Monday, May 23, 2005


Lakoff on theology and politics

A few months ago there was a great deal of chatter across the blogosphere about George Lakoff, who had everyone thinking about elephants when they weren't supposed to be. Lakoff's seductively simple argument was that political progressives simply need to do a better job "framing" policy issues in a way that plays to the strength of progressive values. What didn't get as much play was Lakoff's views about cognitive sociology, which were gleefully and expertly picked apart by Chris, a cognitive scientist who blogs at Mixing Memory. (See here for a list of posts on the subject.) These views were apparently spelled out at greater length in Lakoff's earlier book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. At the center of that book (which I haven't read) was the claim that both liberals and conservatives understand the nation metaphorically as a family, but that liberals view the state as a Nurturant Parent, while conservatives see it as a Strict Father. From such a simple difference, Lakoff apparently wants us to believe, you can derive most of what you need to know about the way that liberals and conservatives think about politics.

I wasn't aware, though, that Lakoff thinks you can frame almost any liberal/conservative divide by using the Nurturant Parent versus Strict Father metaphor. Did you know, for instance, that theological debates also boil down to this simple dichotomy? In an online forum at Lakoff's Rockridge Institute, he has recently argued that ...
the difference between conservative and progressive Christianity is whether God is seen as a strict father or nurturant parent.

The strict father God is punitive: Follow His commandments and you go to heaven. Disobey and you go to hell. Since you’re all sinners, He’ll give you a second chance. His son has suffered so much he has built up enough moral credit to pay for the sins of everybody. If you accept Jesus as your savior, He’ll wipe the slate clean as if you’ve been born again; but this time you’d better get it right or else. Do what your church says and you’ll go to heaven; disobey and you’ll go to hell.

The nurturant God offers Grace, which is metaphorical nurturance. To get grace, you have to be close to God; you can’t earn Grace; it’s given freely and unconditionally; it must be accepted actively; it fills and nourishes you, protects you, heals you, makes you a moral person. Moral Politics is the link between theology and politics. Conservative theology and politics are both structured around strict father morality, just as progressive theology and politics are both structured around nurturant parent.

What I found is that conservative Christians understand their theology and its relation to politics but that progressive Christians have trouble articulating theirs.
The fuller exposition is in Chapter 14 of Moral Politics, avaliable here. (In the chapter, Lakoff does admit that this view about what makes conservative Christians think conservatively is a "guess," and he begs our indulgence for his "oversimplification" of Christian theology, "which will of necessity sound like the text of a comic book called, 'Christ for Beginners.'")

Elsewhere in the Rockridge Forums, there is a response to Lakoff from "a historian's perspective." Dean Grodzins, the author of what will long be the definitive biography of the Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker, argues that while Lakoff's posited link between theology and politics does not always hold up historically, it often does hold. In fact, Grodzins suggests that Lakoff's idea of organizing theology around the poles of "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" metaphors, instead of around the poles of liberalism and orthodoxy, might make sense of more religious history in America. For instance, although eighteenth-century New England Calvinists all agreed on basic doctrinal creeds, they developed different views of God the Father that either stressed his Strict or Nurturant nature, and by the nineteenth century, those divergent metaphors led to actual splits in American churches that ramified in the political sphere. Progressive Christians who preferred the model of God as a Nurturant Parent flocked into antebellum movements to reform education and abolish slavery, while those who preferred the Strict Father view tended to favor the conservative theology and politics of proslavery advocates.

Grodzins makes his case by pointing to the historical convergence of the "Nurturant Parent" theology worked out by Protestants like Horace Bushnell and the "Nurturant Parent" politics of reformers like Horace Mann, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Samuel Gridley Howe. But he doesn't chart other points on the map of antebellum reform that would complicate Lakoff's attempt to connect the dots between progressive theology and politics. For instance, it was entirely possible for some antebellum reformers to see God as a Nurturant Parent but to see the state as authoritarian and thus ungodly. A small but vocal group of radical abolitionists thought that all human government was sinful precisely because a state could not be nurturant in the way that God was. (See Lewis Perry's classic book on these Christian anarchists.) These were people, in other words, who had a Nurturant Parent view of God and a political posture that Lakoff and Grodzins would probably label "progressive," but who also failed to see the state as a Nurturant Parent.

If it is possible to be theologically progressive, opposed to conservative politics, and socially reformist without making the metaphorical link between God as Nurturant Parent and the state as Nurturant Parent, then I'm having a hard time seeing what kind of explanatory power Lakoff's metaphors can offer us, either historically or politically.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

UPDATE: Brandon at Siris and Chris at Mixing Memory respond to Lakoff more fully than I did here.

Collective Improvisation:
What's most strange to me is that most evangelical Christians see God as both strict father and nurturing parent, usually with more emphasis on the latter. This is as true of politically conservative evangelicals as it is of politically liberal evangelicals. Lakoff is just trying to reduce a fairly complex sociological phenomenon to one factor, and it simply doesn't fit the structure he assigns. 

Posted by Jeremy Pierce

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/26/2005 03:15:00 PM : Permalink  

Agreed. The antinomy is too schematic to fit most people's actual beliefs and experiences. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/28/2005 12:01:00 PM : Permalink  

You guys didn't even read the book or you would have understood what Lakoff really meant. No wonder you losers are stuck with a LOSER-in-chief and a crappy two-party system ! 

Posted by True Conservative

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/10/2005 07:41:00 PM : Permalink  

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