Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)

In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “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” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.

Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.