May 2012, Week 1


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Mon, 7 May 2012 22:10:02 -0400
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Do as I Do, Not as I Say 


Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election
May 6, 2012

Stanford, Calif.

N.Y.Times Blogs


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.

That's because evangelicals and secular liberals (the
most puzzled Democrats) think about life -- and
therefore politics -- in such utterly different ways.

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. Anna Parini

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

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

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. 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, a professor of anthropology at
Stanford, is the author of "When God Talks Back:
Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship
With God."

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company Privacy
Policy NYTimes.com 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018


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