Why Women Vote for Rick Santorum

As I was reading Hemant’s post linking to Rachel Held Evansblog, I couldn’t help but feel struck by the similarities in my own experience of backing slowly away from organized religion over the past few years. I, too, felt keenly aware of the exclusivity of the club and the fickle nature of its champions; however, my criticisms of the church eventually led me to reject its foundational beliefs and not just its physical manifestation.

When I look back on my seemingly slow and drudging deconversion from Christianity, one of the most important, pivotal elements in my ability to continue questioning faith and religion was that I wasn’t deeply embedded in church culture. At that point in my life, I had already become agitated with the church I had been raised in, which led to more frustration when I could not find a church that felt “safe” enough to ask my questions. In college, my social circles consisted of my classmates, coworkers from part-time jobs, participants in extra-curricular activities, so on and so forth… but no one from a Bible study. Because I didn’t have a church structure I was attached to, it was much easier to serve Christianity the divorce papers.

However, most of my church-going peers wouldn’t have had that luxury of such freedom. Christianity is a very caring institution (or smothering, if that’s how you feel about being on the receiving end of that care) -– in the sense that it provides community throughout a person’s life. From cradle to grave, there are Nice People who are willing to tell you how much you need Jesus in your life and the fellowship of other believers at every opportunity. Children’s programs feed into youth programs that feed into college groups that urge you to “find a church of your own” upon graduating, settling down, and entering the real world. Once you’ve “found” your church, you’re there! Set for life!

Of course, it’s not a bad thing that churches exist and function as social networks, in and of itself. I think where Rachel and I agree would be that the problem with big “C” church is that it requires obedience to their social requirements at the exclusion of all other possibilities. In many strains of Christianity, the relationship that believers have to non-believers must be fundamentally different. In the church I grew up in, we were taught that believers must be “in the world but not of the world,” derived from Romans 12:2 (NIV):

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

There are a variety of interpretations of this passage, but the important takeaway is that this popular concept establishes two things in Christian culture: a feeling of separation or distinction from mainstream society, and an important reward for achieving that distinction. The way that churches incorporate this idea into their dogma spans the spectrum to isolated faith communities like the Amish (who set themselves geographically apart) to the liberal Christian idea that salvation “renews” your mind or heart (where the distinction lies in the “condition of the heart” rather than external displays). The point, regardless, is that the concept requires a belief that there is something special about Christianity, both as an identity and as a lifestyle.

We hear stories all of the time of the immense pain and suffering that people go through when they voice disagreement with their church or with Christianity at large, but I would ask that you consider the powerful force at work on the other side: the individuals who stay in the Church. For all its power to hurt individuals on the outside, how much can it benefit those on the inside?

I’ve been musing about this concept while watching Rick Santorum’s ascendance in the GOP race (and Romney’s quick uptick in hardline, right-wing rhetoric), especially with the increased emphasis on moral issues like abortion, contraception, and women’s health care. Why, oh why, I lamented, were women voting for this guy? Can’t they see that his decisions would make the U.S. a worse place for women to live?

In short: no, they can’t.

A commenter on John Cassidy’s blog at the New Yorker had this to say (emphasis mine):

About women supporting Santorum: I too find this baffling, and can only attribute it to some form of Stockholm Syndrome. As someone who grew up among born-again and evangelical Christians in Appalachia, I would hypothesize that women who have accommodated themselves to living an evangelical lifestyle have nothing to gain from questioning the premises of Christian patriarchy. Their lives are more comfortable, less fraught with domestic conflict, if they simply decide to be happy and make the most of their assigned roles. Although to a feminist the trajectory of their lives seems constrained, on a day-to-day basis evangelical women feel productive and empowered by playing a dynamic role in their churches and schools, from which they derive a potent sense of community. Nor are they necessarily barred from having a job. They have avenues for self-expression such as crafts, baking, or book clubs. (If your first reaction is to disdain these, then unless you’re a professional artist you probably have too high an opinion of your own creative outlets.) In fact, when I recall the women I grew up under, they didn’t think men were superior at all; they took the patronizing attitude that men were to be indulged in their masculine delusions. It would be elitist/snobby/condescending/wrong to view such women as passive or merely subservient. How many of us want to challenge the social constructs within which we have created active lives that are reckoned as meaningful? At any rate, this is my best effort to make sense of the women’s vote, which is otherwise unfathomable and preposterous to me.

