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The Christian Right’s Democratic Virtues: An Interview with Jon Shields

June 5th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson


WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23:  Ted Gentile of M...

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 23: Ted Gentile of Merrick, NY, holds a crucifix at the March for Life rally on January 23, 2012 in Washington, DC. Pro-life activists gather each year to protest on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Earlier this year I raved about an important book that has been (unfortunately) overlooked by most commentators on evangelical political engagement.  I invited Professor Shields to answer a few questions based on the work and he graciously accepted.

1) You point out James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars does not draw on participant observation.  How important is it for those who are studying evangelicals to interact with them in their research?  Should readers privilege those studies that do have participant observation over those that don’t? 

Hunter’s study was groundbreaking in so many respects and of great importance to my own intellectual development.  But it and other important studies of the culture wars did not examine what rank-and-file activists actually do and say in the public square.  The only way to assess the actual public behavior of ordinary activists is to observe them.  So insofar as one is interested in the public behavior of activists, then, yes, I think one should privilege studies that draw on participant observation.

Unfortunately, participant observation of social movements is rarely done by academics.  One recent exception is the work of Emily Ekins, a Ph.D. student at UCLA.  Ekins attended a Tea Party rally where she took hundreds of photographs of handmade signs and then did a content analysis.  Much like my own work, she found that the media’s depiction of the movement didn’t fit the reality on the ground.  Only a small percentage of Tea Party signs, for example, expressed concern over issues of race or immigration.  A mere 1.2 percent of signs, for instance, raised questions about Obama’s place of birth.

2) You write:  “What is most striking about the varied world of pro-life activism is not the belligerency of Christian activists, but the degree to which they embrace the deliberative norm of civility.”  Why do you think Christian activists are so often painted as uncivil?

When I observed pro-life activists actually trying to talk to pro-choice citizens, I found that they were usually very civil.  But, as my book shows, this is only part of the story.  If one looks at Christian radio personalities or at direct mailings or at fringe organizations, belligerency is quite common.  The media picks up on these latter examples partly because they are somewhat more visible, partly because they make for more interesting stories, and partly because of the sociology of the newsroom itself.  So the media has identified real incivility in the Christian Right.

The problem is that the news is always “a highly refracted version of reality,” as Walter Lippman taught us years ago.  It’s an easy lesson to forget in the information age, where the media’s gaze only seems to be omnipresent.  And it is also one of the reasons that systematic academic studies that use participant observation, such as Ekins’ work on the Tea Party, is so important.

3) What role do you think moral skepticism should play in a deliberative democracy?  

Good question.  In my book I argue that we can’t expect activists to genuinely doubt the justice of their own cause or be open to embracing their opponents’ perspective.  After all, movements are driven by strong convictions rather than provisionally held beliefs.  But this is a narrow claim about the nature of politics.

Moral doubt does have a place in other contexts and institutions, especially the academy.  The problem occurs when academics, who are understandably attracted to this ideal, attempt to smuggle this value into their assessments of politics.  Doubt may be good for philosophy departments, but it’s a fatal disease in social movements.  If we value an engaged and active public, then we need to accept the dogmatism that comes with it.

4) You suggest that moral deliberation and active participation may be in “fundamental tension” with each other.  Are they incompatible virtues for social movements to try to practice?  

The relationship is not “incompatible” since there are also ways in which these virtues work together in practice.  For example, ordinary activists only receive a democratic education after they have been radicalized.  Only when citizens have committed themselves to a cause will they have any practical incentive to practice deliberation.

I also think it’s important to think about how these virtues play out not just in a single movement, but in competition with other movements.  Competing movements force one another to sharpen their arguments in light of counter arguments and objections.  In this way, they contribute to a larger marketplace of ideas.  To be sure, movements also undermine deliberation by mobilizing strong moral passions.  But there is no grand public debate over contentious questions absent the mobilization of moral passions that are not always easy to control.

5) You write:  “Indeed, while secular critics feared that religion corrupts politics, evangelicals have long held the opposite concern: it is politics that contaminates religion.”  A lot of younger evangelicals seem to have never heard that dimension of evangelicals’ engagement with politics.   Why do you think that story has been overshadowed by that of evangelicalism’s purported subordination of their religion to their political positions? 

Whether they realize it or not, young evangelicals are part of this long tradition of worrying about the corrosive effects of politics on Christianity.  Evidence for the power of this tradition can be found in the Christian Right itself, where there is a surprising amount of ambivalence about political engagement.  When activists in Concerned Women for America were asked whether the church should “change hearts” or “change hearts and social institutions” some 84 percent chose the former.  That’s a high ratio for an organization committed to changing social institutions.

Given those facts, I’m not surprised that multi-issue Christian Right organizations such as Concerned Women for America have suffered from serious decline and have always been difficult to maintain.  The one exception to these developments has been the pro-life movement.  Evangelicals find it relatively easy to overcome their ambivalence about politics in the case of abortion since they think that human life itself is at stake.