Required Reading: Shields and the Civility of the New Right

Another reason to spend time at Mere Orthodoxy: Matthew Lee Anderson today shares his interview with Jon Shields.  Shields is the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.  Even if you don’t have time to spend with the whole book, it is worth taking a few minutes to read this interview. 

Shields elaborates on the thesis of his book, viz., that the incivility of the Christian Right has been overplayed by journalists looking for a good story.  Using interviews and a participant-observer method, Shields found that such headline-grabbing fury did not fairly represent the movement.  As Shields notes in this interview,

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.

Of course, such distortion takes place all over the political and theological spectrum.  In my research into the history of conservative educational activism, I find that conservative writers and pundits also relied on the tactic of the hyperbolic example.  For example, the early Soviet-friendly statements of John Dewey or George Counts are often used by conservatives to demonstrate that all of progressive education is nothing but a communist plot. 

It seems to return us to the central dilemma of America’s ballyhooed culture wars.  Even though most people–even people politically, culturally, and theologically committed on issues such as abortion or gay rights–prefer to act in civil, “small-d” democratic ways, the fevered punditry of voices on each side dominate the headlines.  One religion-bashing quip by Richard Dawkins, or one minority-bashing pronouncement by Glenn Beck, does more to define the two sides than thousands of people working quietly and politely to promote their vision of America.


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