—CWolfe

This, to me, is where things get really interesting. Women are voting for Santorum because he supports ideologies that protect their interests, even though it appears, on the outside, to work against them. Protecting and encouraging “Biblical” marriage and family life secures freedoms for women who have found legitimately fulfilling and rewarding niches within their faith communities. As much as Rachel and I have found to criticize about religion, these women have not; they have invested time, energy, and money into a faith that rewards them.

While I can’t understand how it’s possible to refuse to contend with some of the intellectual difficulties in the doctrine of Christianity, I can certainly understand the reluctance to give up that culture. In many cases, churches provide friendships, networking opportunities, creative outlets, emergency relief, moral guidelines, and structured authority that no one place has outside of it. The fact that Christianity tends to bundle their services makes it very easy for them to also monopolize those services.

When an individual’s entire identity, relationships, social activities, and beliefs center around a single place, it’s much harder to leave, and you have much more at stake if you do.

As I and other bloggers and writers around the web have continued to cast a watchful gaze at Mark Driscoll‘s Mars Hill Church, I’ve noticed a recurring theme that commenters have raised: that church attendees are there by choice, that their presence is completely voluntary.

Well, yes, you’re right, technically. If you subtract the social pressure exerted on them to continue attending church where they have the opportunity to socialize with their friends and authority figures that will constantly reinforce their beliefs and reward them for believing.

When Hemant talked about religion having the market cornered on empathy, I think he is on to something. It’s not that this criticism is limited only to atheists, nor do I think that all atheists are guilty of it, but it’s a somewhat troubling trend that illustrates a broader undercurrent in our movement: to discredit believers for their gullible natures, or their stupidity, or for their lack of commitment to the truth. This, I think, is a trend that needs to stop, as it gives atheists the same holier-than-thou distinction that we object to in Christian culture, and it falsely takes the teeth from the most powerful weapons that Christianity exercises: peer pressure and isolation from dissent.

When we fail or refuse to acknowledge the power that these elements have, we misunderstand the breadth and scope of the church, and we fail to empathize with the reasons that people sit through misogynistic sermons or vote for Rick Santorum. Instead of saying “I understand,” some of us are saying “you’re stupid”.

There are lots of people in this world and there are a lot of people who do mind-boggling amounts of stupid things every day (myself enthusiastically included). If we want to win the debate against religion, I think we owe it to ourselves and to the future of the atheist movement that we do it cleanly, thoroughly, with a commitment to the facts and a rejection of the need to stereotype others falsely.

About amanda

Amanda is a pie-baking, music-listening, lindy-hopping, yoga-doing, power-tool-wielding feminist, atheist, and wife. She divides her time equally between cooking delicious things, trying to make nice with the house cat, and ranting about religion.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    It sound like the people in those church cultures are in a “it has to get worse before it gets better” position. They are surrounded by a kind of hill or wall, unable to see a reason to even approach it. Ideally, someone in this position would consciously and methodically reason their way out of it. Some discomfort, social conflict, or confrontation is inevitable in this approach (Hence the wall.)

    The only way for us skeptics to try to smooth out that path is to relax the same reason and logical standards that we hold ourselves to. You cannot learn or study skeptically while avoiding all conflict. “Reason” without competing theories is not. It isn’t just “You’re stupid” that sends the message “You’re stupid.” “You need to learn X” also sends that message. Even if true, that message creates discomfort and conflict

    I think this is what you are calling for: more of the soft-sell approach that evangelists seem to have mastered. So, to extend the optimization-curve metaphor: We shouldn’t worry about making the transition to skepticism conflict-free. We should try to create an intermediate area where those entrenched in Church culture can comfortable move to.

