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.
Omri Elisha is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York.
“This is a lovely book. Secular Americans all too often assume that evangelical Christianity embraces an individualistic ethos. This well-written and engaging account takes us into the life of the social world of evangelical megachurches and shows the tensions between unconditional love and accountability. In doing so, this book allows us to grasp the experience at the heart of evangelical faith. These people emerge as likable and intelligible through Elisha’s narrative.” —T.M. Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor, Stanford University
“Elisha is a wonderfully talented ethnographer—‘empathetic’ in the very best sense: critically engaged, attentive, and clearly committed to forming genuine relationships. I have tremendous admiration for the research that went into this project, and I can’t wait to teach this book in my classes.” —R. Marie Griffith, John A. Bartlett Professor, Harvard Divinity School
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
Religious postulates can come into conflict with the "world" from different points of view, and the point of view involved is always of the greatest importance for the direction and for the way in which salvation will be striven for.
There are many ways to be ambitious, and many different objectives that ambitious people aspire to aside from wealth and power. For those we call "people of faith," the life of religious commitment is a relentless, often challenging pursuit of virtues that-like fame, fortune, or artistic genius-are perceived as elusive yet ultimately attainable. Whether such virtues are enacted in everyday life or conceived in other-worldly terms, the ambitions that propel religious people toward lofty ideals are rooted in cultural practices that allow sacred pursuits, including the triumph of righteousness over mediocrity, to appear not only desirable but always close at hand. The ambitions of religious faith, and for that matter all personal aspirations that we often misrecognize as expressions of radical individuality, are inherently social in their inception and saturated in moral content.
This book is about evangelical Protestants affiliated with megachurches and faith-based ministries in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the ambitious efforts of some pastors and churchgoers to increase their faith community's investments in various forms of altruistic social engagement. Based on nearly sixteen months of ethnographic research carried out between 1999 and 2002, my study focuses on cultural practices and individual experiences related to organized benevolence and social outreach, areas of ministry that are fraught with ideological tension. In describing how conservative and predominantly white evangelicals navigate the shifting and contested boundaries of social engagement, I offer an in-depth perspective on important aspects of North American evangelicalism-including the complexity of evangelical moral and political attitudes at the congregational level-about which there has been much speculation but little concrete analysis.
Central to my overall argument is the concept of moral ambition, which I have coined to highlight two key points. First, 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. In other words, their aspirations pertain not only to what they desire for themselves but also what they have come to expect of others, including those who share their religious outlook as well as the larger secular and nonevangelical public. Second, I argue that moments of creative agency triggered by these aspirations are at once fueled and constrained by the ideological demands of the institutional contexts in which they emerge. They are also complicated by multiple and at times conflicting historical, cultural, and theological influences that coexist within those contexts. 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 struggle with and against a whirlwind of competing imperatives that they have inherited from these traditions. This is particularly true of perennial debates about the character of evangelism (from the Greek euangelos, or "bringing good news"). 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.
Through my discussion of the moral ambitions of evangelical social engagement it will become clear that in the process of assuming an activist orientation, conservative evangelicals position themselves to renew and even redefine the terms of Christian evangelism-the project of "spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ"-in ways that reflect changing personal, social, and political circumstances. In so doing they also experience shifts, however subtle, in their ideological and even theological perspectives, which can at times put them at odds with other members of their home congregations and the prevailing cultural politics of the Christian Right. Nonetheless, their ambitions remain roughly consistent with a broad ideological agenda that underlies most instances of grassroots activism and institutionalization in modern evangelicalism. That agenda is the Christianization of culture, or "the reformulation of social relations, cultural meanings, and personal experience in terms of putatively Christian ideals" (Hefner 1993: 3-4). In the case of conservative evangelicals, those "putatively Christian ideals" are closely linked to a morality rooted in biblical fundamentalism and premillennial apocalypticism. They also stem from more or less articulated notions of public theology, which for contemporary evangelicals entail collective efforts to redefine civil society as a space of missionary intervention, efforts that have been well served by recent national trends such as the proliferation of evangelical megachurches and the political currency of "faith-based initiatives" in the wake of federal welfare reform.
At the center of my field research were two suburban megachurches, which I refer to as Eternal Vine Church and Marble Valley Presbyterian Church. I also observed and interviewed representatives from local faith-based organizations, social service agencies, and informal ministries initiatives with ties to the megachurches. A megachurch is typically defined as a Protestant congregation with an average of two thousand or more worshippers attending weekly services (Thumma and Travis 2007). Eternal Vine and Marble Valley Presbyterian each had an average of thirty-five hundred to five thousand worshippers at Sunday services during the period of my fieldwork. This is moderate compared to massive megachurches in major cities, some of which boast more than twenty thousand or even forty thousand attendees, but the numbers are significant for a midsized city like Knoxville. Both congregations are made up of predominantly white, middle- to upper-middle-class churchgoers, including many who live in affluent suburbs in or around Knox County. Some members are among the region's political and economic elite, which is noteworthy for a study of this kind, given my emphasis on how megachurch ministries construct points of social intersection with the community at large. Megachurches are extremely resourceful organizations, capable of implementing bold strategies of social engagement and institutional networking. As such, they represent potential exceptions to the norm among conservative Protestant churches, which tend to be less directly engaged with their social and civic environment than mainline Protestant and Catholic churches (Ammerman 2005). Insofar as megachurches are institutions where high concentrations of social and economic capital are put to the service of religious ideology, they are also sites of power, reproducing dynamics of class and racial privilege that prevail in stratified urban-suburban landscapes.
When I began fieldwork in the summer of 1999, I intended to study the social impact of affluent megachurches on a local religious ecology (Eiesland 2000), focusing on how emergent outreach ministries sponsored by large suburban churches affected the dynamics of welfare in a regional culture known for its religious and social conservatism. Although I do address this issue to some extent in the chapters that follow, there is another story at the heart of this ethnography. Almost as soon as I started attending services and outreach events in Knoxville, I observed a tendency among pastors and churchgoers to call themselves to task, almost routinely, for having failed yet to maximize the human and material resources at their disposal in order to achieve "real" cultural and spiritual transformations in the greater Knoxville area. They praised the achievements of the megachurches they were affiliated with, including the quality of the worship, the scope of foreign missions, and the opportunities for spiritual growth afforded by numerous congregational ministries. But they frequently lamented the lack of sustained commitment to ministries that targeted poor, distressed, and needy populations in the surrounding region. Such ministries were viewed by some as integral to the fulfillment of the "Great Commission," in which Jesus Christ commands his followers to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). The complaints were justified to a certain extent, since relatively few pastors and churchgoers were actively involved in the outreach ministries that the megachurches supported at the time of my research. And the fact that it was only a small but vocal segment of conservative evangelicals in the suburbs who took it upon themselves to change the situation suggests that the critique amounted to more than mere rhetorical flourish.
Early on in my fieldwork I was advised by members of the evangelical community to get in touch with a man named Paul Genero, who was then a staff pastor at a small suburban church with close ties to Eternal Vine Church. They told me that he too was "writing a book" about churches and faith-based ministries in Knoxville. I later learned that he had recently completed a fairly comprehensive survey of faith-based social services in Knoxville, with an emphasis on Christian community organizations and church programs. He circulated the findings in a self-published report full of regional statistics on problems such as poverty, homelessness, at-risk youth, and domestic violence, combined with moving biographical sketches of social workers and clients whose stories of despair turned to hope were meant to inspire local churchgoers to take action. When I finally contacted Paul in the fall of 2000, our initial phone conversation had that remarkable spark of serendipity, that moment when individual pursuits (in this case, his and mine) are forever changed by the fact that their paths have fortuitously converged.
