In the February 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Omri Elisha highlights the ethical dilemmas of compassion and accountability seen in faith-based activism and social outreach as practiced by conservative evangelical Protestants. Elisha’s essay, “Moral Ambitions of Grace,” explores “the conditions under which a conceptually manageable paradox becomes practically unmanageable for the religious actors who uphold it.” Drawing on fieldwork conducted among socially engaged evangelicals in Knoxville, Tennessee, Elisha analyzes the roots of this paradox in the religious imperatives of Christian evangelism, in which gifts of divine grace create insurmountable debt for the recipients. Through an investigation of the vernacular theological rendering of concepts like ‘compassion’ and ‘accountability’, Elisha notes how the idea of “redeeming exchange” central to the evangelical ethos has been partially obscured by a widespread romanticization of Christian compassion. As a result, evangelicals tend to view Christian charity as able to transcend social and class boundaries, overlooking the relationships of power that are always present.
This important essay also analyzes the political implications of social activism in shaping religious identity, and the resurgence of religious conservatism in the American public sphere. Elisha details how the conservative evangelical promotion of individualized responsibility, their withdrawal of support for the welfare state, and their criticism of social liberalism, ‘entitlement’, and ‘the unworthy poor’, resonates with neoliberal and neoconservative cultural ideals. But Elisha does not dismiss the existential conflicts and practical dilemmas of socially oriented evangelicals as more evidence of hypocrisy or fanaticism, instead probing “the extension of their sensibilities beyond ritual confines and into the larger social order” and helping us understand the evolving role of religion in a civil society where the authority of liberal secularism is becoming increasingly unstable. This essay will be relevant to anthropologists, literary critics, historians, religious scholars, theologians and political philosophers interested in the interconnections between moral economy, social activism and the state.
Omri Elisha is a Resident Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Cultural Anthropology has published several articles concerning the intertwining of Christianity and politics. See, for example, Rosalind Shaw’s (2007) essay on “Pentecostal memory” in Sierra Leone, Webb Keane’s “Sincerity, ‘Modernity,’ and the Protestants” (2002), and Peter Caldwell’s “The Crucifix and German Constitutional Culture” (1996). Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on American studies. See, for example, George Lipsitz’s “Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatism and Competitive Consumer Citizenship” (2006) and David Schneider’s “The Power of Culture: Notes on Some Aspects of Gay and Lesbian Kinship in America Today” (1997).