    I think you’re right about this. If avoiding and delaying confrontation in order to make people more
    comfortable helps them to leave church culture, then we should try to do so.
    I also think it is important to distinguish between the goal of trying to make this culture transition easier, and maintain real skeptical dialogue within our community.

  • Anonymous

    Very well written perspective on woman and support for Santorum.  On the outside, it really does look like a “WTF are they thinking?” but then you nailed it with the comment about how their lives revolve around a religion and how that would be to give it up and change.  I see it all about not having to worry about change, which in some ways, is at the crux of the controlling basis on all organized religion.

    • http://twitter.com/HeadyHeathen Voracious Reader

      Spot on. I am glad to have read this article on Friendly Atheist. It gives me much more insight into the psyche of some people.

  • Sue Blue

    I think the analogy to the Stockholm Syndrome is valid in many cases; I liken it to the battered woman syndrome as well.  Many of these women, especially in the South or in Appalachia, lack the resources to leave their church, even if they want to.  Leaving the church is so fraught with difficulty both physically, financially, and socially that it is easier and safer to just buckle under, grit your teeth and accept that this is the way life is.  If you can convince yourself that your suffering and subservient role is somehow holy or special, then you can live with the daily grind of misogyny.  Many of these women are not stupid, any more than women who stay with their abusers are stupid.  They may be brainwashed, browbeaten, or simply feel more secure with a known evil than the far scarier possible evil of the wider world.  This is why I feel it is so important to confront misogynist legislation, make access to secular education a priority, and make avenues of escape from religion known and available everywhere.  

    As far as conservative women in positions of power who seem to legislate against their own interests, I think that they, too, are working to maintain a status quo that they find less threatening because of its long tradition and familiarity; they have found a way to navigate around the patriarchal power structure that allows them a sense of accomplishment and an outlet for their talent and intelligence without threatening this status quo.  They don’t see themselves as oppressing their sisters because they themselves don’t feel oppressed – they have jobs, money, and power – and so could their sisters if they worked hard while toeing the patriarchal line.

  • http://profiles.google.com/goblinbabies Sara Waldecker

    I totally agree with this analysis. I like staying at home and raising my daughter, being married, baking, gardening, cleaning, entertaining and crafting. I know it’s not for all women, and I’m wholly tolerant of other lifestyles. Still, I’m what many would call living a ‘conservative lifestyle’. I’m also a lifelong atheist. If I wasn’t a vocal atheist, people would probably think that I was devoutly religious based on lifestyle. I personally really wish that there was a large local group of liberal atheists near me so that my family and I could get together with other atheists and have the community experience without the B.S. I’m not saying that because I miss church, either; I was born and raised religion free. I can count on my hands the times I’ve visited a church.

    • Demonhype

       That’s what irritates me about those particular women.  It’s not women who like to stay at home, take care of children, bake, etc, but when some of those women want to make sure it’s the only choice available for others, as if they think that if all women are forced into that position then there won’t be any women having  success at non-homemaking sorts of things and therefore won’t be anything to make them feel insecure in their choice.

      I don’t think all of them are insecure, and there are many women (like you) who made a choice they are happy and secure with and have no inferiority complex or resentment when they see or hear about some successful career girl, but I often do think the ones who insist their choice be the only choice for their sex are insecure and have an inferiority complex.  Maybe some of them even wanted to do other things but felt pushed into the “traditional” role, either by society or by an oppressive religious culture they were born into, and are now resentful of women who broke that mold rather than buckling under the patriarchy and just toughing it out in the only role allowed to them.  Kind of like some homophobes in that same culture who, after years of denigrating gays and insisting it’s a “choice”, are later discovered to be gay and were likely resentful of the gay people who broke that “suppress your deviance, marry a woman you have no passion for, and have kids with her like a Godly man” mold and actually got to go out, be themselves, and have fun.  And they want those other women or gay people or whatever to be punished for their crime of self-honesty, or to be forced by law into their “proper” roles (or in the case of gays, into the closet or else jail and/or execution), you know, for their own good.  Or society’s good.  Whatever.

