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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.

In his study of socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville, Tennessee, Omri Elisha offers a rich and multilayered portrait of conservative (Western) Protestantism. Drawing on long-term anthropological research in two different megachurches, Elisha explores the various cultural, political, and theological ideas that shape American evangelicalism in general and evangelical social engagement in particular. One of the best things about this book is the consistent clarity of Elisha's writing; his prose moves along easily to bring Protestantism in the Tennessee River Valley to life. Moreover, he is sensitive to the diversity of conservative Bible Belt Christianity. While evangelicals are often portrayed (and sometimes portray themselves) as a homogeneous group or a united political front, the internal reality of this group is much more nuanced. ...

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