George Lakoff theorizes that politically conservative and progressive viewpoints are mentally framed according to a person’s concept of family. This makes sense; people refer to their nation as the fatherland and the word “patriotism” comes from the Latin word “patria” which means “father”.
In America, many politicians say they support “family values,” but according to Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive researcher, there are at least two broad models of families that people think of when they hear this phrase. Conservative Christian families tend to emphasize strictness, while progressive families tend to emphasize nurturing. Obviously, real families are a blend of these two models, and Lakoff contends that real citizens are also a blend of conservative and progressive ideals.
A strict family holds the father to be the head of the household. The world is dangerous and the father must not only protect his family, he must teach his children, who are regarded as naturally rebellious and foolish, how to stay safe in this dangerous world, teeming as it is with evil temptations. The world is a dog-eat-dog place and he has a duty to teach his children how to compete, so that they can not only survive, but succeed, i.e., come out on top. Mothers are important as Dad’s assistant in this process. Children should be taught to obey and should be spanked to reinforce this important lesson. Bible verses that support this model are “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die,” and “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
God Wants Strict Families
Parents who follow the strict model feel they have a Scriptural mandate for doing so; it is their duty if they love their children. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, has promoted this model for over thirty years and has had a huge impact on conservative Christian families. Dobson encourages parents to never spank in anger, to explain to the child after the spanking why they were disciplined, and to reassure the child that it was necessary because they are loved.
The Old Testament presents a couple of challenges to this widely-accepted model, however. For example, Deuteronomy 21:18 says, “”If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him…Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.” There is no mention in the Bible that any parent ever actually did this, but if a person chooses a practice based on the Scriptures, he is not free to pick and choose which Scriptures to apply.
What Works in Child-Rearing?
Another challenge from the Old Testament is the examples of real people. Arguably, the most righteous Old Testament characters were Joseph and Samuel; the Bible is not shy about exposing flaws in its characters, but these two seem to have trod the straight and narrow. Joseph was not only undisciplined, he was the spoiled favorite in the family. Samuel was adopted by old Eli, who had utterly failed to discipline his own two corrupt sons, and there is no evidence he ever laid a hand on Samuel. Yet these boys turned out just fine. King David was so indulgent he didn’t even do anything about his son raping his step-sister, but then King David fell short on lots of “family values,” and may be a bad example.
From Family to Politics
If family models are transferred to politics, then we would expect conservatives to regard the world as a dangerous and competitive place, full of evil nations trying to take over the world, domino-style. It would therefore be the duty of the chief executive (the father) to protect the citizens (the children) from the evil-doers. The world is competitive and the struggle for success (prosperity) is all-important. Competition is the natural order and free markets are essential to ensure this. If a citizen-child is successful, i.e. prosperous, it is because they are disciplined and morally upright. If a citizen-child is unsuccessful, i.e. poor, it is because they are undisciplined and therefore morally defective. Why should the good be punished by paying taxes to help the bad?
Nurturing Family-Progressive Politics
A nurturing family gives more emphasis to mothers than the strict family model, but fathers are expected to nurture their children, too. The world is not seen as such a dangerous place; in fact, the world is full of possibilities. Competition is not the natural order; cooperation works much better than competition to accomplish tasks. Children are not seen as innately wrong-headed, just uninformed. When they do something wrong (anti-social/selfish) they should make reparations.
Nurturing Family in Scripture
Is there any support for this nurturing parent model in Scripture? The entire story from Genesis to Revelation is about a Father dealing with his hard-headed, disobedient children. He definitely gets angry and frustrated, but there are many passages like this from Hosea: “Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go?…My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows.” Who can forget the Prodigal’s father, waiting, waiting for his rebellious, ungrateful son day after day until he sees him afar off and runs to welcome him home with not even a word of rebuke. This is the story Jesus used to illustrate the heart of God toward his children.
Jesus Turned Out Well
Joseph and Samuel were stellar Old Testament characters, but then we come to Jesus, who we all agree, turned out pretty good. Was he ever disciplined? Did Joseph take a two-by-four to his little backside? The only window we have on his childhood adventures was when he stayed behind in Jerusalem at age twelve, without telling his parents, who thought he was in the group returning to Nazareth. They were, of course, frantically worried until they found him back at the Jerusalem temple, talking with the elders. When asked why he did this, he said, “Didn’t you know I’d be about my father’s business?” This seems like a golden opportunity to administer a little discipline, but there is no indication that they did.
Progressive Family Values
Progressives, holding the nurturing family model, emphasize empathy and fairness. They tend to favor diplomacy over force. They tend to think the government actually IS the people, a big cooperative organization meant to work for the benefit of all, with taxes seen as dues rightfully paid for supporting the organization. Corporate monopolies should be discouraged because they limit opportunities for others; they are like bullies on the playground and should pay reparations for any anti-social actions. They tend to regard troubled nations as in need of help rather than punishment.
Strict Parent Mama
I interviewed a strict parent mama before writing this. When I mentioned that the poor are considered undisciplined and morally deficient by strict parent families, she said, “They are undisciplined. Otherwise they wouldn’t be poor.” After I explained the two models, she said, “Well, obviously the two groups need each other to balance out.” That also makes sense. Sometimes caution is in order, sometimes optimism and a bit of risk-taking. Sometimes firmness may bring the best result, sometimes empathy will work better. One thing that is totally unhelpful is hurling knee-jerk slogans at one another, like weapons at an enemy, so that no balance is possible.
To carry the family metaphor just a bit further, if we are going down the road in the car squabbling, it’s really all right as long as we don’t drive into a ditch on either the right or left side of the road. As long as traveling down the road instead of stuck in a ditch, at least we’re still going forward.