The first thing that struck me about Paul was his infectious enthusiasm. "You're blowing my mind here!" he kept saying, as I explained that I was a doctoral student from New York studying the social outreach efforts of local megachurches. He could hardly believe it, and relished the fact that someone other than himself was interested in studying "what God is trying to do in Knoxville," as he phrased it. Wasting no time at all, he immediately pointed out that we would surely benefit from one another's work, and he recommended that we meet in person as soon as possible so he could tell me about a new Christian faith-based organization that he was creating to improve the state of social ministries in Knoxville. Two days later I met Paul in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant on Kingston Pike, Knoxville's main commercial artery. He was a slim, energetic man in his midthirties with an athletic stature and a warm, slightly mischievous grin that seemed never to leave his face. As soon as I arrived Paul suggested that we go to a different location, where it would be easier to talk. I got in my car and followed his pickup truck to a small café by the railroad tracks about a half mile away. It was an artsy spot, popular among local hipsters and college students, where poets and folk musicians performed and artists displayed their work. I had been there already several times by myself to read or write field notes, but I had never gone there with any of the evangelical churchgoers I knew, nor had I seen many customers who looked like the churchgoing type. At first I didn't understand why Paul decided that we should meet there instead of the barbecue joint, but as I got to know him it made more sense. Paul Genero is a man who is committed to the idea of embracing the unfamiliar and the unknown. His life as a Christian-which has included short-term missionary work abroad and extensive charity work-has been guided by the motivation to push the boundaries of his "comfort zone" and meet cultural strangers wherever they live. It may have been that Paul moved our meeting to the café because he imagined it was the kind of place where I would be comfortable. It is equally likely that he chose it because the very act of being there signified for him a core value of his faith. At one point he picked up a copy of an alternative local newspaper and, flipping aimlessly through music reviews, liberal editorials, and lurid classified ads, smiled and said that these are exactly the kinds of people Jesus Christ would make sure to get to know if he lived in Knoxville.
With muffins and cappuccinos to sustain us, we sat down facing each other armed with yellow notepads. Paul asked me to explain again the purpose of my research, which I did in a somewhat labored manner. He took notes furiously while I spoke and kept reacting aloud, much as he did on the phone: "You're blowing me away here," "This is amazing!" Every now and then he interrupted me to recommend specific books or people I should make sure to consult. When it was his turn to speak, and my turn to take notes, Paul started with a frank acknowledgement of my status as an outsider and as a non-Christian (he assumed correctly that I am Jewish, without asking). He said he looked forward to hearing my observations about his work, adding that my "objectivity" would help him to keep things in perspective and prevent him from letting his "definite spiritual bias" affect his judgment in unproductive ways. He pointed at me excitedly with the tip of his pen and said, "You are the one studying it, we are the ones creating it." Creating what? I wondered, as the scope of my fieldwork took shape before my eyes.
With little prodding on my part, Paul launched into a lengthy but eloquent commentary ("Now you get to hear my soapbox!") enumerating his complaints, aspirations, and strategic intentions with regard to local churches and faith-based ministries. He argued that one of the biggest problems with Christianity in "middle-class America" was a general lack of commitment to addressing the problems facing poor and needy people "in our own backyards." He said that evangelical churches have become woefully inadequate in their mission to relieve suffering and offer hope to the distressed and have lost sight of the fact that compassion is a theological imperative, equal in importance to other components of Christian evangelism. "We've always been good at proclamation evangelism-preaching sermons and handing out pamphlets and such-but we're terrible at loving people." He added that conservative churches in the Bible Belt have "atrophied" with regard to "the social action part of Christianity," and that this was particularly ironic in a region known for its religious fervor.
Paul tore a clean sheet of paper from his notebook, drew a series of small circles randomly on the page, and twisted the paper around for me to see. The circles represented individual churches, dispersed and isolated like desert islands. This, he explained, was the current state of affairs in Knoxville: evangelical churches stubbornly refusing to work together and having little impact on the greater region. Paul then drew one large circle encompassing the others and said that this represented the spirit of unity and cooperation that will exist once churches are convinced of the need to work together to address pressing social and spiritual concerns. Conservative evangelical churches, he explained, tend to be "extremely ignorant" of social issues beyond their sanctuary walls "because they are too busy taking care of the flock." The first step toward fixing this was to educate people, and then to create organizational networks for communication and collaboration that will allow congregations to be more effective at social outreach. "We can love the city better together than on our own," he said, "and that's why we need structures for high-impact mobilization." This was the impetus behind Paul's plan to form a coalition of like-minded churches and faith-based ministries, and he would soon resign from his staff position at church in order to coordinate the effort full-time. The purpose of the resulting organization, which I will refer to as the Samaritans of Knoxville, was to streamline informational and material resources for church pastors, ministry professionals, social workers, and lay volunteers who were eager to increase the levels of outreach and volunteerism among Knoxville's churchgoing evangelicals. The Samaritans of Knoxville would also facilitate training workshops and distribute materials such as sermons and study guides that were meant to inspire and educate churches that were less than wholeheartedly committed to social ministries. Paul's ultimate vision, however, was even grander and resonated with the broad, seemingly utopian visions expressed by many of the evangelicals I spoke with: "We're after a cultural transformation. We're asking Christians to be Christians. If Christians would live like Christians, the aroma-the sweet smell of Jesus-would just overpower everything!"
My ethnography draws special attention to the impassioned and often quixotic efforts of people like Paul Genero, individuals whom I refer to collectively as socially engaged evangelicals. This is my own label to describe evangelical pastors and churchgoers who draw strong associations between religiosity and social conscience, and are notably active (either professionally or as volunteers) in promoting and participating in various forms of organized benevolence. The charitable activities I observed among socially engaged evangelicals-whom I distinguish from occasional volunteers and seasonal donors to charitable causes-were directed at local populations such as the urban poor, the homeless, racial and ethnic minorities, and the sick and elderly. They included volunteering at soup kitchens and crisis shelters, mentoring inner-city youths, sponsoring immigrant refugee families, and providing charitable assistance to health clinics and halfway houses. In some cases, they involved working with state agencies and private nonprofits on urban community development initiatives and other social enterprises. Many socially engaged evangelicals end up dedicating a considerable amount of their volunteer time to the work of mobilizing others to participate in and support their outreach initiatives. Such efforts involve building interest and momentum through sentimental appeals, theological argumentation, and other techniques of moral suasion. For a variety of reasons, outreach mobilization was a major source of exhaustion and frustration among socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville, who believed that by struggling against the tides of social apathy, isolationism, and materialism in their churches, they were fighting against an almost indomitable status quo. In addition, they confronted traditions of cultural separatism and social conservatism that have left many evangelical churchgoers deeply resistant to social ministries that appear to promote progressive, secular, and humanistic viewpoints. This surely does not mean that conservative evangelicals are categorically opposed to helping people in need; far from it, in fact. But in the midst of trying to serve the needs of their communities, conservative evangelicals face what they see as palpable risks, including the risk of becoming unduly concerned with altruistic deeds as vehicles for salvation, at the expense of a theology that traditionally privileges confessions of faith over the performance of "good works." They also fear the risk of opening up their churches to liberal social influences, the likes of which Christian conservatives have denounced for many decades.
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).
Waves of Engagement
The term evangelical has become such a media buzzword that its specific historical and cultural meanings are often misunderstood or ignored. The general lack of clarity about whom or what it actually refers to is exacerbated by the fact that so many churchgoing Protestants claim the label for themselves, but not always for the same reasons. This variability complicates most efforts to establish clear parameters and leads to striking inconsistencies among statistical surveys that try to determine (especially in election years) the size, demographics, and political influence of this undoubtedly significant portion of the U.S. population. Aside from its long-standing scriptural and liturgical usages, the word gained renewed public prominence in the West as a cultural designation around the middle of the twentieth century. Hoping to reclaim the mantle of "authentic" Christianity, a broad segment of North American and European Protestants assumed the label on the premise that it accurately conveyed the spirit of Christian piety as mandated by Scripture. They upheld the belief that to be a "true" Christian means embracing one's faith with deep personal commitment, doctrinal stringency, and evangelical fervor, which includes the apostolic (and often stigmatized) work of proclaiming the power of the gospel to the nonbelieving world. Despite the confidence of such claims, the category of "evangelical" is a source of debate and contention within Western Protestantism, and it remains a subject of relentless media speculation and scholarly inquiry.
