Monday, May 7, 2012

Losing to Religion

I don't believe in God, but I don't condemn anyone else who does. Most of my friends in the US are believers, and a fair few who live there are not. As surprising as it might seem to many, I was educated in a Virginia public high school where quite a few of the teachers who taught me were atheists - one was even a Republican.

I realise that there is a vocal section of the Democratic big tent where the loudest atheists reside, and that most of their noise is directed towards Christians of the evangelical variety who tend to vote "red" with a capital "R" which stands for "Republican."

T M Luhrmann, a sociologist, writing in today's New York Times has been studying evangelical Christians extensively and thinks that the Democratic party would do well to approach this demographic a different way - a way, quite honestly, which may garner some positive results.

The most important thing that secular liberals have to do is appreciate that they way they approach voting is different to they way it's approached by evangelicals.

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.

Too many liberals think of evangelical Christians as uneducated, backwoods hillbillies who speak in tongues to snakes and sleep with siblings. That couldn't be further from the truth. My best friend from college has been an evangelical (and a Democrat) for over thirty years. She prays for me regularly. She has two masters' degrees in Recreational Therapy and Social Work. If that's not proof enough for you, think of Francis Collins, who heads the NIH and who hails from my neck of the hillbilly woods.

But one thing Lurhmann states which I have said for years, especially with regard to politically ministering to the rural South and Midwest.

You simply have to learn to speak their language, to couch policies in terms which they understand and to which they will respond.

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.

Luhrmann reports that in 2008 25% of white evangelicals voted for President Obama. Well, at least someone in the Democratic party knows how to speak with these people.

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