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Dec 6, 2005 12:23 pm


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 were 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 Mode for Caleb.)

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Don Berg - 10/2/2006

I reccomend you read Moral Politics. He does not claim that a simple polar dichotomy between the conceptions of Strict Father and Nurturant Parent moral systems are unifromly applied in consistent ways to theological and political discourse. His claim is that these are a basic description of the most pure forms of conservative and liberal thought patterns in theological and political discourse. Everyone has both patterns wired into their brains and we use those patterns to understand what is being said. The majority of people use a blend of these concepts.

If you are really interested in exploring the issues thoroughly I reccomend you try out his book with Mark Johnson called "Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought." In that work he delves into the metaphoric nature of morality and many other basic philosophical concepts.


Caleb McDaniel - 5/25/2005

I won't claim that all anarchists are always coherent and consistent ideologically, or that the abolitionists were in particular. But I don't see what it is about anarchism that makes it impossible to have a coherent worldview. Perry's book on the radical abolitionists makes a pretty convincing case that their anarchism was continuous with their views about God.


Andre Mayer - 5/24/2005

God is what He is; but the state may be changed -- reformed. Reformers who believed in a nurturing God but didn't think the state measured up do not negate Lakoff's argument. And I'm afraid that there's a slight problem with an argument based on the assumption that the thought of the anarchists must have been coherent.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

That's my point. King's Christianity is important to him, but his message is broader than that, a theological baseline to which many a rabbi could say "amen."


Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

But if it was King's "Christianity" that was so important to him, I don't quite understand why so many rabbis could be shouting "amen" in those mass meetings.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

OK, I grant that "non-theist deism" is an oxymoron; it wasn't supposed to be, but, as they say, when I wrote it God and I knew what I meant; now only God does.

I agree that King's Christianity is important to him, and to the movement he led. Where we disagree is that I think the success of his rhetoric is precisely because so much of it can be understood deistically; you do not have to be Christian, or even Judeo-Christian, to accept his invocations of God's Justice.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

It is linguistically meaningless to refer to a "non-theist" deism. Beyond that, deism is rhetorically shallow. Martin Luther King's rhetoric, for example, often appealed to the values of a civil religion -- but there's nothing deist about it.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

Deism as a movement isn't a factor in the US, that's true. But the theology of deism -- God as creator and judge and not much else -- is integrated into the increasingly liberal Christian and Jewish and non-theistic traditions. Deism is the common ground which the diversity of American religions shares; deistic language, rather than specifically Christian language, is the language of political theology.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

Jonathan, When was deism a major alternative in 19th century America? Grodzins is, after all, the expert on Parker, who is probably as close to a representative of "deism" as you'll find in the 19th century. But even Parker isn't a deist. I'd say that deism died with the romantic revolution.


Caleb McDaniel - 5/23/2005

I'm with you, Jonathan. Maybe I didn't make clear enough in the post that I'm not persuaded by Lakoff's polar metaphors either.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

I'm sorry, but there are just too many variations on faith (not to mention non-faith) that don't fit into those poles. Judaism generally runs to Strict Father in form, but has strong Nurturant tones, as well; the liberal forms of American Judaism really don't fit either terribly well. Deists (and many Jews really fall into that category) don't posit the relationship with God as a parental one in any recognizable form.


Caleb McDaniel - 5/23/2005

I think you're right, Ralph. My pointing to the Christian "no-government" wing of Northern abolitionism was just one counterexample of (potentially) many.


Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

Doesn't Lakof's model break down at a number of points? That is, wouldn't there be significant examples of Northern progressives with a Strict Father notion of G_d? I'm thinking of a John Brown, for example. And wouldn't there be significant examples of Southerners with Nurturant Parent notions of G_d -- who think of slavery as a benign, familial institution, progressive in its own way?

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