Woodberry and Smith (1998: 26) describe modern evangelicalism as the "moderate wing" of the larger category of conservative Protestantism. Conservative Protestants are defined as self-identifying Christians who "emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, believe in the importance of converting others to the faith, have strong view of biblical authority, and believe that salvation is through Christ alone"(1998: 36). Like other conservative Protestants, including Pentecostals and fundamentalists, evangelicals adhere to a theology in which biblical orthodoxy, personal piety and missionary zeal are held paramount (Shibley 1996). Evangelicals also lean heavily toward the conservative end of the ideological spectrum on political and social issues, but in this respect they are by no means uniform. Many mainstream evangelical churches, seminaries, and parachurch organizations in the United States emerged into prominence as a result of the revivalist neo-evangelical movement that developed after World War II, a movement that not only strengthened the cultural relevance of evangelical religiosity in modern life but shaped its outward, relatively accommodating character for decades to come (Balmer 2006; Carpenter 1997; Stone 1997). In light of this influence, evangelicals today can be generally classified as a "moderate wing" because they remain committed to what Christian Smith calls "engaged orthodoxy," meaning that they are "fully committed to maintaining and promoting confidently traditional, orthodoxy Protestant theology and belief, while at the same time becoming confidently and proactively engaged in the intellectual, cultural, social, and political life of the nation" (1998: 10).
The congregations of Eternal Vine and Marble Valley Presbyterian exemplify many of the characteristics that follow from these definitions and, perhaps more important, my interlocutors identified themselves explicitly as evangelical Christians. Since the prevailing moral and ideological discourses in both megachurches (and throughout East Tennessee) are rather conservative in tone, I take the added measure of referring to the subjects of my research as conservative evangelicals, thereby distinguishing them along the wider spectrum of North American evangelicalism, which includes groups that would describe themselves as progressive or left-wing. I hasten to add, however, that a plurality of opinion exists not only in evangelicalism writ large but even within individual congregations. This is especially true for megachurches, which as a consequence of growth necessarily cater to a fairly diverse range of attitudes and dispositions. I do not mean to say that the evangelical megachurches I attended were full of closeted liberals (although there were a few). My point is simply that evangelical pastors and churchgoers are complex social actors, capable of holding multiple perspectives on pressing social concerns and as susceptible as anyone to shifts in temperament, even when faced with incentives to conform to principles of unwavering certainty.
The main portion of my fieldwork coincided with the first year of the George W. Bush administration. This was an auspicious time for conservative evangelicals. The election of 2000 brought one of their own into the White House and inspired confidence that their political priorities-including the appointment of conservative judges, the "defense" of heterosexual marriage, and policies limiting access to legal abortions-would be advocated from the seat of governmental power. Even the campaign leading up to the election was promising for evangelicals, as candidates from across the political spectrum engaged in what the media referred to as "God talk," speaking openly about their personal faith and the importance of religion in public life. The major candidates expressed support for what had come to be known as "faith-based initiatives," a seemingly innocuous phrase that heralded the expansion of government funding for religious organizations that provide social services and rehabilitative programs in local communities. Building on a controversial legislative provision known as Charitable Choice, part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed into law in 1996, faith-based initiatives were central to the GOP platform of "compassionate conservatism," and were touted as a primary policy agenda under the Bush administration in the months preceding the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Few of the churchgoers I met at the time talked about Bush's faith-based proposals with any specificity, and barely any of them spoke of Charitable Choice at all (with the exception of paid social workers). Their apparent indifference to the specifics of faith-based initiatives was initially surprising but not implausible. The affluent megachurches they belonged to were hardly in need of federal grants to support their ministries, and studies have shown that conservative evangelical churches are among the religious institutions least likely to apply for government funding (Bartkowski and Regis 2003; Chaves 1999). Moreover, conservative Christian leaders were, at best, cautiously optimistic in supporting federal faith-based initiatives. Commentators and pundits cited their concerns that the government would start regulating how faith-based organizations function, particularly their hiring practices. Prominent figures such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell complained that taxpayer dollars would be made available to religious organizations they saw as dangerous or illegitimate, such as the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishna movement, and the Nation of Islam.
Despite these concerns, evangelicals were emboldened by the new levels of political currency and cultural respect afforded to the role of religion in civil society. Conservative evangelicals in Knoxville were excited that religiously inspired notions of charity and community service were penetrating the mainstream. They relished the prospect of secular society catching on to the idea that social problems require spiritual solutions rather than "wasteful" government programs that, as they see it, enable welfare dependence, corruption, and social dysfunction. The regnant politics of neoliberalism, supported by popular themes of civic volunteerism, welfare privatization, and personal responsibility, resonated with force and clarity for conservative evangelicals, who tend to endow neoliberal trends with theological import. At the same time, the optimism expressed by pastors and churchgoers during this period was indicative of another recent trend: the gradual broadening of evangelical social consciousness. The years leading up to the new millennium witnessed a rise in published critiques by Christian authors and activists challenging evangelicals-especially middle-class evangelicals in affluent suburban churches-to become better informed about structural issues that affect the lives of the urban poor, and to overcome their resistance to systemic social reform (e.g., Bakke 1997; Perkins 1993; Shank and Reed 1995; Sider 1999). Although hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the teaching of creationism in public schools continue to galvanize religious conservatives, many evangelicals have started to turn their attention to issues of poverty, human rights, and the environment. Veteran left-leaning and centrist evangelicals such as Jim Wallis of the organization Call to Renewal (and editor of the magazine Sojourners) and Ronald Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action have begun reaching wider evangelical and general audiences as a result of renewed interest in social ministry at the grassroots, while prominent megachurch pastors such as Rick Warren of Saddleback Church have made headlines promoting international ministries dedicated to poverty relief and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Evangelical social ministries, relief agencies, and humanitarian organizations are nothing new historically, but the circumstances that implicated them in a more general shift in the focus of conservative evangelical activism are significant. For one thing, this shift was made possible by a concerted effort on the part of public evangelicals to distance themselves from the harsh, combative tone of engagement that characterized the old guard of the Christian Right. By the 1990s, even as conservative evangelicals still agreed with the moral and political agendas represented by the Christian Right, they saw the reactionary intolerance and rhetorical excesses of culture warriors like Robertson and Falwell as counterproductive and embarrassing. The angry exhortations of famed televangelists, often mired in controversy or scandal, weighed heavily on the hearts of evangelical pastors and churchgoers who increasingly doubted whether such provocations truly amounted to an effective public witness. For all the political gains that religious conservatives had made since the 1980s, there was a growing sense that the culture wars had achieved more in the way of vitriol than policy, and little in the way of cultural change. Alongside the usual chorus of moral protest and indignation (which, if anything, has intensified in recent years), a growing segment of the evangelical population-including pastors, activists, ministry leaders, and theologians-started to advocate the virtues of social and civic engagement (Cromartie 2003). Pastor Tim, the senior pastor of Eternal Vine Church in Knoxville, spoke to this issue from the pulpit one Sunday morning and drove the point home by stressing that Christians must learn not only to preach the gospel but to exemplify it in their daily lives, for everyone to see. "To others," he said, "Christians should look like people who are extravagantly loving each other, not like people who are getting all upset over prayer at football games, or Ten Commandments in offices. We should look like a community of little platoons that are known for loving each other, and for loving the poor."
