Do your political views affect how you pray?

On the brink of election season, it’s sometimes easy to imagine that liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. But does this mean that they also pray differently? Past research has shown that personality is directly linked with both political worldview and religiosity. This connection is examined more closely by new research on how liberals and conservatives pray. They differ, but not as we might expect.

Since political views are a piece of our personalities, it should come as no surprise that each political party has a general personality type. At risk of caricaturing each, research has described the conservative personality as emphasizing rules and order. Beneath this desire for order is a picture of people and the world as untrustworthy. To adopt Christian language, we’re talking about sin and the fallen world. This paradigm has been described as generally concerned with protection: the world is dangerous and we need protection.

Liberals, on the other hand, hold a worldview concerned with providing. If given the right resources, like education and health, then humans are good and trustworthy. Holding people in high esteem, the liberal personality is oriented towards providing the resources that nurture growth.

Understandably, these distinct worldviews shape what each party wants from the government. If the world is dangerous then the government’s main role is to protect us, sometimes from ourselves! If humans are generally trustworthy then the government’s job is to provide the resources we need to thrive. (Perhaps political debates would be more fruitful as philosophical discussions on human nature.)

Given these different views on the world, it’s not such a leap to think that each party would also pray differently. Indeed, past research has explored the link between religious and political worldviews. When asked what human life would be like without God, conservatives pictured “social chaos and unbridled impulse,” while liberals described an “empty world without texture, energy, or resources.” (McAdams & Albaugh 2008). These distinct personalities are like colored lenses that shade whatever we look at.  But do they also affect our behavior?

A team of psychologists led by Dan McAdams, an expert in personality studies, recently explored how prayer is affected by these distinct political worldviews. Given the different concerns of each party, it makes sense that they would pray in different ways. But how these differences manifested was not so predictable.

Their sample group consisted of middle-aged Christians from the Chicago area. All participants were active in both church and politics and there was relative diversity among gender and race. The study itself consisted of a two hour interview with each participant followed by a packet of self-report questionnaires. Both the interview style and the self-report measures had been previously validated as robust measures.

During the interview participants were asked a variety of questions about their prayers. These questions ranged from when they pray to descriptions of what they pray for and examples of how. The transcripts from these interviews were then coded to measure five themes: protection; provision; forgiveness; thanksgiving/praise; and guidance. Beyond protection and provision, these other themes were adapted from past studies describing five types of Christian prayer.

Contrary to expectation, the research found that liberals were just as likely as conservatives to pray for protection. Liberals, however, asked God to provide for them and others more often than conservatives. While prayers for protection were equally spread, conservatives ended up being more likely to pray for guidance, forgiveness and to give thanks.

Since past studies have emphasized protection as the orienting value for conservatives, these results come as something of a surprise. But McAdams and his colleagues note that the data still fits each party’s typical personality. The liberal worldview is humanistic: people are pretty swell and deserve to be able to grow. Just as they work for resources from the government, they are also more likely to seek provisions from God: “Please give us the resources we need, God, and we’ll take it from there.”

The conservative paradigm, on the other hand, has a lower opinion of humans, but a brighter view of the rules that keep us under control. Therefore, the emphasis in prayer on guidance and forgiveness while exalting God makes sense.

Some of the differences in style of prayer could be attributed to different denominations, a factor McAdams didn’t control for. But this would only delay the explanation, since denominations are probably just as determined by personality as political parties. So it would seem that the same traits that dictate our political preferences also affect how Christians pray and what they pray for.

These results are especially interesting given recent studies linking health with different types of prayer. Prayers of petition were generally shown to be detrimental, while prayers of gratitude had mostly positive effects. In McAdams’ study we see a more nuanced spectrum of what one might petition for and how prayers of thanksgiving might be framed. As is expected with these sorts of qualitative studies, subtle nuances can make a not-so-subtle difference.

Exploring these nuances will likely give a fuller picture of “healthy prayer.” Regardless of future exploration, this study further supports the connection between personality and religiosity. So, just as liberals and conservatives will vote for different policy, they will also pray for different worlds.

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