The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

Paul Harvey

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.


Anonymous said…
Is it true that conservative evangelicals were "one of the most politically alienated constituencies in twentieth-century America," prior to the institutional organization of the Christian Right (via the Moral Majority, for instance)? Was there an identifiable "block" of "conservative evangelicals" that can honestly be identified as "one of the most politically alienated constituencies in twentieth-century America," or was this rather a construction of the Christian Right movement itself that framed the issue this way to create a block of self-identified, alienated "conservative Christians"?

I ask in the hope that somebody reading this might have some empirical, historical data on this point.
John G. Turner said…
Anonymous, good questions. I'm not an expert on the statistics, but I would look at Shields's book. At the very least, his statistics suggest a pronounced rise in evangelical voting from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s. If I recall, and I don't have the book in front of me, the rate of evangelical voting lagged well behind that of mainline Protestants and African Americans in 1968. He uses other measures of political activity as well. In short, it seemed like a solid study to me. You might also check the work of John Green on evangelicals and politics. I think this is more than a constrution of the Christian Right movement itself (not that Jerry Falwell and others trying to get evangelicals to register and vote might not have engaged in a bit of hyperbole at times).

Thanks for your post, Paul. I'll chime in with some additional thoughts when the B&C review is up on the web.
Anonymous said…
Presumably some of those evangelical voters between the 1960s and the 1990s -- presumably a good number of them before the 1980s -- were those voting for evangelical Jimmy Carter (for instance), right? Evangelical did not always equate with conservative.
John G. Turner said…
Yes, but the statistics I've seen from John C. Green suggest that a huge majority of evangelicals voted for Nixon in '68 and '72, so I think Carter is almost more of an exception. I believe Ford got a slight majority of the national evangelical vote in '76, but Carter did very well -- not surprisingly -- among southern evangelicals.

However, not as many of them were voting, especially before Carter. I think political operatives (and a few evangelical leaders) really saw the possibilities on the horizon in 1976.
Jason Bivins said…
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It is, of course, a fascinating subject and I’ve only read the sample chapter PUP has put online. Just to respond to Paul’s mention of my recent book in his post, what strikes me on my incomplete engagement with Shields’ work is that the sorts of “democratic virtues” he’s out to uncover in a *certain* sector of NCR politicking aren’t necessarily inconsistent with the political religions of fear. Rather, what seems to be most salient about post-1960s conservative Christianities in the U.S. is their very polymorphousness, the way in which certain features of liberalism are used against other features, or the way in which doomy declension narratives can necessitate (even demand) the kinds of engagement Shields is describing.

What fascinates me is not just that there exists in the NCR an ethos of civic engagement; there is a rich literature which acknowledges this (Nomi Stolzenberg, Jeff Spinner-Halev, even my own Fracture of Good Order, and others) and to which Shields is making an important and distinctive contribution. Rather, what compels me are the modes of coexistence between the participatory impulse and its more frightful counterpart, and how they’re strategically (selectively) framed. Here, the world is doomed and cannot be reshaped; elsewhere, a reformist spirit is championed. Here we encounter strident intolerance; there we hear references to MLK and “just getting a seat at the table.” Both orientations and both discourses exist simultaneously in these cultures, at least from where I sit and write, and the way they’re given emphasis and deployed is where the action is. Just my two cents.

All of which is to say that I think Shields is right, too, and that the complexity he documents (and which Paul notes) is also there when seen from the other, more frightful side. I’m eager to dig into the book, and congrats to Prof. Shields on both publication and publicity!
Unknown said…
I haven't read the book yet, but was struck by this passage in the Steinfels review:

"In one of the most compelling sections of [Sheilds's] book, he describes a Christian-right group’s three-day anti-abortion campaign on a Colorado campus to engage in discussions with the thousands of students who were drawn to an exhibit featuring images of embryos and aborted fetuses as well as scientific information about fetal development."

Really, this is where the Christian right's cultivation of democratic deliberation on abortion begins? In technicolor billboard-sized displays of aborted fetuses? (The same goup comes to my campus.) I would simply say that there is much to the discussion of abortion, from all sides of the issue, that such an inflammatory opening move already forecloses. Those who engineer the displays have everything to gain from maintaining a civilized, dispassionate, even deliberative demeanor in the presence of those they provoke. I'm surprised the "democratic virtue" of this particular enterprise went unquestioned by Steinfels.
John G. Turner said…
Clearly one person's civic virtue is another person's inflammatory tactic. [Part of the issue is that prolifers on campus have a very hard time persuading other people to listen to them, hence the shock approach]. Shields certainly presents a very favorable interpretation of these tactics, and I agree with you that it's surprising the NYT reviewer didn't question them and that the activists have everything to gain from proceeding with a dispassionate demeanor, etc. [Great point, by the way]. However, I'd agree with Steinfels that this is indeed the most compelling section of Shields's book. It's worth reading, b/c even if one disagrees with the tactics it's hard not to admire the perseverence and boldness of these activists. It probably happened to Steinfels.

Also, one reason for the billboards, etc. is the fact that prochoice organizations on campus will not debate prolife organizations, at least according to Shields. As defenders of the status quo, they have much less to gain from dialogue and debate.

Bivens, you are spot on re: the often overlooked complexity and paradoxes of American evangelicalism.
Unknown said…
"Also, one reason for the billboards, etc. is the fact that prochoice organizations on campus will not debate prolife organizations, at least according to Shields." I'm hoping that will change. An editorial that appeared yesterday in Beliefnet inspires me to think that even the billboard crowd and the 72% of Americans who support abortion rights can find some common ground for genuinely civil and even productive exchange. Great comments in the comment section too:
Zawir Al-Hamidi said…
The Democratic Virtues shows the Christian Right in a wider views.
Jim Cullen said…
Interesting in this regard to consider Alan Wolfe's new book "The Future of Liberalism," which has relatively kind things to say about at least some evangelicals as well. Wolfe makes the interesting move of suggesting that presumably opposed conservative evangelicals like the late Jerry Falwell and militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins actually share a determinist perspective at odds with the emphasis on human agency characteristic of liberals. But while Wolfe notes that modern liberalism was born amid an effort to shake off religious tyranny, religion today is as likely to reflect the kind of democratic sensibility noted in Shields's work.

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