      Not sure if all that is clear.  I tried.  :)

      Understand again, I’m not accusing all women who choose traditional roles of insecurity or inferiority complexes or resentment at having been forced into a role they wouldn’t have otherwise chosen–I just feel that may be a motivation of the women who do exhibit a resentment or hatred of women who don’t choose traditional roles, and especially those who favor legislation that will force all other women into those roles.

      • Anonymous

        I agree, but as a former Christian I must point this out:  Many people actually believe the things they claim to believe…  not just going with the flow and holding a grudge…  not just using it as rhetoric to justify their own condition.  They literally believe that there is an actual supernatural being who must be obeyed and that this being commands them (and EVERYONE ELSE) to live this lifestyle.  I think we atheists can let our analyses drift very far away from that notion sometimes, because the conclusions and thought processes that result from assuming the existence of a supernatural entity do not factor into our reasoning.  We always have to keep in mind that many religious people actually unquestioningly believe the teachings of their religions to be true.

        • http://profiles.google.com/goblinbabies Sara Waldecker

          I think that AnalogousGumdropDecoder got it right; some of these women don’t like the lifestyle and are repressed by their husbands or family, some really want to get out and don’t know how. But a large number of them don’t want to leave or live a different lifestyle, even if they are unhappy with their role in life. The reason? They genuinely believe in a god and really think that they will only get their eternal reward, avoid damnation, etc. if they keep living that life. Remember that they don’t see life on Earth as being as precious as we see it, because it’s a short life on Earth for them, and a long eternity. So they suffer.

  • Selfification

    Yep…  I’ve heard this reasoning so many times, except in the context why I’m weird for not preferring an arranged marriage and all the social certainty and cultural solidarity that comes with it.  Women have told me that they’d prefer to get arranged married – because it would cause a longer lasting marriage.  They actually like that certainty, even at the expense of living with a person they didn’t like.

    Never underestimate the human ability to massively discount future misery in exchange for current stability/certainty or how important your current anchor is to your ability to reason about future values.

  • Anonymous

    You can understand and still think (and say) that something is stupid. It’s true that saying so won’t win everyone over, but it will win some people over. So when you say

    This, I think, is a trend that needs to stop

    you are condemning those people to their gullible Stockholm Syndrome lives.

    Why can’t you just accept that different methods and strategies (not to mention goals) are useful instead of trying to block everyone who doesn’t want to do things your way?

    • Anonymous

      If a Christian comes up to you and says that your atheism is stupid, do you consider it as a possibility or do you get defensive? And when I say “consider it as a possibility,” I mean that for every single time you’re told that it’s stupid, not just the first time, because believe me, the Christians have heard many times already that Christianity is stupid. This isn’t a new viewpoint to them. What makes you think that the 35th time they hear it will be any more effective than the 34th?

      • Anonymous

        I’ll do you one better. Atheists said loudly and aggressively that I was being stupid. And you know what happened? I felt a little defensive, sure. But my overwhelming feelings were embarrassment and curiosity. How was I being stupid, and how do I not be stupid anymore? I grew up priding myself on my intelligence and here I was allowing myself to fail the test of  intellectual integrity. Why would I want that failure to continue? Especially when the only price to pay to rid myself of it was a short moment of embarrassment.

        It’s our moral duty to call out religion for what it is: both stupid and harmful.

        So I would say to the people who say atheism is stupid: you think so, do you? Where’s your evidence? What can you possibly present that would counter all the physics, all the biology, all the cosmology, all the chemistry, all the geology, all the history, all the archaeology, all the morality that we’ve discovered since the Enlightenment? If you have it, bring it on. I’ll listen because I don’t want to be stupid, and if you have the goods, I want to change my mind.