Much as contemporary evangelicals hope to improve their public image and establish a more proactive presence at the frontlines of social welfare, the history of social engagement among conservative Protestants in United States in the last two hundred years has not been straightforward, and it has produced enduring fissures within the evangelical movement. I begin my brief historical overview in the mid-nineteenth century, in the years following a period of intense revivalism known as the Second Great Awakening. During this time there was a steep rise in Christian activism and mobilization around antebellum issues such as abolition and temperance, with evangelical reformers leading the charge and drawing explicit links between individual salvation and the salvation of society as a whole (Young 2006). The appearance of a united evangelical front was accompanied by home missionary societies, parachurch organizations, and Christian charities and philanthropies that were established to address domestic humanitarian concerns, especially in rapidly industrializing cities where social reformers sought to root out poverty and all the disease and moral vice that came with it. Activists and historians recall the energetic spirit of Christian interventionism and reform in the Victorian era as "muscular Christianity," and contemporary socially engaged evangelicals yearn to recreate that cultural moment as they position themselves to tackle the social concerns of the present day.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, public debates raged over issues of poverty and social dysfunction and how best to address them. Religiously inspired notions of redemption and moral worth figured prominently in these debates, reinforcing perceptions of the poor as either "worthy" or "undeserving," even as institutions of charity and social welfare became increasingly professionalized, bureaucratic, and secular (Hall 1990; Katz 1986). This period also witnessed the rise of the Social Gospel, a progressive movement that emphasized the need to combat economic injustice and improve society through structural reforms. Its leading proponents, including Walter Rauschenbusch and Charles Sheldon (author of the popular 1897 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?), combined theological reasoning, prophetic rhetoric, and socialist critique in their efforts to rally the faithful against industrial capitalist exploitation. They interpreted the teachings of Jesus as revolutionary and argued that all living Christians have an intrinsic obligation to redress structural inequities and fight on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged (Rauschenbusch 1907). Although the Social Gospel was basically orthodox in its religious orientation, its greatest influence is tied to subsequent liberal theological trends in mainline Protestantism and the evangelical left. Indeed, because of its liberal connotations the Social Gospel during its heyday provoked hostility from ultraconservative Protestants, who by the 1920s were mobilizing under the banner of Christian fundamentalism.
Antipathy among the early fundamentalists toward the Social Gospel and other modern cultural trends and institutions was fueled in part by the ascendance of an eschatology (or end-times theology) known as dispensational premillennialism. Developed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century by John Nelson Darby and later popularized with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, dispensational premillennialism offered a grim assessment of the future of humanity and stressed the ultimate inevitability of messianic intervention. According to Darby's reading of prophetic scriptures, the history of the world is a sequence of discrete stages or "dispensations" marked by continual moral degeneration and alienation from God. The Second Coming is presented in this apocalyptic scheme as the necessary precursor to the anticipated thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth following the defeat of Satan in the battle of Armageddon (Weber 1987), and the sole purpose of the church is to spread the message of salvation to as many people as possible before Christ's return. For the many conservative theologians and churchgoers who embraced Darby's interpretation, Christian social reform movements were deemed suspect because they relied on a progressive humanist worldview that was out of line with what was revealed in the Bible. Premillennialism remains to this day the predominant eschatology of North American evangelicalism. While not all conservative evangelicals wholeheartedly follow every detail of Darby's elaborate end-times narrative, its basic tenets regarding the evangelistic mission of the Church and the circumstances of worldly demise prior to the Second Coming (including the rise of the Antichrist) are widely upheld. Significantly, the premillennialist influence remains especially salient in the skepticism and even hostility that contemporary conservative evangelicals still harbor toward social movements and initiatives that appear to suggest that humanity is capable of redeeming itself on its own through social and political reforms. This is the source of much of the resistance that socially engaged evangelicals face as they struggle to garner support in steadfastly conservative churches.
The story does not end there, however. As already noted, another major influence in modern evangelicalism was the neo-evangelical movement of the postwar era. Championed by the likes of Billy Graham, Charles Fuller, Harold Ockenga, and Carl Henry, neo-evangelicalism challenged the entrenched separatism of the fundamentalists and represented "a movement away from dispensationalism and the sectarian, culturally alienated position that it suggested" (Carpenter 1997: 203). Although theologically conservative and staunchly anticommunist, the "new evangelicals" set out to revive the ethos of compassion and social responsibility that they believed was essential to Christian faith. Carl Henry, a cofounder of Fuller Theological Seminary and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, made the case for renewing evangelical social engagement in his treatise The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). By abandoning Christianity's social message, Henry argued, fundamentalists abdicated moral authority in society and prevented churches from realizing their redemptive potential. A similar emphasis on the interdependence of evangelism and social engagement was expressed in later missives, including the landmark Lausanne Covenant issued by the International Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern of 1973 (which was linked to the founding of Evangelicals for Social Action), and a recent document titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," released in 2004 by the National Association of Evangelicals.
The waves of evangelical engagement took yet another turn, however, in the 1970s-1980s with the emergence of the Christian Right. This was a broad yet organizationally synergetic movement of moral protest and political action that drew on antiliberal, antifeminist, and antigay sentiments among increasingly discontented and mostly white religious conservatives. The movement emulated the cultural savvy of neo-evangelicalism but used it in the name of fundamentalist rancor. Controversial government actions-notably, Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion, banning prayer in public schools, and upholding the state's authority to enforce racial integration at Christian colleges-galvanized fundamentalists to enter the political fray, inspiring a reactionary and largely unprecedented wave of grassroots activism and church mobilization. Political action groups such as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition pursued aggressive strategies of public influence, while parachurch organizations such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America advanced right-wing cultural politics with powerful symbolic and affective dimensions (Kintz 1997). Consequently, matters of private morality became inseparable from the field of public policy, and movements for progressive social reform were increasingly associated with "godless liberals," from whom conservative evangelicals were keen to distance themselves.
The gradual softening of tone and the broadening of evangelical social consciousness since the 1990s highlights the fact that although the cultural politics of the Christian Right continue to hold sway through much of the evangelical subculture, evangelicals are once again considering new strategies of engagement in light of changing historical and political circumstances. As demonstrated in this brief overview, the ideological contours of conservative Protestantism are constantly in flux. A history of continuous ebbs and flows, with progressive and reactionary styles of engagement competing, as it were, to direct the currents of social engagement, has produced lingering tensions within North American evangelicalism. This is a reminder that contemporary evangelicals are far from monolithic in their political orientations. At the local church level, evangelical pastors and churchgoers wrestle with ambiguities they have inherited from a mixed legacy of engagement and retrenchment, of worldly accommodations and renunciations. Evangelical skepticism about the politics of social reform stands in conflict with an abiding "optimism about the perfectibility of society" (Shibley 1996: 101). Sectarian impulses to withdraw from affairs of "the world" routinely clash with an imperative toward worldly activism, one of modern evangelicalism's defining characteristics (Bebbington 1989).
There is no doubt that conservative evangelicals today are represented among the highest echelons of U.S. politics, business, and media, and in many cases they assert their presence with confidence and purpose (Lindsay 2007; Sharlet 2008). Before assuming too much about the social and political implications of such ascensions, however, it is necessary to recognize that the evangelical imagination is informed by a plurality of moral visions of what constitutes a "good society" and how Christians should go about achieving it (Williams 1999). Similarly, to assess the implications of evangelical social engagement in local communities it is necessary first to recognize that the altruistic and evangelistic commitments of socially engaged evangelicals are informed by a complex amalgam of religious imperatives and sentiments. We must consider ideologies of conversion and social change that guide their efforts to Christianize culture, and the conflicts and contradictions that evangelicals, like all missionary actors, face in creating institutions and social networks intended to carry those ideologies forward (Beidelman 1982). My concept of moral ambition offers an analytical idiom with which to assess a particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities. The concept is an entry into the conditions that shape the lives of individuals who aspire to stretch the boundaries of what is imagined possible through practices of religious virtue.
Ambitions are always moral in that they are rarely detached from the norms and expectations that govern social behavior and direct individuals toward sacred virtues, life goals, and status achievements. They are technologies of the self in the Foucaultian sense, based in culturally situated ethics regarding what is and what should be humanly possible. Ambitious individuals, even rebels, "mavericks," and other nonconformists, actively negotiate the terms of human possibility when they aim to maximize personal wealth, power, virtuosity, or piety. By framing my ethnography as a study of moral ambitions I draw attention to the intrinsic sociality of such aspirations, that is, their inexorable orientation toward other people and their inalienability from social networks and institutions in which standards of personhood are constructed. Furthermore, the concept of moral ambition is helpful for analyzing individual aspirations that involve persuading and recruiting others to do likewise, as is often the case with evangelists and social activists. For socially engaged evangelicals, the process of enacting religious virtues in novel and compelling ways-that is, the work of moral action in a milieu where orthodoxy and ethical self-cultivation are explicitly linked (Mahmood 2005)-involves casting strategies of mobilization and moral suasion within the purview of evangelical piety, which is not as thoroughly individuating as is often assumed.
