The christian right, public reason, and American democracy

Nathaniel Klemp, Stephen Macedo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


Over the last thirty years, the Christian Right has become an increasingly powerful voice in American democracy. From Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority to Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition to James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Christian Right organizations have mobilized conservative Christians into political action, largely though not exclusively on behalf of a conservative moral agenda. Throughout this period of heightened engagement, the rhetoric of Christian Right activists on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion has been couched in what we call a narrative of victimization. Religious citizens, it is claimed, have been unfairly silenced and marginalized by liberal elites on the courts, in the academy, and in Hollywood. Christian Right activists portray people of faith as an embattled minority- victims of a subtle form of religious persecution. This narrative has been echoed by academic critics of liberalism and deliberative democracy, who suggest that the primary threats to democracy come not from overzealous religious groups seeking to impose their sectarian agenda, but from the exclusionary ideals of democracy and public discourse espoused by liberal elites (Eberle 2002; Stout 2004; Young 1990). On this account-popular both in activist circles and the academy, and which is also explored by Rhys Williams's essay in this volume-norms of advocacy promoted by liberal elites have made the public realm hostile to religious persons and religious discourse (chapter 5). This narrative helps activists mobilize supporters while eliciting the sympathies of fellow citizens concerned about the alleged exclusion of Christians from the public square. We argue that such narratives of victimization obscure the complex interactions among Christian Right political organizations and democratic politics. Drawing on Nathaniel Klemp's interviews with Christian Right activists and critics, we describe the actual rhetorical strategies of the Christian Right, and find that some leaders of the Christian Right support and practice the ideals of public reason and democratic deliberation that are supposed to be the instruments of their marginalization.1 Our account is thus part critique and part defense of the rhetorical practices of Christian Right activists. The Christian Right's victim narrative should be greeted with skepticism. We cautiously applaud those leading Christian Right figures who defend liberal democratic ideals of public reason and public justification while speaking in the language of shared faith to fellow believers. Some argumentative strategies deployed by the Christian Right do, however, furnish some cause for concern. To defend this mixed assessment, we first examine what we call the Christian Right's two-tiered rhetoric. When speaking to internal audiences, Christian Right activists often frame their political grievances and ambitions around scripture and explicit appeals to faith. In James Dobson's newsletter to members of Focus on the Family, for instance, he argues that same-sex marriage is wrong because "God designed marriage between a man and a woman as the first system of interdependent relationships" (2003). This internal tier of rhetoric enables leaders to reinforce a sense of moral separation between conservative Christians and the broader public. When speaking to more pluralistic outside audiences, however, leaders of the Christian Right invoke a second tier of rhetoric. They recast their agenda in more widely accessible terms-in language that appeals to commonly shared public values and empirical evidence (Hardisty 1999; Herman 1997; Hertzke 1998; Klemp 2007; Moen 1992; Shields 2007). Rather than invoking the word of God or scripture, leaders like Dobson will publicly oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that it opens the door to polygamy and harms children. This second tier of public rhetoric enables activists to reach out to nonbelievers on common terms that all citizens, not just Christians, can accept. Several subsidiary aspects of the Christian Right's two-tiered rhetorical strategy are also worthy of attention. First, the Christian Right's public arguments are often couched in the language of social science. Second, the Christian Right selectively chooses issues that have the greatest likelihood of success. Finally, despite their reliance on public arguments and social scientific evidence when advocating policies in the public realm, Christian Right activists believe that their positions are also supported by religious "truths" or postulates of faith. For many, these grounds-which are not readily or straightforwardly subject to empirical verification or scientific refutation-seem to be the ultimate religious reasons for the positions they advocate. The Christian Right's two-tiered strategy and its various supporting elements might be interpreted as an inauthentic and manipulative attempt to conceal the Christian Right's true political ambitions. According to critics like Jean Hardisty, for instance, the deployment of two tiers of rhetoric represents a "stealth" effort, in which Christian Right activists in the public realm manipulate fellow citizens by "camouflaging" their "Christian agenda" (1999, 114). Some also suspect that reliance on social scientific evidence is insincere: That evidence plays no independent role for those on the Christian Right, but is only cited opportunistically- As a sort of cherry-picking-to bolster established dogmatic claims. Moreover, it might be charged that the Christian Right has hidden its real agenda and its real reasons by seeking to advance only those policies that have broad appeal, and then defending them in terms of public arguments even when religious reasons are held in the background. Democratic debate and deliberation are undermined when a group's real agenda is camouflaged, and when citizens and groups offer reasons with the intent to manipulate and distract others from the real reasons that are thought to establish the merits of the case. If figures on the Christian Right retain ultimate religious grounds for the laws they advocate, and exercise selectivity in devising a public agenda, does this render Christian Right advocacy duplicitous or otherwise problematic from a democratic standpoint?2 Attempts to discern real reasons or motivations, or hidden agendas, can be hazardous. Nevertheless, we argue in contrast to many critics of the Christian Right that the two-tiered rhetoric often seems to represent a sincere effort to engage fellow citizens on the basis of common reasons and shared standards for evidence. When particular groups with particular agendas enter the political arena, it is inevitable that they must consider which of their favored issues might permit the formation of a wider coalition and so have some promise of success. All interest groups face prudential political calculations when seeking to devise a platform that has a chance of succeeding, and securing the respect of others, in America's pluralist democracy. Similarly, when members of a particular group go outside the group to speak to a wider public in the language shared by that wider public, a two-tiered discourse will often be inevitable. On the face of it, there is nothing novel or insidious about this, as we explain. We argue that there is a danger of applying standards of assessment to Christian Right groups that are higher than those applied to other interest groups in democratic politics. We believe, in other words, that there is some evidence that prominent Christian Right leaders and organizations have embraced public rhetoric in public forums for their own prudential and principled reasons-to succeed in persuading others and winning political contests, but also to respect citizens of other faiths. The two-tiered rhetorical strategy thus offers grounds for applause as well as concern. Advocates for deliberative democracy and civic virtue can applaud the Christian Right for mobilizing citizens and injecting publicly accessible ethical values into a politics too often dominated by self-interested appeals. This facilitates rather than undermines public deliberation on the merits of proposed legislation. Yet there is also a risk that more extreme activists will use the rhetorical strategies we describe to propagate deeply flawed pseudoscientific claims while concealing their religious agenda from fellow citizens. We conclude that the Christian Right's narrative of victimization rings hollow, as does the companion complaint of some that the religious voice in our politics has been unfairly marginalized or silenced by liberal elites in the courts and elsewhere. The Christian Right's rhetorical strategy is better understood as an adaptation to the pluralist character of American democracy, in which all groups who wish to succeed must speak a language that appeals broadly to those outside the group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEvangelicals and Democracy in America
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages38
ISBN (Print)9780871540126
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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