Binary thinking – all or nothing, black or white, right or wrong – undergirds the worldview of a global authoritarian movement which includes Christian Nationalism. We’ve all heard the language:
- My way or the highway.
- You can’t have it both ways.
- We can’t both be right.
- Those are the rules.
- It’s the principle of the thing that matters.
- Love it or leave it.
This way of understanding the world leaves little room for complexity or nuance. It’s about following the rules, and there is little room for empathy. It’s about principles, not people. Justice means people getting what they deserve, not setting people free who don’t deserve what they are getting in life.
George Lakoff’s family model for understanding the morality of politics – all of life, really – makes sense of the deep divisions we experience. You can find more research than you want on his website or by just searching for Strict Father and Nurturant Parent, which are his terms for describing two foundational worldviews at the heart of our divisions, one based on Authority and one on Compassion.
At first glance, this seems binary in itself, as if each one of us sees the world as “strict fathers” or as “nurturant parents.” Lakoff, however, reminds us that life is a continuum. It’s not either/or. Sometimes we act more as strict fathers and sometimes more as nurturant parents, depending on the context. Still, he insists – and I agree – most of us strongly favor one more than the other in how we view the world – how the world “should” be.
One primary difference is whether we see responsibility as primarily individual or systemic. For instance, if I don’t feel that I’m better than someone of another race, does that mean I’m not racist? Or do I – as a white man – acknowledge the privileges and freedoms I have simply because of the color of my skin? Is racism only a matter of individual responsibility or is it a systemic reality in which we all participate, either having or being denied those privileges? And so I share responsibility for changing it?
Or consider poverty. Are people poor primarily because they don’t individually take the initiative and work hard enough? So they don’t deserve any help from the government? Charity from a religious or nonprofit agency is okay, but not any publicly-funded programs? … Or does poverty have multiple, interrelated causes – including racism, poor education, sexism, low wages, and a system designed to keep people poor? Does government (at all levels) share responsibility for such a system, and do we as citizens in a democracy also share responsibility to change it?
For people with a Strict Father view of the world, individual freedom is most important. Freedom from “the burden” of paying taxes. Freedom from “government control” of just about anything, such as education, guns, business. However, an exception to government control is made if it’s a matter of what they consider to be moral issues, such as reproductive freedom or LGBTQ rights, because those are matters of individual responsibility that must be limited for the sake of the nation. Or so the reasoning goes.
For people with a Nurturant Parent view of the world, a desire for everyone to enjoy freedom is tied to justice – and all of it is systemic. What’s good for the greatest number of people – the common good – requires a democratic government (of the people, by the people, for the people) to use its resources to help people who have been denied freedom and justice by the system. We pay our taxes and pool our resources to provide education, enhance infrastructure, build better neighborhoods and housing, improve healthcare, and regulate corporations for the well-being of our communities. As many have said, no one is free until all are free. Individual responsibility ties directly to systemic responsibilities. One without the other reinforces injustice and denial of freedoms for many people.
Lakoff’s paradigm helps make sense of our divisions. Christian Nationalism, more political than religious, can best be understood in this way as well. Does it seem at times like we live in different “worlds”? We do – and this is why. If we can understand both “worlds” better – though we might disagree vociferously – we can learn to “tell the story” of the kind of world we want to live in so it makes sense to more people.