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.

Can democracy and religious fundamentalism co-exist?

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.

“When we speak in the public square...we can be faithful to Christ while using the language of the public square,” wrote one activist in 1995. “It would be insensitive as well as ineffective, for example, for Christians to exhort their Jewish, Muslim, or agnostic neighbors in terms of what Jesus would want us to do.”

So anti-pornography organizers indict the industry’s degradation of women; opponents of gay marriage say it harms children; campaigners against gambling stress its addictive qualities, and anti-abortion activists argue that the procedure harms mothers as well as the unborn.

All of these claims are eminently contestable, of course, and that’s exactly Shields’ point. You can’t argue with God – or against Him – but you can argue with facts, evidence, and logic. By and large, that’s what the Christian Right does. In a democracy, the only way to score points is to move your game into a secular playing field.

Reason wins where violence alienates

To be sure, some Christians have refused to play along. As periodic attacks on abortion clinics and providers remind us, there are people on the Christian Right who simply will not abide by democratic norms and practices. But they are the exceptions, as widely vilified inside the movement as they are outside of it.

Consider the fate of Operation Rescue, which blocked abortion clinics around the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Its argument was explicitly religious – “The Ten Commandments are not on the auction block,” Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry thundered – and it alienated most members of the Christian Right.

“Terry helps the proabortion cause,” wrote one Christian activist, “when he advocates what sounds like theocracy to humanistic and otherwise pluralist ears.” The only true route to political victory, he added, was a tempering of religious rhetoric.

And that brings us back to the Middle East. Will conservative Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood follow the example of our own right-wing Christians, accommodating democratic practice in order to press their case? Or will they resort to violence and terrorism, like the zealot who murdered Kansas abortion provider George Tiller in 2009?

Nobody knows. Thanks to many decades of authoritarian rule, these nations lack democratic institutions like an independent judiciary and a free press. It’s hard to tell how these institutions will develop, and how different citizens – including religious fundamentalists – will react to them.

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But as events unfold, Americans might pause to reconsider our own recent history of fundamentalism and politics. Let’s lay to rest the unfair caricature of the Christian Right, which has generally played by the rules of democracy. And let’s hope that the Middle East’s own religious conservatives will do the same.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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