Last year, I began a series reviewing academic perspectives on evangelical Christians, beginning with James Bielo’s Words Upon the Word and T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. I’m picking up this series again with Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Queens College anthropologist Omri Elisha.
Elisha’s work came highly recommended by two trusted sources. First, friend-of-ESN and occasional guest blogger Kevin Birth suggested I review Moral Ambition when I asked for suggestions last year. Then, at Urbana, my InterVarsity colleague Julian Reese commended Elisha for his insight into evangelicalism. Julian heard Elisha speak at the University of Tennessee in 2011 and had been impressed by his take on evangelical Christianity — which is especially notable because the subject of Moral Ambition is two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville, home of UT. If Julian thought that Elisha had gottent the religious climate right about his hometown, then this needed to be the next book I review. So far, having read three of the book’s seven chapters, I’m finding Kevin’s and Julian’s recommendations to be well-deserved. Moral Ambition is an insightful portrait of evangelical Christianity.
Like Words Upon the Word and When God Talks Back, Moral Ambition is an ethnography of specific groups of evangelical Christians, focusing on one particular aspect of the religious experience. Where Bielo looked at Bible study groups in Lansing, Michigan, and Luhrmann at the experience of “hearing” God among Vineyard Christians, Elisha examines social outreach in two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville.
Evangelical Activism and Social Outreach
Central to Elisha’s book is the concept of moral ambition, which he uses to describe the evangelical social outreach that both responds to evangelical beliefs and seeks to inspire those beliefs in others:
…as socially engaged evangelicals work to attain religious virtues associated with grace and compassion, they simultaneously work to inspire others to adopt the appropriate moral dispositions necessary to enhance volunteer mobilization. (2)
By “social outreach,” Elisha specifically means work done for the good of the community beyond the church, especially among the poor, dispossessed, and alienated members of society, distinct from the care provided to members of the church or outwardly focused evangelism. As anyone who has been involved with these types of efforts at evangelical churches know, they occupy a complex place within the church. As he does with many other areas of evangelical life, Elisha captures the complexity and tensions well:
Far from having a singular motivational source, evangelical social engagement is animated by diverse traditions of Christian missionization, revivalism, social reform, and fundamentalism. Socially engaged evangelicals struggles with a whirlwind of competing imperatives that they have inherited from these traditions….Disagreements abound, for example, over whether the Christian gospel should be viewed as a blueprint for making the world a better place or strictly as a mandate calling on individuals to repent as humanity heads toward its imminent demise. (2)
Activism is one of the four points of the Bebbington quadrilateral that classically defines evangelicalism, but many evangelicals are uncomfortable with the term, seeing it as implying a certain type of (liberal) political engagement. Elisha, however, makes a strong case that the socially engaged evangelicals he examines ought to be considered activists of a sort:
As activists often do—including, for example, social reformers, environmental activists, and community organizers—they confronted what they perceived to be indifference, ignorance, and lackluster participation among their like-minded peers. They created new faith-based ministries and tried to improve existing ones, and in the process hoped to inspire levels of civic participation and spiritual revitalization that would profoundly transform local churches and the city as a whole. (25)
This engagement, however, was not always embraced by fellow evangelicals. Elisha notes that conservative evangelicals are, on average, less involved in social outreach than other kinds of Christians. He describes socially engaged evangelicals as a “surprisingly small and frustrated minority” (9) within the megachurches he studied — one or two dozen individuals in congregations of the thousands.
Tensions within Bible Belt Religion
I greatly appreciate Elisha’s attention to intra-evangelical tensions like this one. His section on evangelicalisms “waves of engagement” with broader society (pp. 10–18) is one of the better summaries of American evangelicalism that I’ve read. Too often, “evangelical” is used as a stand-in to mean a particularly type of political conservatism, but Elisha surveys the more complex history of evangelicalism in order to situate social outreach and Knoxville’s particular climate within evangelicalism as a whole.
Chapters 2 and 3 provide the ecclesial and geographic context for book. Elisha gives cover names for the two churches he studied: “Marble Valley Presbyterian” is a 200-year-old tradition-rooted church affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while “Eternal Vine” is a much younger charismatic-influenced Evangelical Free church. Both have weekly attendance of three- to five-thousand.
I especially appreciated Elisha’s discussion of Knoxville’s overall religious character, which struck me as both accurate and appropriately nuanced. Too often, I have seen discussion of the “Bible Belt” that treats the region’s religious character as homogenized and static. Elisha, true to my own experiences, writes that
the prevalence of evangelical Protestantism shoudl not distract us from the fact that the history of Christianity in the South is marked by diversity and conflict among rival churches and denominations vying for dominance in public life. (77)
Conservative Christianity dominates the culture in the South, but the nature of this Christianity is heavily debated. For example, who should be considered a Christian is never far from the surface. Within a multidenominational pastors group,
[d]ebates arose whenever someone questioned the participation of another member who was seen as representing an unorthodox or heretical traditon, which raised the question of whether it was possible (or desirable) to accommodate diverse perspectives and still maintain essential unity. (82)
I’m willing to bet that some churches avoided this multidenominational group altogether over questions of doctrinal unity.
The question of “who,” however, also extends to the issue of sincerity — true belief vs. mere acculturation. Evangelicals in Knoxville
are wary of false confidence, and insistent that superficial markers of religious adherence do not amount to much if, in the final analysis, Christians are simply “going through the motions.” In the words of another megachurch staffer, “Here in the Bible Belt, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” (79, emphasis happily added)
I look forward to sharing more from Moral Ambition with you, especially Elisha’s discussions of antimaterialism among evangelicals and the tensions between compassion and accountability. Both of these issues get to important themes in contemporary evangelical life. Our theology was formed in periods when evangelical Christians were largely outsiders to the dominant culture, but we know find ourselves at the center of political and business success. Further, while all social activists struggle with the tension between helping someone in the short term and helping them change over the long term, evangelicals’ strong sense of sin and the need for repentence makes this tension even more powerful.
For Further Discussion:
- What has been your experience with social outreach at evangelical churches?
- What tensions have you observed between evangelicals from different traditions or denominations?