The subject of morality is a critical area of inquiry in the anthropology of Christianity. This is especially borne out in work on societies that have undergone some form of Western evangelization, where non-Christian moral traditions contend with Christian conceptions of personhood, meaning, and temporality (e.g., Keane 2007; Robbins 2004; Schieffelin 2002). Although Christian thought and practice are often strikingly recontextualized in postconversion cultures, there are many instances where the advent of Christianity produces religious movements that introduce radical breaks with prior ritual traditions and moral orders (Engelke 2007; Meyer 1999). The theme of social discontinuity runs through the ethnographic literature, relying on "the common claim that in cultures that have recently adopted Christianity, conversion often triggers a partial abandonment of social and cultural forms oriented toward the collective in favor of individualist models of social organization" (Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008: 1141). Such shifts in the nature of social organization entail consequences for morality as well. Based on his research in Melanesia, Joel Robbins (2007) has observed the potential for conflict between competing "moral-value spheres," namely, the conflict between an individuating "morality of freedom" inspired by Western Protestantism and a "morality of reproduction" rooted in normative local traditions in which personal agency is contingent on social hierarchies and relational calculations rather than individual moral autonomy.
In the Christianized West it stands to reason that what Robbins calls the "morality of freedom" reigns supreme, reinforcing capitalist ideologies that assign paramount value to individual autonomy and free will (Dumont 1986). Indeed, the "moral narrative of modernity" (Keane 2007), with its conspicuously Protestant salvationist overtones, hinges on the ideal of an interiorized, self-determining moral subject who is "purified" of social and material entanglements on the way to becoming truly liberated. However, in recognizing the prevalence of this ideal in Western thought, do we not risk accepting too readily the proposition that Western Protestants, including evangelicals, are narrowly driven by moral individualism, to the exclusion of salient counternotions? Can't we identify cultural values of relationalism and intersubjectivity embedded (albeit less explicitly) in the social fabric of Christian capitalist modernity?
The evangelical tenet that each and every believer can (and must) attain a direct personal relationship with Jesus Christ is essentially individuating, in that it ostensibly distinguishes one's path of salvation from socially determinative factors in one's life. But it is worth noting that this tenet is fortified by a comparable stress on the importance of human social relationships as vehicles of redemption. Evangelicals "seek to imitate the close, intimate bond they desire with God in their expectations for relating with each other and with those outside their community of faith" (Bielo 2009: 76). Communion with the divine is conceived as a personal intimacy that is deeply spiritual and individually embodied (Luhrmann 2004); it is not strictly dependent on social relationships, but evangelicals readily acknowledge that this sense of intimacy is effectively facilitated and mediated by human intersubjectivity. Religious conversions are understood to be triggered by relational interventions of one kind or another, and the "fruits" that follow one's spiritual rebirth as a Christian are substantiated by evidence in people's lives; that is, their interactions-real and envisioned-with spouses, friends, coworkers, and believers and unbelievers alike, both at home and abroad. Social relationships are conceived through rituals and conversion narratives that are meant to reinforce links of spiritual fellowship, encompassing local communities as well as an imagined global ecumene (Coleman 2000; Stromberg 1986). The ubiquitous theme of "relationship" in church sermons and devotional books is instructive for churchgoers in maintaining their sense of being in a covenant with God and of belonging to a universal "Body of Christ."
The concept of "relationship" is so fundamental in evangelical churches that it also serves as an organizational principle suited to institutional as well as ritual functions. In the megachurches I attended in Knoxville, churchgoers are repeatedly encouraged to join "small groups," groups of usually ten to twelve members who gather together on a weekly or semiweekly basis for informal Bible study, group discussions, and prayer. The small-group meetings-which typically take place in members' homes-are idealized as spaces of relational intimacy, where religious commitments are forged through interpersonal bonds built on faith, love, humility, and mutual accountability. Given that large-scale worship services offer little in the way of direct interaction among congregants, small groups are meant to bring such relationships into being. Though informal and lay driven, they are usually supervised under the auspices of pastoral authority and therefore help to maintain a measure of ideological and doctrinal consistency in megachurches. Thus the small group is a social mechanism by which churchgoers indoctrinate and monitor one another and reinforce the moral premiums of evangelical subjectivity (Elisha 2008a). The primary stated purpose of intensive small groups may be to bolster individual faith, but as evidenced by their use in evangelical churches (Bielo 2009) and parachurch ministries (Erzen 2006; Griffith 1997), they also exist to reform individuals by making them into properly oriented and disciplined subjects of a collective body whose standards of religiosity are determined by authoritative institutions and discourses (Asad 1993). It is through relational practices that sinners are saved, and born-again selves are collectively socialized and sanctified within an enveloping framework of biblical interpellation (Crapanzano 2000; Harding 2000).
My general point is that American evangelicalism cannot and should not be reduced categorically to notions of individualism, as though the individuating aspects of Protestant theology and practice were the only aspects worth noting. Evangelicals go to great lengths to encourage (and enforce) relationalism as a collective ethos that complements and at times complicates individualism rather than merely receding under its hegemonic force. The story of individualism in modern America is not straightforward, in that it is rarely accepted without qualification and reflexive contemplation (Bellah et al. 1985). Even as evangelicals embrace individualism as an essential component of Christian identity, born-again spirituality, and democratic citizenship, they routinely evaluate the consequences of radical individualism as a way of life, entertaining alternative coexisting ethics and conceptions of the self in the process. Cultural tensions between individualist and communitarian ideals in the United States more generally are accentuated in evangelicalism. This is not surprising when we take into account the evangelical belief that true spiritual fulfillment is contingent on an individual's willing submission to the Kingdom of God, a concept that transcends the social but is also signified through human relationships (including bonds of fictive kinship) and cultural institutions where relational ties are formed (including churches and parachurches).
This observation is relevant to my ethnographic study because insofar as evangelical social engagement and outreach mobilization are framed in the rubric of Christian evangelism, they effectively build on existing conceptions that orient the faithful toward a lifestyle of immersion and implication in the lives of others, rather than one of atomized faith. As socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville cultivated relationships with local faith-based organizations, social service agencies, and poor and needy populations, and as they sought to convince others to join their efforts, they complicated the preeminence of moral individualism as a cultural paradigm without ever going so far as to subvert or reject it. They drew on critical sentiments that were familiar to local evangelicals and extended them to avenues of ministry that were meant to convince middle-class suburban churchgoers to become better Christians by "sacrificing" their time, comfort, and social insulation for the purpose of sharing God's love with others. Although a fair number of their fellow churchgoers found these avenues of ministry disconcerting, intimidating, or just not sufficiently worth their valuable time and energy, the concern to break down the barriers of intersubjectivity resonated powerfully. And yet, such challenges to the status quo were equally limited by the fact that they remained subjected to the conservative social attitudes of the affluent communities with which the evangelicals in my study primarily identified.
The concept of moral ambition offers a window to examine the interplay of individualist and relationalist paradigms in modern religious communities, and the tension between the creative agency of individuals and cultural norms to which individuals are expected to conform. It also sheds light on an important dimension of evangelicalism as a lived religion. The idea of "lived religion" has gained currency among religion scholars who understand religious practices and experiences to be embedded in specific social contexts and realities of everyday life (Hall 1997; McGuire 2008). By shifting the focus of study from doctrine to practice and experience, lived religion is a "hermeneutical tool that corrects past privileging of intellectual, institutional, and theological studies" (Winston 2009: 5). It allows us to address "what people do with religious idioms, how they use them, what they make of themselves and their worlds with them, and how, in turn, men, women, and children are fundamentally shaped by the worlds they are making" (Orsi 2003: 172, original emphasis). This approach is useful for studying popular religious idioms that draw on a plurality of cultural resources other than those explicitly sanctioned by religious institutions, hierarchies, and conventional ritual frames (e.g., Bender 2003; Schmidt 2005). It is also useful for analyzing the experiences of lay churchgoers, especially women, who through various forms of religious participation discover opportunities to refashion themselves ethically and spiritually, exercise moral agency in the lives of others, and negotiate the conditions of their submission to (male) pastoral authority (Frederick 2003; Griffith 1997). In accounting for religious practices that perform cultural work outside normal institutional parameters, the study of lived religion also accounts for the role of power in people's lives, and the extent to which religious practices that facilitate self-transformation are simultaneously defined by forces and conditions beyond individual control (Orsi 2003).