  • Anonymous

    Think of it as natural selection in action. The women who marry during their fertile years to men in patriarchal religions, defer to their men’s authority and have more than their share of children, for example Mrs. Santorum and Mrs. Romney, pass along genes which predispose women to these behaviors in future generations. They win the demographic battle for the character of the human species. 

    By contrast, the women who chose voluntary sterility in the pursuit of feminist mirages, like Rebecca Watson and Sandra Fluke, become evolutionary dead ends.  

    In other words, men didn’t invent patriarchy out of the hardness of our hearts; that has it backwards. Instead patriarchy “invented” both men and women to behave in certain politically incorrect ways because it leads to reproductive success in a harsh, competitive world.

    And I don’t understand why some people who claim to base their world views on human evolution get all indignant when you point out the inconvenient facts. 

    • Anonymous

      You’re advocating some form of social Darwinism. That’s simply not how evolution or genetics work. Subservient behavior it not determined by genetics. It’s just conditioning. People act that way because that’s how they are raised

      • Anonymous

        “That’s simply not how evolution or genetics work.”

        Umm…not that I’m agreeing with the original premise…behaviour and disposition are most certainly affected by genetics and selection.

        This is essentially how animals become domesticated….  See Dmitri K. Belyaev  regarding domesticated silver foxes.

        • Anonymous

          Well in some animals maybe. But certainly not in humans. Not in such a short time frame. If you enslaved a bunch of humans for a couple thousand years and have them only breed with each other, then maybe they’ll become docile by nature

          • Demonhype

             Better yet, did they manage to make only the females obedient and docile?  In this case, aren’t we talking about a species including both sexes and not about gender roles in human society (humans having complex brains and thousands of years of complex social conditions and complex social and gender roles with all manner of meaningless ritual and superstition included that are not the same as the simple instinct of an animal–I haven’t heard of many animals whipping their females until they keep their heads low and just sweep out the burrow and bring the male his slippers, after all), and therefore might this be a little oversimplified and a little “apples to oranges” at the same time?

            That’s a good point though too, Stev84.  It’s a little absurd to apply a laboratory situation with real life in the field, which has all manner of variables to confuse the issue.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everything worked like those neat little diagrams and charts we see in the science textbooks?  But real life is quite a bit messier and less controlled.

    • Demonhype

       Don’t forget that most atheists came from religious households and religious cultures.  The advance of atheism isn’t dependent on women squeezing out as many kids as their ovaries can manage, and Christianity wasn’t spread by birthing as many Christians as possible but by converting as many captive populations as possible.  As for the women submitting thing, if women being submissive to men in the patriarchy is just “evolution” and is genetically imprinted in the human race now, then how the hell did the idea of women’s rights even happen, much less gain ground?  There have always been strong women and men with less aggressive natures (sometimes even submissive  natures), both of whom have been routinely disparaged by the patriarchy–I don’t see enforced patriarchy having stamped out these types, possibly because strong/weak leader/follower likely aren’t inherent characteristics of sex but characteristics that can manifest in anyone.   In fact, those who dream of enforcing those stereotypes on everyone else seem to be correlated with other beliefs and behaviors that stand to endanger all of humanity and the planet.

      Also, given the consistency of laws to suppress women throughout history, I
      doubt weak submission is an inherent female characteristic if such
      draconian laws were needed to force a woman under a man’s heel–if it’s
      inherent in female behavior, they wouldn’t need to have laws to
      explicitly suppress it, just like if homosexuality didn’t exist in
      ancient times there wouldn’t have been laws against it.  (My mom gave me
      that one once–that God was wise to tell us to kill gays because AIDS
      is a disease in a man’s butt and when the gays started doing eachother
      there we started getting AIDS.  She was apparently under the impression
      that homosexuality started in the sixties or seventies and was virtually
      unheard of prior to that!) .

