A review of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, by Jon A. Shields

During an interview at a public radio station a decade ago—I was in a town in upstate New York, lecturing at the local university—the interviewer informed me in alarmed tones that something quite awful had recently occurred in the city. "The Christian Right," he intoned, had "taken over" the local school board and had succeeded in "grabbing" seats on the city council. How had this allegedly awful thing happened, I asked. A coup? Threats? Extortion? Blackmail? Election fraud? No, a group of citizens had fielded candidates for local office, run effective campaigns on a shoestring budget by relying entirely on volunteers, and had won.

The radio host continued: "What could those concerned with this ‘threat' do about it?" "Politics," I replied. The candidates supported by Christian political action were elected fair and square, after all, and in a society with regular election cycles you can field your own candidates next time around and out-organize your opponents. This is Civics 101. I fear my response failed to match his alarm. Didn't I realize "these people" were taking over?

Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is trained in American politics and empirical political science, and in his new book he puts paid to the ignorance and even bigotry lying behind the questions put to me all those years ago. Far from being a threat to American civil society, "Christian Right leaders routinely anchor secular, deliberative norms in their faith" and, to the degree they do so, argues Shields, they are acting in ways entirely consistent with "participatory egalitarianism" and our "long tradition of democratic education in American social movements." Shields's closely reasoned study focuses on theologically conservative Christian citizens committed to civic freedom and democratic procedures. They are strongly opposed to any official establishment of religion—including their own—because that would undermine one of their most cherished principles, namely, the free exercise of religion.

Shields reminds us that the rational-choice, interest-based model of politics dominating most political science departments treats a morally passionate politics as a distortion, even a menace. By definition, rational political actors should be "calculators of marginal utility," seeking to satisfy some material, political, or economic interest. In the author's words, the impoverished but reigning "social-scientific logic" holds that "noneconomic interests compromise deliberative ideals because they are engaged in an inherently irrational, even pathological, defense of symbols, status, cultures, and worldviews." Shields challenges these assumptions. Using participant-observer interviews and techniques, visiting college campuses and other sites of political action, conducting surveys and consulting other forms of empirical data—in short, deploying the apparatus of social science minus its guiding rational-choice assumptions—he finds that Christian leaders are, in fact, committed to rational argument and democratic deliberation.

To be sure, there are uncompromising extremists here and there, as there inevitably are around "the fringes of social movements"—any strong social movement—but these are marginal, not central. Overwhelmingly, what Christian leaders teach new activists is "how to engage the wider public" and how to mobilize and sustain their moral commitments in so doing. In one graph- and statistics-laden chapter, the author displays the many ways in which Christian leaders, by insisting that civic engagement is a moral obligation, have drawn tens of thousands to greater participation.

Shields was surprised to find there was much more openness to debate and deliberation on the part of Christian citizens, including college students, than on the part of those who condemn them. With abortion politics as his case study, he cites chapter and verse from pro-choice organizing literature (and other sources) instructing activists not to debate nor even engage with their pro-life opponents.

What's more, it is pro-choice spokesmen who incessantly paint the pro-life position as narrowly sectarian and exclusively religious, and therefore illegitimate. By contrast, pro-life literature frames the matter as one of human rights and the common good—a concern of all citizens, not just believers.

It is difficult to argue with Shields's conclusion that Christian activists have enhanced "the participatory character of American democracy." Sadly, I doubt his careful study will make a dent in our cultural elites' standard narrative: that Christian activism, at least Christian activism by theological and social conservatives, is a very bad thing because it violates church-state separation and aims to destroy everyone's freedom. Yet, if Christian activism tracks with the self-described "progressive" agenda, the dark murmurings about theocracy simply melt away.

Of course, all too many Christians lump together hardcore, intolerant "secularism" and the commitment to non-sectarian government, as if these were cut from the same cloth. The difference is that among Christian activists and analysts, such reductionism is challenged and criticized. We still await the critical voices among self-described "progressives" who will take on the venomous cant directed at thousands of our fellow citizens.