Applied to evangelicalism, the notion of lived religion further highlights the fact that religious orthodoxy often reveals varying degrees of plasticity as well as constancy. This does not mean that the evangelical beliefs and practices lack coherence or consistency, but simply that as a lived experience evangelicalism entails a host of quotidian dilemmas, aspirations, innovations, and frustrations that are not always easily explained (or dismissed) by a single, cohesive, uniformly authorized system of doctrine. To appreciate the complexity of the things that evangelicals do when they are "being religious" we must remember that they, like all religious people, act and react in a world where they are inevitably faced with diverse experiences and sentiments. Purists and "true believers" may seek to prevent unfamiliar elements from compromising doctrinal integrity, but many are just as likely to assimilate new influences and circumstances to a preexisting religious worldview that, at the end of the day, still presents itself as uniform and coherent.
The plasticity of lived religion can also have destabilizing effects in people's lives, as they contend with ambiguities that prove hard to reconcile. I have already indicated that for some socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville, immersion in the field of organized benevolence precipitated meaningful shifts in their bases of knowledge and experience regarding matters connected to social welfare. The social outreach ministries I observed often involved communication and reasonably sustained interaction with agencies and individuals located beyond the cultural boundaries of the communities represented by suburban megachurches. The relatively few conservative evangelicals who ventured across these boundaries with regularity were exposed to alternative perspectives on the lives and life-dominating circumstances of poor and distressed people, and alternative insights into the roots of poverty and social dysfunction. In some cases the discrepancies between expectation and experience led to feelings of cognitive dissonance and eventual withdrawal. In other cases they led to broadened perspectives and adjustments in attitude, introducing a whole new set of quandaries, especially in relation to outreach mobilization. Understanding the moral ambitions of evangelical social engagement thus requires more than merely documenting the desires and motivations of individual actors. It involves recognizing that the desires and motivations of individual actors are formed by, and in response to, an array of overlapping and at times contradictory influences. The versatility of evangelical faith is neither a sign of hypocrisy nor evangelicalism's eventual undoing; it is rather evidence of a style of religiosity that compels its own adherents to pursue the ambitious and sometimes agonistic work of evangelism in innovative ways while also directing them to uphold moral and ideological traditions that resist radical innovation.
Most of the socially engaged evangelicals I knew would hardly be called activists in the common sense of the word. In fact they would reject the characterization outright, preferring to identify as humble servants of God and purveyors of Christian love. Conservative evangelicals are no strangers to political action, nor do they ignore the political significance of even the most understated forms of public (or for that matter private) religiosity. Direct political action for the average churchgoer, however, is typically limited to activities like signing petitions and distributing voter guides rather than sustained activism (see Chaves 2004). Conservative evangelicals take pains to distance themselves from the very idea of "activism" as a personal commitment, which they associate with left-wing causes like socialism and radical feminism. As followers of a stern theocentric and moralistic worldview, in which humans are inherently sinful and salvation requires total submission to the will of God, evangelicals are keen to avoid claims of willful agency. They want to believe that when they take action in the world it is purely in the name of God's kingdom, not merely for the sake of action.
Yet there are good reasons to analyze evangelical social engagement in terms of social activism. Pastors and churchgoers who invest their time and energy in ministries of social outreach are engaged in purposeful, coordinated actions explicitly aimed at "making a difference" in the world. Knoxville's socially engaged evangelicals, in their capacities as ministry workers, volunteers, and mobilizers, demonstrated a high level of intentionality in their efforts, as well as a preoccupation with having an "impact" on the wider culture. In pursuing a lifestyle of Christian piety through organized benevolence, they operated as apostles advancing the cause of Christianization, a cause greater than themselves. 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. And like many activists, they sometimes felt compelled to go against the grain, pushing the boundaries of what was considered appropriate or practical, and pursuing ideals that almost all of their fellow pastors and churchgoers readily affirmed but few were willing to undertake.
Even though socially engaged evangelicals (as portrayed here) do not represent a singular social movement or political constituency, and do not adhere to a specific "activist identity" (Jasper 1997: 87), they do share what I call an activist orientation. They gravitate toward ideologically significant social commitments and for a variety of reasons prioritize those commitments at the center of their religious lives. Not all of them do so to the same degree or with the same outcomes, but in so doing they raise the stakes of their own religious participation, increase the likelihood of coming into meaningful (if at times problematic) contact with people outside their home congregations, and create opportunities to perform altruistic and evangelistic acts that are regarded by others as signs of uncommon virtue. As Faye Ginsburg (1989) has demonstrated in her research among women activists on both sides of the abortion debate, when people assume what I call an activist orientation they become invested in the cultural work of identifying as well as renegotiating the terms of social action and personal fulfillment. Moreover, as Susan Coutin (1993) has shown in her ethnography of the U.S. sanctuary movement in the 1980s, the effects of activism in people's lives are expressed in the formal and informal ways that individuals reorient their lives around new social values and elements of cultural critique that they internalize in the process of becoming socially active. Reinforced by cultural institutions and voluntary associations that mediate civic participation, activist orientations allow individuals to become self-conscious conveyers of group values and interests, as different cultural groups vie for recognition, power, and moral authority in an increasingly diverse and competitive public sphere (Checker and Fishman 2004).
Evangelical social outreach and mobilization reinforce activist orientations because the expressed purpose is to enhance the cultural relevance of what Lara Deeb calls "public piety" (2006: 34). Socially engaged evangelicals aim to demonstrate that it is possible for faithful Christians to be personally pious and committed to community service at the same time, and that to do anything less would effectively weaken the visibility of evangelical churches and their power to promote Christian conceptions of the public good. Their emphasis on personalized virtues connected to outreach-compassion, benevolence, humility, sacrifice, etc.-is expansive in its theological and social implications because these virtues are suggestive of the social aesthetics by which Christians distinguish a good society from an indecent, immoral, or unjust one (Brown 2005). As with Christian revivalists and missionaries, the moral ambitions of evangelical social engagement are never just about helping or converting individual people. When evangelicals in Knoxville like Paul Genero spoke of "cultural transformation"-or, as Paul put it, "the sweet smell of Jesus" overpowering everything-they envisioned something diffuse and totalizing. Although they tended to prioritize "face-to-face" and "one-on-one" approaches to social outreach over other approaches, their outreach practices and mobilization strategies hinted toward broader ideological potentialities, making the habits of social engagement all the more activist, and yet all the more precarious.
Adding to these qualities was the vigorous tone of critical reflexivity that suffused the discourse of mobilization. The actions and sentiments described in this ethnography proceeded almost uniformly from a baseline of evangelical self-criticism, ranging from concerns about whether Knoxville's megachurches were living up to a true evangelical mission, to preachers declaring an urgent need for citywide and regional revival, to the anxieties of suburban evangelicals fretting about the spiritual hazards of living comfortable middle-class lifestyles. These and other objects of consternation bolstered the mobilization efforts of socially engaged evangelicals, for whom the values of civic responsibility and social entrepreneurship-hallmarks of what Alan Wolfe calls "middle-class morality" (1998)-merged almost instinctively with the ideals of evangelical faith. At the same time, the social outreach initiatives that were pursued or sponsored by Eternal Vine and Marble Valley Presbyterian produced some unintended effects, the most notable of which was the reproduction of regional power dynamics based on disparities of wealth and racial privilege. The resources and prestige that megachurch-affiliated evangelicals relied on were applied in ways that reinforced the very boundaries of race and class that they were meant to overcome. At times they were conscious of this, which exacerbated their penchant for self-criticism, but often their political sensibilities did not allow structural logics to figure in their own accounting of such dynamics. As a result, there was a tendency among white conservative evangelicals to misrecognize some of the factors that augmented rather than diminished the structural and cultural alienation between them and the disadvantaged communities they wanted to serve.
