Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism

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Based on fieldwork in Knoxville, Tennessee, I analyze the ethical dilemmas of conservative evangelical Protestants engaged in faith-based activism and social outreach, especially dilemmas stemming from the theological paradox of compassion and accountability. Evangelicals who minister to the poor and distressed must reconcile romanticized notions of pure sacrificial giving with an ideology of personal responsibility inherent in their concept of accountability. Socially engaged evangelicals struggle with competing moral ambitions and religious imperatives that derive meaning from an overarching rubric of Christian evangelism, in which gifts of divine grace are seen as creating reciprocal obligations as well as insurmountable debt on the part of recipients. The outreach efforts of suburban churchgoers are further complicated by unequal power dynamics between charitable givers and charity recipients. While exploring the complexities of a vernacular theology through which socially engaged evangelicals wrestle with these issues, I discuss theoretical and political implications of the case study, including the role of activism in shaping religious identities and the resurgence of religious conservatism in U.S. civil society and public culture.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several articles concerning the intertwining of Christianity and politics. See, for example, Rosalind Shaw’s "Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone" (2007), 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).

About the Author

Omri Elisha is a Resident Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Editorial Overview

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. 

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