Jon Shields (a former colleague of mine in the Poli. Sci. Department at the University of Colorado, since moved up in the world to Claremont McKenna College) has published (with Princeton U. Press) a book sure to spark attention: The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. His new work is reviewed by Peter Steinfels in today's New York Times.
“The vast majority of Christian-right leaders,” he writes, “have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists — especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of dialogue by listening and asking questions; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning.” . . . .
Still, critics will pit his account against negative reporting on the Christian right and the anti-abortion movement. And his book recognizes the tension in his ideal of a democratic politics at once participatory and deliberative: “Social movements will never cultivate deliberation in the fullest sense, because they are ultimately driven and maintained by strong moral convictions.”
The book's webpage has a sample chapter, if you want to dip into the work a bit. Here is just a bit of it:
First, many Christian Right organizations have helped create a more participatory democracy by successfully mobilizing conservative evangelicals, one of the most politically alienated constituencies in twentieth-century America. This has been a startling development. After all, it was the New Left that emphasized the importance of opening up American democracy to alienated citizens. What is more remarkable, this participatory revival took place in an era in which social scientists have been increasingly anxious about the erosion of civic life. Yet as the ink dried on Robert Putnam’s now-famous “bowling alone” thesis, conservative Christians were turning out to vote in record numbers.
In mobilizing Christian conservatives, the Right achieved another important New Left goal. It realigned American parties and public debate around contentious moral questions that animate citizens rather than bureaucratic, technical, or economic issues that tend to bewilder and subdue them. The Christian Right has therefore helped to reinvigorate American democracy and eliminate the end-of-ideology politics that the New Left held in such contempt.
[Update: serendipitously, the new issue of Books and Culture has just this moment come into my hands, and in it is our own John Turner's review of the book, which I highly commend to all. Turner praises the virtues of Shields's work, but points out that while "the Christian Right may possess underreported democratic virtues, . . . it has been a public relations disaster, especially because of the need for incendiary rhetoric to raise money and mobilize volunteers"].
I've long contended (as do lots of historians now) that conservatives were in some ways the true victors of the 1960s, as they were far more successful ultimately in long-term grassroots organizing than was the liberal left -- it just took a couple of decades before that became clear. Moreover, the history of grassroots conservatism from the 1960s forward has become something of a commonplace in historical literature, despite the hackneyed complaints about liberal bias, how conservatives get ignored, yada yada. Enough already with that (even Steinfels's review has a bit of imagined liberal horror at Shields's conclusion, playing into this very stereotype).
So I'm initially at least in accord with Shields on the success of Christian right democratic political organizing. On the other hand, as we have just blogged about recently, the "politics of fear" motif in the evangelical right has been awfully strong, and it does not exactly encourage "democratic deliberation." So, a substantial portion of the evangelical sub-culture tends towards a kind of millennialism that engages people most deeply in emotional or sub-rational ways, even while the kinds of organizations that Shields has studied quite masterfully have learned the arts of patient, rational organizing [that's a variation of the point John Turner makes in his review]. Sounds like a good blog comparing Jason Bivins's study of the evangelical politics of fear together with Jon Shields's study of the evangelical politics of democratic deliberativeness may have to be a summer project here!
In the meantime, congratulations to Jon for getting such good notice today -- and Jon, if you happen to see this, sorry I didn't get to know you better during your brief sojourn in Colorado Springs.