Monday, December 28, 2009

The Religious Right

In the Fall, 2009 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Jean Bethke Elshtain reviews (behind a subscription wall) The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, a book whose findings ought to (but will not) allay the fears of those alarmed by the plotting of "Christianists" — those supposedly intent on destroying religious liberty — and an America on the verge of theocracy:
.... 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. ....

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. ....

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. ....

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