Evangelicals Struggle With the Role of Churches in Society

What inspired you to write Moral Ambition? What sparked your interest?

Initially I set out to study the interaction of two major U.S. trends: the proliferation of evangelical megachurches on the one hand, and the growing popularity of faith-based social ministries on the other. I was interested to see what happened when megachurches in metro regions got involved in the nonprofit sector and how this affected the culture of civil society. However, as I began doing fieldwork in Knoxville, I was quickly drawn to a different angle on the story.

The suburban evangelicals I observed kept talking about their deficiencies when it came to social outreach. Pastors and churchgoers complained that their congregations didn’t do enough to serve poor and distressed people in their community, or to address societal concerns such as urban poverty and racial inequality. They took themselves to task for remaining stuck in middle-class “comfort zones,” and failing to bring “the Kingdom” into the world. This propensity for self-criticism intrigued me because it confirmed how the distance between religious idealism and action can be a touchy issue, one that many people talk about but only a few actually seek to resolve.

So I started working with socially engaged evangelicasl: church leaders, activists, and volunteers who mobilize congregations to devote more time and energy to serving the needs of local communities and faith-based charities. These folks have difficult roles to play in conservative churches, because while trying to reverse patterns of social apathy and isolationism, they confront the obstacles that limit social outreach in the first place. For all their concerns for the welfare of society, many conservative evangelicals harbor deep reservations about supporting any programs that seem to deprioritize evangelism or run the risk of becoming too liberal or too secular. Socially engaged evangelicals counteract those concerns by insisting that faith-based activism can ideally be a vehicle for greater evangelism, not a distraction from it. But they often face strong ideological resistance and logistical constraints.

Moral Ambition covers a range of issues around evangelical social engagement, but I was mainly inspired to write about the quixotic aspirations and frustrations of these individuals who champion the virtues of compassion and justice but, for a variety of reasons, find it hard to promote and implement them.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

There’s a lot of a disagreement and uncertainty among evangelicals about the social role of the church. Are churches primarily supposed to strengthen believers and attract converts, or seek to improve and reform society? Do Christians have an obligation to combat the structures of poverty and injustice, or is their mission confined to ministering individually to the poor and preaching the gospel to as many people as possible before Christ’s return?

I try to convey in my book that such longstanding debates and concerns are even more pronounced in the present day, creating tensions not just among churches of different persuasions but even within evangelical congregations. This is especially true in large suburban churches, where members can hold very different opinions from one another on earthly matters, and where many struggle to figure out what it means to be a sacrificing Christian in an affluent megachurch.

A related point is that while labels such as “conservative” and “progressive,” or even “moderate,” are convenient tools for categorizing evangelicals on hot-button political issues, a more complicated picture emerges when we observe social outreach initiatives at the grassroots. Though steadfast in their faith, socially engaged evangelicals can be surprisingly flexible in their attitudes about things like inner-city development and social justice once they are exposed to new experiences and perspectives.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Tons. The beauty of observational fieldwork is you are left with an abundance of observations, memories, and sources, from which you then have to form a coherent analysis. By the same token, ethnography can be pretty precarious business, forcing a writer to leave out facts and personages that may have made the analysis possible but don’t necessarily fit the narrative that takes shape.

There are many people who don’t appear in my book who nonetheless helped me greatly to comprehend the ways that evangelicals think, feel, and act in their efforts to be more Christ-like. I regret that I couldn’t incorporate all of their voices, but I also didn’t want to overpopulate a book that is meant to provide more in the way of depth than breadth.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

A common misconception among non-evangelicals is that evangelical Christians are all ruthless proselytizers and right-wing culture warriors. I’m not an apologist for evangelical beliefs and traditions, which I generally don’t share and, to a large extent, disagree with. But it is a mistake, empirically speaking, for non-evangelicals to latch on to negative images formed by media stereotypes and subjective experiences (for example, having an imposing neighbor or relative insist on “witnessing” to you) and then decide that they can be used to characterize an entire population.

Some people think that evangelicals only do charity out of a selfish desire to convert non-believers. Others insist that evangelical faith-based organizations are secretly installing a Christian theocracy. Both assumptions are misguided in my view because they are too narrow. My book seeks to broaden (and refine) our sense of what everyday evangelicals believe they are doing, or would like to be doing, when they engage the public sphere.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Moral Ambition is a work of cultural anthropology published by an academic press, but I write with wider audiences in mind that appreciate theoretically informed ethnography. If I did my job, the book should speak to anyone who is interested to gain a nuanced perspective on the religious ideals that motivate evangelicals, and the conflicts and contradictions they face as they pursue those ideals in everyday life.

Are you hoping to inform readers, to entertain them, or to piss them off?

Ideally I want readers to keep turning the page, to read from beginning to end. For me the best books are ones that I want to read all the way through, as opposed to looking for summary paragraphs and skimming through sections of lesser relevance. Even without any linear plot, my ethnography is meant to be an unfolding narrative of cultural and theoretical themes. Whether or not it succeeds is for readers to decide.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I briefly considered calling it “Go and Do Likewise,” from the parable of the Good Samaritan. It captures a lot of the book’s main elements, such as the focus on charity and compassion, and the emphasis on mobilization. Alas, unsurprisingly, there are already several published works with that title. One could mine the Bible for all kinds of pithy phrases, but in the end I went with something that better represented my theoretical angle.

How do you feel about the cover?

I’m especially proud of the cover art because it is a painting by my father, Haim Elisha. A musical composer/conductor by training, he has been painting for years and showing in galleries. This painting, entitled Triad, was completed several years ago, and when I saw it I was struck by the central figure of a red cross, which my father didn’t even recognize until I pointed it out. In the end it was both the image and the evocative blend of colors that made me decide to use the painting as a kind of visual prologue to the book.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, because that would make me Bob Dylan.

What’s your next book?

I’m thinking about projects that explore the development and staging of Christian revivals like those currently taking place all over the country, almost constantly, such as prayer conferences and worship rallies. Aside from their ability to inspire media controversies (think Rick Perry’s prayer rally last summer), what does the growing industry around religious revitalization teach us about evangelicalism in the twenty-first century?