Strict father or nurturant parent?

George Lakoff (“Moral Values,” “Don’t Think of an Elephant”) developed a good way to understand the divisions in our nation, both politically and religiously. He names two basic ways of interpreting and experiencing the world – as a strict father or a nurturant parent. There are, of course, variations – perhaps a continuum. We are not all just one or the other, but I have found his model helpful in making sense of it all.

The Strict Father model is AUTHORITARIAN. Follow the rules or suffer the consequences. No excuses. Individual responsibility and punishment for failure drive decisions made and policies and laws created for everyone to follow. There is little room for nuance, for exploring reasons behind the behavior, for considering what has happened to people in the past. There is often little empathy or compassion, just the “letter of the law.”

The Nurturant Parent model is EGALITARIAN. Reasons for behavior – and not just the behavior (breaking the law, going against the policies) – are considered before determining consequences. And consequences are more than punishment; rather, discipline becomes a means to learning and changing. Empathy and compassion guide decisions made about policies and laws. People are more important than principles and rules. Past experiences of people – considering what they have been through – guide decisions about responding to behavior.

“Conservative” and “liberals” can follow either model or some combination of them, but as we try to understand the divisions in our churches, our nation, indeed the whole world, these models are helpful. Authoritianism has been on the rise in religion and politics around the world. An Egalitarian approach to our common life, to national politics, to how churches live together seems to me the better path forward.

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