      When there is (reliable, non-fundie creationist) evidence that weak submissiveness is a genetic trait inherent to females and not males, this argument will have some traction to argue with.  But until then–given that when patriarchal oppressions are removed from societies women turn out to be able to give as well as get, and some men turn out to not be as “aggressive” and “powerful leader-like” as they are “supposed” to be, I don’t believe a word of it.  It’s fairly obvious that gender roles have to be forced onto individuals, and left to their own devices both men and women make a multitude of choices that defy the usual evolutionary psych claims, because gender roles are a social fiction that have long been enforced by authoritarians–and will again, if the authoritarians have their way.  It will be hell on earth again if that happens, for a lot of people.

    • Anonymous

      I second Stev84–that’s not how evolution or genetics work. 

      Firstly, you’re describing  Lamarcian evolution-changes in the mother’s behaviors genetically changing their children’s own behavior.  But Lamarcian evolution is has been disproven.

      Second, there is not a strong, direct genetic link to social behavior.  There’s no gene to marry old or young, desire a big or small family, feminism or patriarchy.   These ideas are flexible even within a single individual’s lifetime–and genetic, macro-evolution takes a very, very long time. 

      Third, because you’re ignoring other successful reproductive strategies - like being able to invest more heavily in fewer children, or the reproductive benefits of investing in near-kin like nieces and nephews.  

      Last, just because it was reproductively successful in the past doesn’t mean it is it is morally correct or the best reproductive method.  People have argued that religion, war, slavery, and patriarchy have all been “evolved” because they were reproductively beneficial to your group ( if disastrous to another).   But that doesn’t mean that atheism, peace, freedom and equality are the anthesis of successful breeding/evolution.

       Maybe people aren’t so angry at you for naturalizing patriarchy as they are your sloppy science.

  • M. Eckermann

    A very well paced article with valid points and well-stated perspectives. Thanks for sharing!

  • :-)

    “In the world but not of the world” has been widely purloined by christians: in fact they are quoting Osho

  • great american satan

    What Ibis said.  Atheism can have its nice guys, and good luck y’all, but mockery has had its strengths and successes as well.  Dismiss us all you like, but we’re winning some people over.

    Another thing that’s annoying here is the effort to understand flawed thinking as if that will help you reach out to them, maybe meet them halfway, and all that good stuff.  The error of their ways is easy to see and simply stated:

    They are supporting a (wannabe) tyrant because he favors their community over others, and a short look at history clearly illustrates how that turns out for everyone involved.  It’s selfish ethnocentrist shit.  These women are acting like children and deserve to be condescended to about it.

    That crazy old hillbilly bigot who called Obama “an arab” at the McCain rally helped Obama win, because it showed swing voters who may have had lingering prejudices of their own just what that looks like to everyone else: laughably provincial.  Fucking stupid.  And nobody wants to feel stupid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/onanyes Ollie Nanyes

    Good post.  I was once a Catholic who “believed all of it”, went to the special Masses, CCD, etc.   Eventually (over years) I evolved into an atheist.

    So when I attended a Santorum rally (near Peoria, IL), it felt….like being back in Church.

    • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

       If you evolved into an atheist, why are there still Catholics? ;)

  • great american satan

    Why feed the troll?  Advanced Atheist is in all likelihood a christian and a PoS MRA, assuming he believes in anything.  To me trolling seems like such a bitter and twisted pastime, maybe he’s a nihilist.  Either way, not someone to take at their word or engage with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=741287222 Michael P. Mitchell

    Here is my position. I believe in equal rights for women. They deserve to be as productive as men, not be worthless trash as Rick Santorum believes women are. He only believes that all women should be taking care of kids and their husbands and be sex objects, nothing else. He believes that women should give birth like rabbits. If women cannot do any of those things, they are worthless garbage to him!

    What bothers me even more is that he COMPLAINS that his medical bills are too expensive and indirectly admits that he needs Obamacare, which he is totally against! Now, does that make sense? Complaining about medical bills being too expensive and accepting Obamacare while being against it?? To me, that is hypocrisy! I cannot understand why women would vote for him. It is like the Jews voting for Adolf Hitler!!


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