Is the Christian Right Anti-Democratic?

Jon A. Shields | The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right | Princeton University Press | 2009

reviewed by Jackson Wolford

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right immediately reads as a time capsule text. Based on interviews and research that began around 2003, its chief concern is responding to a “wave of reporting that pummeled the Christian Right for compromising democratic values” (1) following the 2004 presidential election. Shields is responding to a perceived consensus in academic and civic life that “groups preoccupied by moral rather than economic causes undermine deliberative democracy due to their unrestrained zealotry” (6), and that the only function of religion in politics is to allow elites to distract citizens from their material interests. Because of this, pundits and academics alike treat religion—especially Christianity—as a threat to democracy. 

Shields sees this claim as based on superficial analysis potentially disconnected from the actual interior motivations of members of the Christian Right. Thus the bulk of the book is devoted to interviews and fieldwork with Christian anti-abortion activists. Shields concludes from this that the Christian Right has “helped create a more participatory democracy” (100). They have done this by driving democratic participation by mobilizing citizens around moral questions, and by attempting to “inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists” (2). These deliberative norms include:

  • Civility
  • Dialogue
  • Rejecting arguments from theology
  • Careful moral reasoning

In 2022, these claims are hard to read with a straight face. Michael Farris, one of the book’s minor positive examples of its vision of Christian deliberation, dove into the mire of the 2020 election by authoring major legal challenges to overturn the election results. The Christian moral panics over discussion of sexual orientation in public schools, Critical Race Theory, and the mere existence of transgender people have not been characterized by any of the four norms above. And of course, as the totemic figure he is, the endorsement of Trump by so many Christians challenges any argument that U.S. Christian politics fosters deliberative principles.

So where did disjuncture occur between Shields’ analysis and the reality that has unfolded? When a piece of social analysis fails, I think it is usually along two interrelated axes:

  • Limited perception, a failure to fully observe social life
  • Faulty conception, a twist in the way those perceptions forma broader conceptual picture. 

As a student of ethnographic method, I appreciated Shields’ dedication to exploring these activists on the Christian right on the basis of their own interior motivations. In a similar vein—and recognizing that disagreeing with a 13-year-old text is a bit of a sucker punch—I reached out to him to see what he thinks his text may have gotten wrong, and where it holds up. 

In our conversation, Shields readily admitted that his analysis suffered from limited perception. Spending so much of his investigation on abortion activists led him to generalize his observations on its norms to the rest of the Christian Right political universe in ways that have proved untenable. He also admitted that conceptually, in the wake of the last decade, he’s more sympathetic than he used to be to the idea that there is always risk of a “kind of craziness” to the world of ideologically motivated politics, and that this can, in fact, end in a sort of insubstantial “grandstanding” by politicians.

These are insightful self-reflections, and I share these criticisms. But there is one more missing perceptual and conceptual piece that I think hobbled Shields’ 2003 project: An intentional decision not to engage or evaluate the Christian Right’s theology.

The theoretical reason Shields opts not to engage this theology is understandable. It is in fact roughly equivalent to the reason he argues that the interviewed abortion activists choose not to argue from theology: Political arguments couched in theological terms limit their audience to those who share a rhetorical and moral framework. Add to this the restrictions of a political scientist writing a dissertation-turned-book for other political scientists, and I sympathize with the omission of theology from Shields’ analysis.

However both the structure of his argument and current events make the need to fill this gap clear. The observation that moral concerns—especially those of the Christian Right—drive political participation seems as correct now as it was in 2009. The question, though, is whether this participation is democratic in character. Working within a political science framework that equates participation in democratic institutions as being necessarily democratic participation, Shields’ text is unwilling to deal with the idea that it is possible to participate in democratic institutions in ways that explicitly oppose the continued health of democracy. 

There are good reasons scholars may want to avoid positioning themselves as arbiters of whether a given group or individual’s participation in democratic institutions is, in fact, good or bad for democracy. This is for the same reasons social analysis often avoid normative evaluation. If done from an abstracted position, scholarly evaluation of the democratic benefits of a given group’s political participation risks a kind of technocratic, top-down analysis. This directly contradicts the spirit of ethnographically-informed social analysis. 

But it remains vital work. To do it in ways that soften these fears requires, ironically, precisely what Shields faulted liberal critics of the Christian Right for lacking. It requires a knowledge of interior motivations, gained precisely through the kinds of interviews and fieldwork methods Shields employs. But in the case of the Christian Right, it requires additionally an explicit awareness of the theological and moral concerns motivating its members, which Shields brackets out. 

This need is especially acute today. In contradistinction to Shields’ activists of the early 200s, today’s Christian Right has developed splinters, including the Roman Catholic integralists, who abhor theological bracketing and own their religious motivations explicitly. The potential upcoming victory of a religious legal effort to overturn Roe v. Wade makes clear the continuing relevance of religious motivations in American politics. And even as religious affiliation declines on the Right, along with the rest of America, panics around CRT and LGBT rights are clearly mobilized by felt moral (or immoral) sentiments.

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, then, has its core argument proven right precisely where its conclusions have proved wrong. Political scientists should, indeed, have been paying greater and less derisive attention to non-material interior motivations in order to form better analyses. But in this case, the most relevant interior motivations were likely the theological values Shields avoided investigating, norms that ultimately proved receptive to a non-democratic politics.

This text ultimately starts a conversation between political science and an investigation of interior motivation that was promising in its time. (The fact that Shields’ much more recent co-authored text, Trump’s Democrats, delves even more deeply into rooted ethnographic work is even more encouraging). But political scientists and politically-engaged theologians interested in Christian Rights, Lefts, and Centers are going to need to expand this dialogue—to combine their mutual perceptions and conceptions. This focus on interiority is a necessary task if they wish to understand—or even potentially counter—the heady brew of theological and political motivations that drive political actors today.

Jackson Wolford

Jackson Wolford is a former think tank researcher and an incoming Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Notre Dame.