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Moral Ambition

Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches

Omri Elisha
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Moral Ambition
    Book Description:

    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 Ambitionreaches 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95054-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-35)

    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...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Awaking Sleeping Giants
    (pp. 36-60)

    Whether you are a newcomer or seasoned churchgoer, one of the serious challenges of attending a worship service at a suburban megachurch on Sunday morning is fi nding a decent parking spot. A novice in every sense, I learned quickly that to get a good space in the sprawling parking lots of either Eternal Vine Church or Marble Valley Presbyterian—the two evangelical megachurches where I attended services on an alternating basis—I would need to set out early and beat the rush. For most commuting churchgoers in Knoxville, getting to church on time means waking up early, feeding and...

  6. CHAPTER 3 A Region in Spite of Itself
    (pp. 61-84)

    Why Knoxville?” It seemed as though every other day someone would ask why I chose Knoxville as the site for my research. Even local evangelicals, who might be expected to ask whether I was a Christian before anything else, were initially perplexed and amused that I chose to conduct my study in their city instead of another, presumably more obvious location. The underlying assumption appeared to be that Knoxville, a “big town/small city” nestled in the Appalachian hills of East Tennessee, lacks the cultural magnitude to which researchers like me naturally gravitate. Knoxvillians certainly do not view their surroundings as...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Names of Action
    (pp. 85-120)

    The socially engaged evangelicals described in this book are not social or political activists in any conventional sense. They do not adhere to a particular social movement or activist identity; they do not organize rallies, protests, or other forms of direct action meant to sway public opinion or impress and intimidate public figures. At least these were not primary concerns of those I knew, who may participate in mass actions organized under the auspices of the Christian Right but invest their personal commitments otherwise. The efforts I observed were mainly concerned with promoting organized benevolence on a relatively modest scale,...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Spiritual Injuries of Class
    (pp. 121-152)

    There was a time, not so long ago, when conservative evangelicalism was widely assumed to be a “religion of the dispossessed” (Niebuhr 1929), a rigid sectarian faith reserved for the poor and uneducated masses who reject modernity and all that comes with it. On the contrary, many North American evangelicals are educated, economically well off, and well acquainted (perhaps to the point of unease) with the trappings of secular culture (Shibley 1996; Smith 1998; Warner 1988). With increasing prominence, in fact, evangelicals occupy high positions of political power and corporate influence, and are closely associated with new media and cosmopolitan...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Compassion Accounts
    (pp. 153-182)

    The dismantling of the federal welfare state in the 1990s sparked renewed public interest in religiously inspired or “faith-based” charity work and welfare activism. Religious conservatives in particular were emboldened by the idea that the downsizing of government’s role in the business of welfare would usher in a new era in which religious charities, social services, and local congregations would reclaim their rightful roles and legitimacy on issues of welfare and moral governance in community life. In addition to revivalist and missionary ideals, the moral ambitions of socially engaged evangelicals during this period were fueled to a large extent by...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Taking the (Inner) City for God
    (pp. 183-213)

    Listening to churchgoers at Eternal Vine and Marble Valley Presbyterian talk about Knoxville’s impoverished inner city, it often seemed as though the inner city was something of a missionary preoccupation. For those less involved in social outreach it is uncharted territory, an alluring but harsh and unsettling element of the urban landscape. For socially engaged pastors and churchgoers it represents “pockets of despair” calling out for intervention, so close to home. It is seen as a place where black children, dependent single parents, gang leaders, and drug addicts await the goodwill and generosity of those who live just a short...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 214-222)

    One of the more unexpected surprises of my fi eldwork came when I was invited to accompany a group of high school students on a biennial “spring break mission trip” to Washington, DC, organized by the youth ministry at Marble Valley Presbyterian. I was invited by Margie McKenzie, whose career as an outreach coordinator began as a result of having attended this same trip years earlier. I happily agreed to come along and planned to be little more than a fl y on the wall, observing some thirty teenagers as they spent the week visiting homeless shelters, day-care centers, and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 223-240)
  13. References
    (pp. 241-252)
  14. Index
    (pp. 253-263)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 264-264)