STANFORD, Calif. — 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 past 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.
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 Barack 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 University, is the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.