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.
Moral Ambition Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches
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 tra