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Moral Ambition

Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches

Omri Elisha

Publication Year: 2011

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 Ambition reaches 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.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: The Anthropology of Christianity

Title Page, Other Works in the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Writing this book has been a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. I am tremendously thankful for all of the support, encouragement, and insight I have received from people and institutions along the way. I alone take full responsibility for the content, but I am proud to acknowledge the company I have kept in the process. ...

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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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. ...

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Chapter 2: Awaking Sleeping Giants

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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 finding 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— ...

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Chapter 3: A Region in Spite of Itself

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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. ...

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Chapter 4: The Names of Action

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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. ...

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Chapter 5: The Spiritual Injuries of Class

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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, ...

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Chapter 6: Compassion Accounts

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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, ...

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Chapter 7: Taking the (Inner) City for God

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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. ...

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pp. 214-222

One of the more unexpected surprises of my fieldwork 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. ...


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pp. 223-240


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pp. 241-252


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pp. 253-263

Production Notes

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p. 277-277

E-ISBN-13: 9780520950542
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520267503

Page Count: 276
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The Anthropology of Christianity