The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right
Many political observers have bemoaned the effect of the Christian Right on democratic virtues. Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, has found that the moaning is mostly without cause. For his recent book, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press), Shields interviewed the leaders of 30 Christian Right organizations, studied their literature, and attended their training sessions. What he discovered was that these leaders work diligently to teach activists to practice civility and dialogue, and to reject appeals to Scripture in the public square. CT online editor Sarah Pulliam spoke with Shields about his findings.
Your book argues that the Christian Right has modeled many democratic virtues. Why have so many scholars missed this?
A lot of our impressions of the Right have been driven by the media, which tend to focus on the most strident, militant types. I've tried to uncover the activism that goes on below the media radar. It's where the most action is, ironically.
The Christian Right has been interested in many issues, including religious liberty and same-sex marriage. Why did you choose to focus your research on the pro-life movement?
That's where the center of gravity and activity was, at least when I was doing my fieldwork. Many of the multipurpose organizations or multi-issue organizations, like the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America, were in decline.
Abortion really commands far more energy and interest in that world than any other issue. Whatever other issue is second, it's a really distant second. If abortion weren't an issue, there would be almost no Christian Right, or it would be such a marginal thing that it wouldn't command that much interest.
You compare how often the media have covered Operation Rescue with how often they have covered crisis pregnancy centers. How would more balanced coverage change public perception of the Christian Right?
I think it's huge. The Operation Rescue movement began in a very peaceful way and generated almost no media attention. But people like Randall Terry discovered that you could get media attention if you were outrageous and combative. So it really dominated coverage of the Christian Right and the pro-life movement, particularly in the late 1980s and early '90s. It had a formative influence on how the media see the Right. There's just not much interest in covering crisis pregnancy centers. They are not even that visible. [What] takes place inside these centers, in these intimate encounters between the women who go there and the volunteers … doesn't make for great news.
All social movements face the problem of having the militants in their camp getting much more media attention. It was compounded in the case of the Right by a media bias, which was really true for abortion. There's just overwhelming evidence of a media bias from independent people who have done content analysis of news coverage.
You examined how pro-life groups teach their activists to reject appeals to theology. Are appeals to theology anti-democratic?
This is an incredibly controversial question, and political theorists who think about this more than I do have really debated this. Those who argue that it's anti-democratic make the claim that there's something universally accessible about reason. So we can all have a conversation and talk about moral questions because we all can reason about moral questions. But if you make a claim to divine revelation, if you're talking with someone who doesn't share that point of view or doesn't share that faith, then that's not accessible to them. So in a funny way, pro-life groups end up agreeing with secular critics who advocate for public reason.
How will a new President in office impact the pro-life movement?
It's often good for movements when they are out of power, because it's usually easier for them to raise money since the threat to their cause seems more credible. Also, recent survey data show at least some change in the views of young Americans, who, for the first time since we've been collecting data on abortion, are the least pro-choice age cohort. This is really striking, because they are also the least religious age cohort, and they're also generally less socially conservative. There are a lot of social scientists still struggling to figure out what's going on. I think partly, as data suggest, one doesn't have to be a believer to be pro-life. I'm not sure that's as true of other issues the Right cares about. We have already seen a dramatic movement in opinion on gay marriage, even as abortion opinion has been very stable and now seems to be trending in a slightly pro-life direction. So of all the issues the Right cares about, this one is the most promising.
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The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.
Previous coverage of the Christian Right includes:
Phrase 'Religious Right' Misused, Conservatives Say | Leaders often identified with the Religious Right want journalists and academics to lay the term to rest. (February 12, 2009)
Changing of the Guard | What happens to the Religious Right? (November 7, 2008)
Is the Religious Right Finished? | Responses to the call of Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas for "some sort of quarantine." (September 6, 1999)
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