Home » Peace & Justice » Strict Father versus Nurturant Family

Strict Father versus Nurturant Family

George Lakoff makes an important point about the power of two opposing moral postures, frames, world-views or value systems – strict-father (conservative) versus nurturant-family (progressive).

He argues, in the strict-father worldview, “the father is the ultimate authority, he knows right from wrong, his job is to protect the family and so he’s the strongest person, and because he knows right from wrong, his authority is deserved. His children are born bad because they just do what feels good, they don’t do what’s right. They have to be trained out of feel-good liberalism into doing what’s right. You have to punish the kids painfully enough that they’ll start doing what’s right and they’ll get discipline. If they’re disciplined, they go out into the world, and they earn a living. If they’re not earning a living, they’re not disciplined, therefore they can’t be moral and they deserve their poverty.”

The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation. “The world that the nurturant parent seeks to create has exactly the opposite properties,” Lakoff writes in his 2002 book Moral Politics. As progressives identify failures of logic in the conservative position, so it works the other way round (one of Lakoff’s examples: “How can liberals support federal funding for Aids research and treatment, while promoting the spread of Aids by sanctioning sexual behavior that leads to Aids?”).

And so it is with religion. Depending on how one reads the Bible, one could have two very different views of God: a strict-father God or a nurturing God. Reading the book of Revelation one could see Christ as the warrior; whereas emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount one could see Christ the savior of the poor, oppressed, down-trodden, marginalized and excluded minorities – particularly if one understands the context of first century political domination of Rome and oppressive Jewish legalism.

Lakoff asks, “If the two systems are poised in pure opposition, if they are each as moral, as metaphorical, as anciently rooted, as solidly grounded as the other, then why is one winning?” He argues that “Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

So just backing up your position with logic and facts will not have as much power as winning the moral argument. “A classic liberal pitfall is the idea that by repeating one of the opposition’s ridiculous lines, you make it look even more absurd. They [Progressives] don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion.”

Progressive Christians need to start calling it SIN: policies favoring the wealthy over the poor; complacency about poverty; denying and ignoring global warming; using deceitful politicking; denying loving same-sex couples to marry; unequal pay and rights for women; unequal education opportunity; unfair treatment of immigrants; torture; gun violence; war; fear, hatred and violence against abortion clinics; consumerism; greed; privatization; ethnic and religious prejudices; pride; and lack of empathy, compassion and kindness toward ALL.

Progressive Christians must remain positive and hopeful, but also need to inhabit the moral high ground with outrage, indignation, passion, conviction and emotion.