How to talk politics with religious voters

Secular liberals still don't understand how to connect with religious voters, but a new pair of books could help them learn.
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Secular liberals still don't understand how to connect with religious voters, but a new pair of books could help them learn.

How can secular liberals understand and be understood by fellow citizens and voters who see the world through a religious or faith framework?

This question rears its head even further in a year of presidential elections. How can political groups and activists of a more secular bent get, and get through to, voters whose perspective is shaped by faith?

A generation ago the famed sociologist, Peter Berger (himself a Christian of the Lutheran variety), highlighted the challenge when he observed that, “If India is the most religious nation on earth and Sweden the least, then America tends to be a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” While Berger’s observation might not stand the test of deep analysis, he makes a good point. Faith-formed outlooks and values continue to be very much a part of the American scene and culture.

It is a point of particular relevance to those who inhabit the secular and liberal bubble that Seattle so often seems to be. One may agree with this underlying perspective on many of the issues, as I do, and still wish that some secular liberals were a bit less inclined to intemperate judgment of the religious.

Several recent attempts have been made to help the secular understand the religious, particularly in order to speak to them in upcoming elections and possibly get their votes.

“It’s election season, and once again Democrats are flummoxed by evangelical voters,” began T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, in a recent New York Times piece

Dems are puzzled that religious conservatives vote against their own economic self-interest — what kind of insanity is this, voting against economic self-interest — (a case made in Thomas Franks book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Captured the Heart of America).

Luhrmann has spent the last ten years practicing his anthropological skills among the tribe known as “Evangelicals.” Now he has returned from this jungle to report. 

“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.”

Luhrmann suggests that when secular liberals vote, they do so with a desire to change social conditions and thus improve outcomes for people.

Evangelicals on the other hand, according to Luhrmann, think more about, “What kind of person they are trying to become — what humans could and should be . . . From this perspective the problem with government is that it steps in when people fall short.” It may support weak character. 

Among ethicists, there’s actually a name for these different perspectives. The emphasis on social conditions is “issue” (or “decisional”) ethics, which focuses more on thinking about social policies and issues. But the other framework, the one Luhrmann says moves religious voters, is called “character” ethics. It is concerned with matters of character and personal virtue. One focuses on nature or society, the other on the nature of the person.

One would hope that this is not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and; that is, we ought to care about both social conditions and personal character. But Luhrmann’s point is that “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.”

University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, also seeks to help the secular understand the religious perspective in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt’s research and argument outline five foundational moral attributes: caring for others, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and recognition of sacred things. Both tribes — the secular and the religious — get the first two, caring for others and fairness. But the religious tend to place a higher value, according to Haidt’s research, on the last three — loyalty, respect for authority, and recognition of sacred things. He suggests that secular liberals will need to understand how and why these foundational moral principals matter to the religious if they hope to gain their attention and votes.

Too often, Luhrmann argues, liberals write off the deeply religious as a homogenous and unintelligent group. “Evangelicals are smarter and more varied than most secular liberals realize,” Luhrmann reports. “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.”

Luhrmann’s observation about smarts and diversity square with my own experience in the evangelical world. While my own tribe is officially “mainline and progressive Christian,” occasional teaching stints in evangelical churches and colleges, as well as friendships, confirm Luhrmann’s portrait.

Years of writing about faith and religion for Seattle outlets (The Post-Intelligencer and now Crosscut) have accustomed me to the often harsh anti-religious sentiments of many of my fellow Seattlites. But perhaps we ought to practice a bit more of the tolerance and interest in the “Other” that we often preach?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.