Evangelical social engagement leads pastors and churchgoers to a level of concerted and strategic engagement with "the world" beyond the symbolic boundaries of their own congregations. A study like this one might then well include the perspectives of relevant people who inhabit that world, such as social service workers and clients, recipients of charitable aid, and representatives from minority communities in Knoxville. Although some of my data come from interviews with service providers from state and secular agencies, inner-city black pastors and community organizers, and members of Knoxville's private nonprofit sector, the voices of those most dependent on social services are virtually absent from my ethnographic account. Though regrettable, this omission reflects a combination of practical and methodological concerns, including issues around gaining access to social service clients, and my interest to avoid creating an added level of awkwardness in the interactions between aid recipients and outreach volunteers. I was further concerned to convey to ministry workers and volunteers that I was not interested in verifying the effectiveness or sincerity of their efforts to help people in need. I frequently reminded them that my primary research interests revolved around their own beliefs, motivations, and experiences. Nonetheless, my conversations with local individuals who worked or interacted with socially engaged evangelicals gave me added insights into how social outreach initiatives emanating from evangelical megachurches and faith-based organizations were received, accommodated, or in some cases resisted by the community at large.
Structure of the Book
The theoretical and topical themes laid out in this introduction are meant to provide an overture to the analytical and narrative scope of the ethnography that follows. The chapters highlight different aspects of the lived social worlds, cultural habits, religious ideals, and moral sentiments of the people at the center of my research. As the chapters progress, I delve further into the social, emotional, political, and theological implications that follow from conservative evangelical forays into specific kinds of outreach activity. The crucial significance of evangelism, the desire to enact virtues that transcend the limitations of willful egoism and secular humanism, and the recurrence of motivational concepts associated with Christian revivalism and missionization are themes running through all the chapters. They are, moreover, themes that perpetually occupy the thoughts and actions of socially engaged evangelicals.
Chapters 2 and 3 provide institutional and geographical context, not merely to "set the stage" but in order to establish the extent to which the moral ambitions of evangelical social engagement correspond to the very fabric of the social worlds that the evangelicals in my study were busy constructing, inhabiting, and simultaneously questioning. In chapter 2 I describe the two megachurches where much of my fieldwork was based, Eternal Vine Church and Marble Valley Presbyterian Church. The chapter highlights major characteristics, principles, and controversies surrounding U.S. megachurches and the modern church-growth movement, including the concerns of socially engaged members who worry about whether megachurches live up to their potential for community service and social impact. In chapter 3 I explore aspects of local history and regional culture that have shaped the way many Knoxvillians think about their city, with its paradoxes and ambiguities, and how they approach issues of urban revitalization. I relate this to the spirit of revivalism that Knoxville's conservative evangelicals invoke as they aim to inspire higher levels of public religiosity in the wider region, which they believe only superficially earns its reputation as the "Bible Belt."
Chapter 4 is composed of four ethnographic profiles of socially engaged evangelicals who were among my most valuable interlocutors in the field. The profiles, which are not biographies so much as portraits based on sustained interactions and in-depth interviews, illustrate how moral ambitions are conceived and pursued in the lives of actual people. The chapter reveals the range of actions, expectations, and frustrations that accompany the activist orientation assumed by these individuals, each in his or her own distinct way, as well as subtle changes they experienced in their social and even theological priorities. Chapter 5 delves into the evangelical discourse of antimaterialism, a pervasive and self-reflexive cultural critique that carries strong significance in suburban megachurches, where affluent churchgoers routinely worry about the spiritual consequences of middle-class comfort and consumerism. Socially engaged evangelicals build on such sentiments in their efforts to mobilize churchgoers to commit themselves to the selfless and "risky" work of charity and social outreach.
Chapter 6 addresses one of the more puzzling challenges that socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville experienced in their interactions with poor and distressed individuals who received (or solicited) charitable aid. The problem of "compassion fatigue," as they described it, was the result of a fundamental paradox between the competing imperatives of compassion (an unconditional gift) and accountability (a reciprocal obligation). The imperatives are conceived as mutually supportive but prove hard to reconcile in practice. The chapter explores the reasons for this difficulty, including the influence of relational power dynamics and the underlying logic of exchange in evangelical theology, which informs all ministries and especially those that emphasize charitable giving as a redemptive transaction. Chapter 7 examines various meanings and moral visions tied to the concept of the Kingdom of God as a temporal ideal, with a focus on the linkages between kingdom theology and the significance that white socially engaged evangelicals attach to the black inner city, particularly with regard to issues of racial reconciliation and urban community development. The chapter looks at specific outreach initiatives undertaken by suburban megachurches and faith-based organizations on behalf of inner-city communities, and concludes with a discussion of the larger implications of the resulting moral and political economy of altruism for the evolution of civil society infrastructures in the postwelfare era.
Field Note: Did They Try to Convert You?
When I talk about my fieldwork with friends and acquaintances, and even some evangelicals, I am frequently asked whether evangelicals in Knoxville made efforts to convert me to Christianity. It is a reasonable question, motivated by genuine curiosity and perhaps a hint of cynicism on the part of nonbelievers who take offence at people with proselytic dispositions. Owing to their penchant for missionary zeal, evangelicals have earned a negative reputation as glassy-eyed religious predators intent on luring unsuspecting strangers into a life of blind, intolerant, authoritarian faith. For the most part, such stereotypes are heavily exaggerated and a bit ridiculous. Evangelicals do proselytize, and some are quite brazen and insistent about it, taking their mission to evangelize to zealous or insensitive extremes. However, the average evangelical churchgoer is just as uncomfortable knocking on his or her neighbor's door, pressuring friends, or haranguing coworkers as anyone else would be. Furthermore, negative stereotypes often reflect a flawed assumption that when evangelicals act sociably it is only because they are hiding an ulterior motive to "trick" potential converts into thinking and acting exactly as they do. This is a simplistic and uncritical way of evaluating the complex factors and motives that define social relationships in this or any context.
In response to the question, "Did they try to convert you?" my answer is yes and no. Evangelical pastors and churchgoers in Knoxville were keenly aware of my identity as a non-Christian and endeavored to "witness" their faith to me on numerous occasions, but they rarely did so in a manner one might expect. Without a doubt, the possibility that I might come around to "accept Jesus Christ" as a result of my research was foremost in the minds of many of my interlocutors. It was not an ulterior motive but one that was readily apparent and explicit. They even acknowledged as much when they would ask me, in a wry, self-mocking tone, questions like "So, have any of us tried to convert you yet?" Typically, however, their efforts to broach the topic of my faith (or lack thereof) were respectful and tactful. No one insisted on subjecting me to a barrage of questions about my beliefs or my eternal fate, and most of the individuals who offered to share their personal testimonies with me did so in response to my willingness to listen. Compared to a more casual stranger, I was fortunate in this regard. Everyone knew that I was there for an extended period, and that I was attending church services and Bible studies and conducting interviews for more than a year. This allowed pastors and churchgoers the satisfaction of knowing that I was being regularly "fed" on the gospel in generous portions. They knew I would have ample opportunity to learn of God's grace, Christ's divinity, the urgency of repentance, and the sin of prideful disbelief. From their perspective, pressuring a visitor like me to make a faith decision by short-term ultimatum was no guarantee that my born-again conversion would be genuine, and thus the purposes of evangelism would in no way be served. On the contrary, my presence as an ethnographer provided my interlocutors with an opportunity to share their faith holistically-through both word and deed-which they did by, among other things, encouraging and assisting me in my research. If converting me was a motive that influenced how evangelicals interacted with me, then it was certainly advantageous. It should also be pointed out that my desire to observe and analyze them as ethnographic subjects bore much the same significance.
