May 6, 2012, 8:34 pmDo as I Do, Not as I SayBy T. M.
IT’S election season, and once again Democrats are flummoxed by evangelical
voters. They think that “those people” vote against their own
self-interest. They cannot believe that same-sex marriage matters so much
to so many people. They don’t get why Obamacare is controversial. To them,
evangelicals don’t make sense. [Yup! That's it! ]
That’s because evangelicals and secular liberals (the most puzzled
Democrats) think about life — and therefore politics — in such utterly
If you want to understand how evangelicals conceive of their political
life, you need to understand how they think about God. I am an
anthropologist, and for the last 10 years I have been doing research on
charismatic evangelical spirituality — the kind of Christianity in which
people expect to have a personal relationship with God. They talk to God,
and in some way or another, they expect that God will talk back. This is a
lot of people. In 2006, the Pew Forum reported that 23 percent of Americans
embraced this kind of “renewalist” Christianity and that 26 percent said
they had received a direct revelation from God.
What someone believes is important to these Christians, but what really
matters is becoming a better person. As I listened in church and
participated in prayer groups, I saw that when people prayed, they imagined
themselves in conversation with God. They do not, of course, think that God
is imaginary, but they think that humans need to use their imagination to
understand a God so much bigger and better than what they know from
ordinary life. They imagine God as wiser and kinder than any human they
know, and then they try to become the person they would be if they were
always aware of being in God’s presence, even when the kids fuss and the
train runs late.
This is tough to do. Christians understand that it is hard and so they
practice being with God in many different ways. They set themselves tasks —
ministering in jail, feeding the homeless, helping to set up the church on
Sunday morning — so that they can grow through the experience of service.
They care about the task, of course, but even more they care about becoming
a person of God through doing the task.
Some evangelicals think about this process as spiritual formation, some
talk about it as redemption, others as salvation. Whatever you call it, the
point is that the person is changing for the better and that the process is
long, slow and hard.
This completely changes the way someone thinks about politics.
When secular liberals vote, they think about the outcome of a political
choice. They think about consequences. Secular liberals want to create the
social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary
people behave, to have fewer bad outcomes.
When evangelicals vote, they think more immediately about what kind of
person they are trying to become — what humans could and should be, rather
than who they are. From this perspective, the problem with government is
that it steps in when people fall short. Rick Santorum won praise by saying
(as he did during the Values Voters Summit in 2010), “Go into the
neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue and what will you
find? Two things. You will find no families, no mothers and fathers living
together in marriage. And you will find government everywhere: police,
social service agencies. Why? Because without faith, family and virtue,
government takes over.” This perspective emphasizes developing individual
virtue from within — not changing social conditions from without.
If Democrats want to reach more evangelical voters, they should use a
political language that evangelicals can hear. They should talk about the
kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey
that any choice will take us on. They should talk about how we can grow in
compassion and care. They could talk about the way their policy
interventions will allow those who receive them to become better people and
how those of us who support them will better ourselves as we reach out in
love. They could describe health care reform as a response to suffering,
not as a solution to an economic problem.
To be sure, they won’t connect to every evangelical. But the good news for
secular liberals is that evangelicals are smarter and more varied than many
liberals realize.[This is wrong almost by definition!] I met doctors,
scientists and professors at the churches where I studied. They cared about
social justice. They cared about the poor. In the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, many of them got into their cars and drove to New Orleans. This is
a reachable population, and back in 2008, a quarter of white evangelicals
voted for Mr. Obama. Democrats could speak to evangelicals more effectively
if they talked about how we could develop our moral character together as
we work to rebuild our country.
*T. M. Luhrmann<http://www.stanford.edu/dept/anthropology/cgi-bin/web/?q=node/105>,
a professor of anthropology at Stanford, is the author of “When God Talks
Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.”*