An overview of Jon A. Shields’ "provocative" book, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, recently appeared in the New York Times. Both the book and its glowing write-up are flawed.
The book claims that,
"The vast majority of Christian-right leaders have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists – especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of dialogue by listening and asking questions; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning."
The book, and the article, run with the assumption that any disagreement to this seemingly innocuous and balanced assessment of the Christian right functions solely on a partisan bias. Even the first sentence suggests so, saying, "If you wanted a book title to speed the pulse of liberal academics, journalists and politicians…" One can win an easy bet on what blurb will be included on the jacket for the book’s next printing.
The problem with the review is that Steinfels doesn’t question the thesis of the book nearly as much as he should. Steinfels writes,
"Again and again [Shields] encountered the same injunctions: Remain civil. Engage others in conversation by inquiring into their viewpoints. Eschew arguments based on religion or the Bible in favor of facts and reasoning that might persuade people regardless of their religious convictions."
Both Steinfels and Shields make an enormous error in mistaking strategy for manners and civility. The Christian right’s beliefs are based on what they believe to be an infallible document. Any appearance of civility or appeal to reasoning is there to make their claims sound more reasonable to their audience, and convert those holding different opinions. Ultimately, they’re just using a strategy to reinforce beliefs that aren’t at all informed by logic and reasoning.
In a recent commercial for Right Guard Xtreme, snowboarders and sky divers scream about how much they hate sweat while busting mad tricks, and the viewer is led to believe that Right Guard fights odors in a significantly more Xtreme way than other, more boring deodorants. We know this isn’t true, and that Right Guard is trying to do is reach a specific demographic, and foster brand loyalty for their product. This is what the Christian right is attempting; they’re trying to sound more reasonable. To get their point across to a certain demographic, while at the heart of it they’re still sort of crazy fundamentalists.
Conveniently noted at the end of the article (quite possibly to assuage immediate judgment from the reader) is this fact,
"Over time, Mr. Shields said, he grew more interested in Christianity, eventually converting to Catholicism, and became opposed to abortion. But he said he had ‘not at all approached this work as an apologist.’"
Is it wrong to think that Shields is justifying his own conversion, his own viewpoints?