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Naomi Haynes

Evangelicals and Moral Ambition

Tensions in pursuing "social justice."

Several years ago I received a copy of the Wheaton College alumni magazine with the words, "Why is student activism on the rise?" on the cover. What I remember most about the articles that answered this question was their ambivalent tone. While the goal of the authors was clearly to celebrate campus efforts toward social engagement, these pieces took great pains to communicate that activism had in no way replaced the verbal proclamation of the gospel as the primary objective of Wheaton College students and faculty. The tension evident in this set of articles reflects the uncertainty conservative American Protestants often feel about social engagement. In part this is the result of the evangelical history of separation—or at least distinction—from the "social gospel" of the liberal mainline. However, one might expect that the issue runs a bit deeper than efforts at group differentiation, and specifically that it is embedded not only in history but also in culture and social life. In order to understand the conflicted attitude of American evangelicals toward social activism, then, it is helpful to turn to ethnographic analysis.


Elisha defines "socially engaged evangelicals" as believers who "draw strong associations between religiosity and social conscience" and who are "notably active … in promoting and participating in various forms of organized benevolence." As evangelicals who have had what they sometimes refer to as "social conversions"—that is, personal transformations that raise the position of social engagement on their list of religious priorities—these believers find their Christian vocation in mobilizing others to join them in outreach to the inner city.

Elisha begins his analysis with three chapters devoted to an ethnographic discussion of the two congregations he studied, the city of Knoxville, and some of the individuals who served as his key informants. Through these chapters we are given a glimpse of the social world of ...

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