There were, of course, individuals who took little interest in me or my work, regarded me as suspect, and avoided me altogether. Most of the people I approached, however, were accommodating and eager to invite me into their lives, for reasons of friendship as well as faith. I recall one night when I was invited to dinner at the home of Phil and Daisy Harkin, an elderly couple at Marble Valley Presbyterian. The Harkins were one of several families who made it their responsibility to make sure I got my fair share of home-cooked meals during my stay in Knoxville. The meal was standard Tennessee fare: grilled turkey steak wrapped in strips of bacon, served with baked potatoes, fruit salad, and sweet iced tea. Seated across from me was another dinner guest, a straight-talking, fifth-generation Knoxvillian named Charles who had been a close friend of the Harkins' for many years. He spent the first part of our meal asking pointed questions about my work, before announcing his conclusion that God had sent me to Knoxville for a reason. All I had to do, he said, was be open to learning what the reason might be. Then, as Phil and Daisy quietly looked on, Charles leaned across the table to me and asked, "Are we gonna try to convert you?" Before I had a chance to respond, he sat up and said: "I am gonna try to convert you! But do you know how? By praying for you. And you better believe I'll be doing that." Sensing a need to clarify what Charles meant, Phil explained that he and Daisy prayed for me every day, but not just for my salvation. They prayed that my work would go smoothly, that my car wouldn't break down (a much-needed intercession), and that my friends and family in New York would be comforted until my return home. The conversation then moved on to the topic of prayer, as Phil and Charles shared emotional stories about difficult times in their lives when the prayers of Christian friends helped them overcome sickness or despair. The attention had shifted away from me, but the stories were clearly meant for my consumption.
An interesting aspect of how evangelicals related to me was the extent to which they underscored the elements that confirmed my outsider status, rather than trying to suppress or ignore them. Two areas of my life were especially relevant in this regard: the first was my vocation as a scholar and ethnographer; the second was my Jewish ethnicity. Instead of treating either of these components of my personal identity as relational obstacles, my interlocutors repeatedly drew attention to them as markers of cultural difference and recast them as sources of mutual affinity. For example, whereas some churchgoers were cautious or guarded in their willingness to participate in my research, others were enthusiastic and believed it would ultimately prove beneficial to them. They decided that the "objectivity" of my external scholarly outlook (a notion that my many caveats did little to dispel) offered a fresh perspective from which to analyze their behavior and gain new insight into their faith. They also believed that my research would inevitably bring me closer to God, the source of ultimate truth and understanding. Throughout my fieldwork I made an effort to assure people that I was not there to "dig up any dirt" on local churches and ministries-at least none other than that which normally graces the surface of everyday life-and I found that the more I stressed the inductive and participatory nature of ethnographic fieldwork, the more convinced they became that God had brought me to Knoxville for a reason, whether I knew it or not.
My Jewishness was a topic of endless commentary and novel fascination, almost to the point of distraction, a dynamic that was in many ways indicative of larger Christian themes regarding Jews and Judaism. On countless occasions I was asked to recite Hebrew blessings over meals, explain the meaning of Jewish ritual symbols and Yiddish catchphrases, or translate Hebrew words from the Bible and on jewelry that evangelicals brought home from Jerusalem tourist shops. Evangelicals claim to feel a profound spiritual connection with "God's chosen people," and tend to valorize Jewish traditions and customs that are seen as precursors of Christianity. They are staunch supporters of the state of Israel and strongly inclined to view modern Jews, including nonobservant secular Jews like me, as direct spiritual as well as ethnic descendents of the ancient Israelites. The belief that the Jewish people are marked by the fatal flaw of having rejected "Christ the Messiah" is mitigated-or perhaps exacerbated-by the belief that "God isn't finished with the Jews," and that many Jews will come to accept Jesus as their savior before Judgment Day.
Evangelical fascination with Jews is further enhanced by cultural stereotypes, including the assumption that Jews are inherently family- and community-oriented, possess a natural inclination toward religious piety, and have a God-given proclivity for intellectual pursuits. Early in my fieldwork I was given a tour of Eternal Vine Church by a staff member who asked me many questions that seemed motivated in part by a desire to corroborate these stereotypes. He was particularly interested to know what it was like growing up with a Jewish mother. I asked what he thought Jewish mothers were like. He assumed they must be great cooks, especially good at making chicken soup, and very nurturing mothers, perhaps more than most gentiles. He stood quietly for a moment, then turned to me and said: "There is something about the Jewish family that supports closeness and loving care, I think. Maybe it's because the Jews are God's chosen race. I don't know. I'm definitely glad that I'm a Christian, that I came to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. But sometimes I think, man, wouldn't it be great to be Jewish? Then I would really have it all!"
Flattery aside, sentimental expressions of affinity are complicated by anti-Jewish tenets in Christian tradition, including the belief that Christ's crucifixion abrogated Jewish law as the basis of God's covenant with the righteous, and that Jews will ultimately answer for their rejection of Christ and their adherence to archaic ritual codes. Ambivalence was seldom made explicit, but it was never entirely absent from my interactions. During my fieldwork I took part in a weekly men's Bible study where my Jewishness came up regularly in group discussions. At one point, the men took pleasure in nicknaming me "the Scribe." This was a lighthearted reference to the ancient Hebrew scribes who were responsible for the codification and generational transmission of sacred knowledge. The nickname for me was meant as a term of endearment, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek recognition that I, like the scribes of old, was inscribing religious truths for posterity. I was, after all, writing things down all the time. While I insisted that my knowledge of the finer points of Jewish ritual and theology was cursory at best, the men believed that my intellectual interest was an extension of my innate, presumably unconscious sense of religious commitment. Implicitly, there was another more complicated layer to this affectionate nickname. The Hebrew scribes portrayed in the New Testament are among Christ's chief antagonists. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus angrily denounces them along with the Pharisees as "hypocrites," "blind men," and "vipers" who "lock people out of the kingdom of heaven." Clearly aware that I could potentially misconstrue my biblical moniker as an insult or provocation, the leader of the group (who coined the nickname originally) reassured me before long that no negative connotations were intended. As he was an extremely reliable contact and sympathetic friend, it was easy for me to take him at his word. All the same, I could not help noting that by identifying me directly with the persona of an ancient Hebrew scribe, he and others underscored the religious and cultural distance between us, hoping thereby to determine the relational conditions through which we might come to minimize those distances.
Another issue worth mentioning with regard to my positionality in the field-for a question like "Did they try to convert you?" concerns nothing if not issues of positionality-was my activity as a frequent volunteer for local charities, social outreach ministries, and faith-based service organizations. Many of the ministry workers and outreach coordinators I met struggled routinely with the problem of never having enough volunteers. The fact that I was doing a study that involved observing evangelical outreach activities meant that I always made myself available, and on several occasions I ended up being one of relatively few people to do so. This had the effect of intensifying some ethical concerns that already weighed on my mind. For instance, to what extent was I complicit in furthering the religious agenda of my fellow volunteers? Did I compromise that agenda in any way? Were my actions as a volunteer-such as serving hot meals to homeless people, delivering donated furniture to shut-ins, and repairing a screen door at a domestic violence shelter-actions that meant something more than what I might have personally intended because of the fact that at those precise moments I was basically an evangelical representative?
It was apparent to me that I could not fully account for the symbolic import of my presence in the eyes of other volunteers, social workers, welfare clients, and recipients of charitable aid, and that it was not the purview of my project to attempt to do so. I decided that it was counterproductive to avoid volunteering out of such concerns, and that the benefits for my research outweighed, in most cases, the conceivable drawbacks. I also felt that whether or not I was personally invested in the religious motivations of evangelical volunteers, I helped them provide useful assistance and vital services for needy and distressed people and underfunded welfare agencies. Although there were times when I was reminded of just how different the attitudes and intentions of conservative evangelical ministry workers and volunteers were from my own, I was often deeply moved by the sincere compassion and dedication of their efforts. I was equally moved by the gradual and usually subtle shifts in attitude that I observed among socially engaged evangelicals as they deepened their involvement. Some of those who worked with the urban poor began to see indigence as a consequence of life-dominating circumstances and not simply the result of irresponsible individuals making bad decisions. Evangelicals who reached out to people with AIDS realized that the ministry required tolerance, open-mindedness, and a willingness to suppress the urge to vigorously proselytize. Such shifts were not the norm, nor did they entail full-scale conversions from conservative to progressive ways of thinking, as some churchgoers may have feared. Yet they were indications of how flexible social consciousness can be even among people from religious groups that appear steadfastly resistant to certain kinds of change. I do not think I had much of a role in changing the minds of any conservative evangelicals, but I must admit that on some level I probably looked forward to their possible conversions as eagerly as they hoped and prayed for mine.
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