Why we vote that way: an anthropologist dissects faith and politics

Here’s an interesting take, from T.M. Luhrmann:

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.

Read the rest.


  1. Art ND'76 says:

    This guy writes, it seems to me, as an interested, somewhat sympathetic, somewhat opportunistic atheist. He may be a believer, but here he doesn’t write as one. Instead, he writes as an atheist attempting to explain Christian belief to other atheists, whose only belief may be in government social programs. He does not point out the big problem with with the rejection by many, even some “believers”, of the existence of objective truth. To these folks, to believe in a revealed objective truth is to be a bigot, but to believe in physical or behavioral “laws” discovered with scientific principal is okay.

    I suspect the biggest difference in mentality between the believer seeking that personal relationship with God and the atheist boils down to an issue of control. That is what science is all about for the atheist – it is a means of discovering the laws by which we humans can manipulate our surroundings to get what we want. From that point of view, using government to manipulate society is not a big leap. Both major U.S. political parties do this, they just vary in their methods.

    For the believer, control must be voluntarily given over to God. If God is all just, all knowing, and loves each of us more than we do ourselves – then it is only logical that we should seek out what it is God would have us do. After all, since God is infinite and we are not, would not God always know better than us what behavior leads to our lasting happiness? Even in those 2 preceding statements there is still much that needs clarification or they can be horrifically misinterpreted and misused. Thus, for this believer coercive government law should protect the innocent, but only as little as needed because otherwise government’s own actions cross over into immoral use of force, either preventing me from doing good by taking away my resources or attempting to force me to do evil with those resources (sometimes in the name of doing something “good”).

    I think many atheists misunderstand believers because they think believers must be seeking control of some sort, trying to “run their lives”. I only see that happening with believers when they see the innocent harmed or killed. To their credit, a number of atheists also only seek control to limit harm to others. The question is the difference in the definitions of “harm”, “good”, “care” and “compassion”.

  2. Deacon Norb says:


    I have read this article over several times — each time trying to read behind the lines and trying to understand the “voice” here. I have also read your comment with the same care. I would provide the following insight:

    –I have a very narrow view of who an “atheist” really is. An “atheist” is one who positively and unambiguously declares that “there is no God.” I agree; the notorious Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one that fits this definition. So was Josef Stalin and several — but not necessarily all — of his historical cohorts. (BTW: I would argue that Mikhail Gorbachev did not fit that definition at all because he was a “closet Christian” — baptized by a grandmother as an infant. You also notice that Gorbachev’s attitude toward humanity was diametrically opposite to Stalin’s.)

    –I have met a lot of folks who have claimed that they are “atheists” but I wonder whether that is more a trendy/ attention getting self-identifier they use because it attracts attention. Once I talk to various self-identified “atheists”; examine their beliefs; explain just exactly what the difference between an “atheist” and an “agnostic” really is; then those folks that I do meet and talk to readily accept that — in my frame of reference — they are really “agnostics.” I never got the chance to examine Christopher Hitchens — the recently deceased author/essayist — but I also have to wonder whether his claim to be an “atheist” was really a trendy/ attention getting self identifier.

    –A long time family friend is a Polish Monsignor. He recently completed his doctorate on the History of Philosophy and the topic of his dissertation was a prominent Polish Communist philosopher. After “Fr. P.” described to me his research, I asked the pertinent question. Was the subject of his dissertation a genuine and committed atheist or was he a genuine and committed agnostic whose life in a Communistic environment required him to self identify as an “atheist.” “Fr. P.” confessed that my understanding was the correct one.

    Back to your analysis of the author of this original article. T. M. Luhrmann.

    I really do not see the “atheism” that you do. I do see a highly observant agnostic — a skeptic, if you will — who tries to be objective about his sociological and political observations because that’s how you survive in academia.

    We can argue whether any scholar is genuinely objective because our own human existence adds flavor to our studies — but I do see him playing by the rules here. AND I do think he has brought some very valid insights to the table that I have not seen before — and that is also playing by the rules.

