How we pray

Close-up of man's profile keeping his eyes closed in enjoyment


Most have long recognized that political liberals and conservatives have different outlooks on life. More precisely, research indicates that liberals tend to emphasize provision and conservatives tend to emphasize protection. Naturally, psychologists Kathrin Hanek (University of Michigan), Bradley Olson (National Louis University), and Dan McAdams (Northwestern University) wanted to see if these preferences would emerge in prayer. Much to their surprise, they found that while liberals’ prayers did in fact stress provision more than conservatives’, the prayers of both liberals and conservatives laid equal emphasis on protection.

The authors knew of the difficulties of quantifying something as complex as prayer and undertook their study carefully. First, they had to find participants who not only would be likely to pray but also would have awareness of their political identity. As such, they would only accept participants who actively involved themselves in a congregation and who voted in the 2004 presidential election. With these criteria in place, they found 128 people to partake in their study.

For their next step, the authors had to assess accurately their participants’ political stance. They did so by employing two measures: a self-rated political survey and the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) Scale. The self-rated survey simply asks participants to self-identify as liberal or conservative on a continuum ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” The RWA more subtly tries to detect conservative political and social attitudes in its participants. Knowing that much research has already been conducted showing that self-survey reports are accurate, the authors felt their results would be doubly-sure for having included the RWA.

Finally, the authors had to measure prayer. This was no easy task. They decided to interview every participant one-on-one for about two hours. The interview asked participants for their life narrative, religious life, and positions on political issues. Most of the unique information gathered from these interviews concerned prayer life, which was not sought in any other way. A typical interview question concerning prayer would be:

Many Christians pray. Do you ever pray? [If participant says “no,” ask why. Then proceed to next question.] When and under what circumstances do you pray? If it is okay with you, I would like you to give me an example of a prayer you might offer to God. Tell me what you might “say” to God. Please narrate the prayer to me. Why might you offer that particular prayer to God? [If the participant is not comfortable doing this, then ask him or her simply to tell you what he or she prays about.]

Of course, interviewing people about prayer only completes half of the task: the other half requires quantifying this data. The authors decided to read through all of the interview transcripts concerning prayer, identify provision and protection themes, and rate the strength of the provision or protection theme on a scale of 0-2. 0 would indicate no evidence, 1 some evidence, and 2 strong evidence (a full, explicit elaboration). For the sake of clarity, the authors defined “protection” as “any appeal in the prayer to God or some higher power to protect the participant or others from danger, harm, attack, sickness, injury, conflict, or other threats to the well-being of people…. The key is that the participant asks God to assure safety in response to danger.” In a similar fashion they defined “provision” as “any appeal in the prayer to God or some other higher power to provide resources for people, to nurture people in some way, and/or to meet human needs…. The basic idea behind provision is that God provides something that fills a gap in a person’s life.”

Armed with quantified prayer data, the authors could begin analyzing this data. They found, contrary to their expectations, that prayer requests for protection came equally from conservatives and liberals. Neither the self-assessed political survey nor the RWA played statistically significant roles in prayers for protection. As for provision, political liberals placed more emphasis on provision in their prayers than conservatives according to both the self-assessed political survey and the RWA. Both liberals and conservatives pray for protection, but liberals much more so than conservatives ask God to fulfill their needs and the needs of others.

Why would liberals ask for protection to the same extent as conservatives when typically liberals tend to de-emphasize protection? The authors hypothesize that protection from danger may be so basic that it trumps more abstract ideologies. Danger, even in the modern world, lurks everywhere and threatens everyone, and so believers from both ends of the political spectrum ask God for protection. Of course, the authors also freely admit that their method may not have been sensitive enough to pick-up on all of the nuances of liberals’ petitions for protection.

Additionally, based on further analysis of the prayer interviews, the authors found that conservatives tended to (a) emphasize praise and thanksgiving and (b) ask for guidance and forgiveness to a greater extent than liberals. In all cases, including the cases of provision and protection, the authors controlled for sex, race, and ethnicity.

Of course, given the difficulty of quantifying prayer, the authors acknowledge three limits to their study. First, interview data can never be fully captured in quantification. There remains much information that was omitted. Second, the authors did not conduct any follow-up studies, and so do not know if the participants’ prayer concerns reflected their normal prayer practices rather than concerns special to the day of the interview. Third, the authors only surveyed religiously and politically involved American Christians. The extent to which their findings apply to other religious believers remains unknown.

How people pray usually reveals their own needs and their concerns for others. While some may see such behavior as primitive, research has shown that regular prayer correlates with higher levels of well-being, both psychologically and physically. Liberals and conservatives enjoy these benefits equally. A salient difference, then, is content: how do liberals and conservatives pray? The differences between then certainly have not been exhausted in this study. Perhaps the safest bet, when in need of prayer, is befriend both a liberal and a conservative.

For more, see “Political Orientation and the Psychology of Christian Prayer: How Conservatives and Liberals Pray” in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

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