informed by authoritative theological and pastoral discourses within the evangelical movement. Yet the socially engaged evangelicals in my study represented a surprisingly small and frustrated minority relative to the megachurches they belonged to-I encountered barely more than one or two dozen such individuals in each congregation-and the local evangelical community as a whole.

Part of the aim of this book is to explore what happens when religious actors of a certain aspirational persuasion-people like Paul Genero-pursue moral ambitions that are recognized as virtuous by others and simultaneously regarded with ambivalence and aversion. I examine how such moral ambitions are shaped within specific cultural and institutional milieus that define, authorize, and constrain their actual potential. Moreover, I analyze the mobilization strategies employed by those who, in claiming these moral ambitions, seek to inspire others to follow suit. The strategies usually involved identifying and critiquing deficiencies in the faith community, and then proposing socially relevant methods of counteracting those deficiencies. My ethnography works alongside other recent ethnographies in exploring the role of institutionalized narratives, concepts, and motifs in framing religious interventions in the modern world (Coleman 2000; Harding 2000), the ways that everyday religiosity is shaped by disciplines of ethical self-cultivation, especially in urban settings (Deeb 2006; Mahmood 2005; O'Neill 2010), and the significance of religious activism as a form of social action and cultural critique (Coutin 1993; Ginsburg 1989). All told, this book portrays a localized cultural arena where I found conservative evangelicals engaged in modest yet meaningful activities akin to what Sherry Ortner has called "serious games": a concept that helps us think about "the way in which people are defined and constrained by the intersections of culture, power, and history in which they find themselves, and yet at the same time are active players in making (and sometimes remaking) those worlds that have made them" (1999: 35).

For those of you interested in evangelicals, evangelicalism, social reform, and/or megachurches, this book is a must-read.


Curtis J. Evans said…
thanks for this review. I will have to check this book out as it seems to challenge in some ways the work of Christian Smith and Michael Emerson and Dennis Hollinger,(among others), which argues that a deeply embedded individualism is pervasive in American evangelicalism (though you note that even Elisha indicates that only a tiny minority of these evangelicals in the mega churches she studied are socially engaged). The expression "you can't talk to an empty stomach," while noted as a vital strategy by Elisha to appeal to their conservative base, is consistent with much of what I found when I tried to take a long view of how evangelical leaders sought to rhetorically legitimize social reform of a particular kind from the 1940s onward; so I wonder how new this kind of strategy really is. I refrain from making further comments until reading the book, but perhaps someone needs to dig deeper to see how evangelicals have been in many ways engaging or restating such a case since the 1940s, with a kind of haunting notion that a Social Gospel usurped personal evangelism and the need for individual regeneration (and thus necessarily privileges the social over against the individual). Is that based on a tenacious individualism that prioritizes the individual or does this reflect a changing hostility to social reform that challenges their view of the good society (perhaps both are at play)?

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