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Why the Islamic Right should act like the Christian Right

Americans fear the impact Islamic fundamentalists will have on changes in the Middle East. But they need look no further than their own Christian Right for an example of religious conservatives participating in democracy – with civic persuasion, not violence.

By / February 17, 2011



New York

Can democracy and religious fundamentalism co-exist?

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That’s the question of the moment in the Middle East. In Egypt, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has raised Western fears of an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. Similar worries surround protest movements in Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria: Would the fall of secular dictatorships spell the rise of religious ones?

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Skeptics point to Gaza and Iran, where popular uprisings empowered decidedly undemocratic regimes. Optimists invoke Turkey and Indonesia, where religious parties have competed peacefully in elections and have abided by the rule of law.

But Americans don’t have to look to the Middle East to see how fundamentalism can mesh with democracy. Instead, we need only look in the mirror. Over the past four decades, fundamentalist Christians have surged into United States politics. And, in the process, they have enriched – not constricted – our democracy.

Religious right more liberal than liberals

Anyone who thinks otherwise should read Jon Shields’ terrific 2009 book, “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.” A political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, Mr. Shields spent several years observing anti-abortion activists at rallies, protests, and conventions.

What he found might surprise American liberals. When orthodox Christians enter the public arena, they demonstrate all the virtues of, well, classical liberalism: reason, tolerance, and mutual respect. In this sense, they are often more liberal than their opponents on the Left.

I can already hear you scoffing. These are the same people who want to ban abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. What’s liberal about that?

The answer lies in their tactics, which are largely secular. If your opponents don’t share your religious premises, the Christian Right has realized, you won’t persuade them by invoking yet more religion. Instead, you’ll have to move the discussion onto a worldly plane.

That’s why one of the leading anti-abortion organizations is called “Stand to Reason.” And it’s also why Christian Right political operatives constantly implore their followers to avoid explicitly Christian appeals.

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