The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right


The Christian Right is frequently accused of threatening democratic values. But in The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, Jon Shields argues that religious conservatives have in fact dramatically increased and improved democratic participation and that they are far more civil and reasonable than is commonly believed.

Shields interviewed leaders of more than thirty Christian Right organizations, observed movement activists in six American cities, and analyzed a wide variety of survey data and movement media. His conclusions are surprising: the Christian Right has reinvigorated American politics and fulfilled New Left ideals by mobilizing a previously alienated group and by refocusing politics on the contentious ideological and moral questions that motivate citizens. Shields also finds that, largely for pragmatic reasons, the vast majority of Christian Right leaders encourage their followers to embrace deliberative norms in the public square, including civility and secular reasoning.

At the same time, Shields highlights a tension between participatory and deliberative ideals since Christian Right leaders also nurture moral passions, prejudices, and dogmas to propel their movement. Nonetheless, the Christian Right's other democratic virtues help contain civic extremism, sharpen the thinking of activists, and raise the level and tenor of political debate for all Americans.


Republican victories in the 2004 elections unleashed yet another wave of reporting that pummeled the Christian Right for compromising democratic values. in an election postmortem, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times accused the Right of violating the sacred line between church and state, so much so that it was in effect “rewriting the constitution.” Following his lead, Robert Kuttner, editor of the American Pros- pect, opined that Christians have become even more aggressive in their efforts to undermine the American Constitution, which was a “triumph of reason over absolutism.” a more tempered and otherwise iconoclastic New Republic soon followed with some conventional wisdom. According to its editor, religious conservatives routinely fail to “find nonreligious justifications for their views.”

The claim that theologically conservative Christians threaten democratic values is not new. in fact, it would be hard to find a more wellentrenched and enduring belief among elite journalists and academics alike. Yet it is also one of the least-examined beliefs. Despite all of the interest in the Right and culture wars more broadly, we know surprisingly little about the Christian Right. For instance, we do not know very much about what goes on inside Christian Right organizations. This neglect reflects a larger shortcoming in the study of interest groups, since few social scientists have bothered to investigate the internal lives of political organizations. As Lawrence Rothenberg observed in 1992, “Curiously, life inside political organizations has rarely received much attention from contemporary social scientists.” Even less attention has been devoted to the study of how religious activists actually behave in the public square. and certainly no systematic attention has been spared to study the central subject of this book, which is how Christian Right leaders shape the public behavior of ordinary Christians.

Careful attention to this subject offers some good news. Drawing on interviews, participant observation, survey data, and movement sources, I argue that scholars and political observers need to reconsider the Christian Right's contribution to American democracy, regardless of where they align themselves in the larger culture wars.

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 . . .

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