  3. Art ND'76 says:

    Deacon Norb: Likely I should have used atheist/agnostic instead of merely atheist. I also look at the categories of atheist, agnostic, or believer as involving more than merely intellectual assent. Similar to your narrow view of an atheist, in my mind a believer is a more narrow category in that the belief has a deep sub-conscious and conscious role in the believer’s actions. There are a lot of people in various ranges of functional atheism/agnosticism – their actions are not nearly so affected by their beliefs as by the society around them. They more or less live as if “there is no God.” The group being commented on are distinguished by attempting to orient their lives around their belief, thus my overly simplistic calling this group believers and lumping everybody else as atheists, which is not how the term atheist is normally used.

  4. Fiergenholt says:

    I guess that my question here — based upon Luhrmann’s research — is just how supportive of the presumptive Republican candidate — Mitt Romney — will Santorum’s followers be?

    If I read it correctly, the very philosophical underpinnings for why they voted for Santorum in the first place have vanished.

    I’m also wondering whether the staunch followers of Governor Perry, Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul will vote at all since they are generally unimpressed with both candidates ?

  5. Art ND'76 says:


    I am sure that the level of support for Mitt Romney will vary widely among individuals in the group Luhrmann researched. Does he have any survey or polling data from that group that may give any hints?

    This believer will vote for Romney not so much because he has impressed me, but because Obama has. Obama and many in the Democrat party consider abortion a non-negotiable and so do I, but I oppose it. Obama in particular has impressed me with how vigorously supportive he is of that. Romney may only be lukewarm in his opposition to abortion, but that is way better than the alternative.

    Why do I say that? Am I merely another “narrow minded”, “single interest” voter? As a Christian who seeks to put his God in charge, I carefully researched how it is I could tell the difference between God’s “voice” speaking to me versus the “not God’s voice.” I started with a thoughtful reading of the Bible from cover to cover – several times to be sure over several years. That convinced me that the Catholic church I was brought up in and had drifted from was a reliable interpreter of that Bible, especially after listening to other protestant interpretations. Your personal conclusions may vary from that. That said, I am still skeptical of the interpretations of individual priests and even bishops, which were the reasons I drifted in the first place. I trust the Pope and those bishops in agreement with him. Since the Catechism of the Catholic Church is issued only with the approval of the Pope, I consider that trustworthy.

    After a careful reading of the Bible and the Catholic Catechism, I see that there are some actions that can be justified as a consequence of defending one’s self or others, such as capital punishment – though this should be exceedingly rare. Then there are other actions that can never be justified – they are intrinsically evil, such as abortion, the taking of an innocent life that intends harm to no one. Spare me the talk about the rare dilemma’s, I am sure we don’t have 4000 “rare dilemma” abortions a day in the U.S, but we do have around 4000 abortions a day. Or to put it another way, on the order of the total Iraq war deaths every day.

    I wonder whether Romney will merely continue the Republican anti-abortion rhetoric while no action is taken, but then again I have no doubt at all what Obama will do. As for other issues, I wonder whether Romney will seriously scale back government in time to avoid a monetary collapse but I have no doubt what Obama will do if given the chance. I wonder how successful Romney will be at getting the economy going for all of us, but I have no doubt what Obama will do if given the chance.

  6. Fiergenholt says:


    You have been very articulate in placing “abortion” as the single most important issue in this election.

    Something else to consider. CNN is posing an unscientific voting option for folks who want to identify issues. Here is the link:


    When I checked the voting profile summary (just before I posted this comment), I found that “Women’s Issues” — which presumably includes a “pro-choice” position on abortion, is not at all listed in the top ten.

    Knowing what I know about the common sensibility of the American voting public, I am predicting that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING will happen to change society’s attitude toward abortion regardless who wins on the national level. There will not be any more abortions nor less abortions based solely on who is holding the presidential office. Two reasons: (1) It has become a state-level issue and the voters in the many states have already made their voices heard; and (2) The number of abortions in our country does not follow politics but does follow economics. When the economy dives, the raw number of abortions goes up; when the economy recovers, the raw numbers of abortions declines.

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