Cognitive, linguistic analyst, George Lakoff has written extensively about the moral commitments that conservatives deploy to make sense of the world. We can only give the briefest of overviews of Lakoff’s important work; so, we refer you to his shorter work, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” for a quick overview or his longer, “Moral Politics,” for a deeper exploration of these concepts. The overarching moral framework commonly deployed by conservatives, particularly with regard to matters of social justice, is what Lakoff calls “strict father morality.” This moral framework holds the following sorts of beliefs:
1. The world
is hierarchically organized and the ultimate human authority is the strict father.
2. Since the strict father is the ultimate human authority, he is not to be questioned, but rather he is to be obeyed.
3. The transcendent moral value for strict father morality is self-discipline.
4. The primary assumption about human nature is that humans are inevitably lazy and hedonistic. They will only “do right” when forced with “tough love.” Anything else is coddling bad behavior. The most despised person to folks with this view of morality is the so-called “welfare queen” who only has more children to increase welfare benefits.
5. Therefore, all attempts to help people—such as welfare, prolonged unemployment benefits, minimum wage laws, and Medicaid—are not only mistaken, they are morally wrong because they coddle the lazy and do not further strict father morality.
Of course, this is a quick distillation of a long and detailed presentation by Lakoff, but even at this point it begins to make some sense when applied to our current situation, doesn’t it? Who is sees himself, and is so seen by his supporters, as the quintessential “strict father”? President Bush. This explains why he surrounds himself with secrecy—strict father does not need to justify his acts to anyone. It explains why he was not willing to admit to mistakes—strict father defines what is right and wrong. But, more profoundly, it begins to make sense of the administration’s domestic policy. The wealthy are the ones who have learned self-discipline and who embody strict father morality; hence, any restraints on their ability to profit are immoral; in short, it goes against the moral order. Those who are poor are so because they have not learned self-discipline, and since humans are fundamentally lazy and hedonistic, the worst thing we can do is give them any kind of handout. This would only make them lazier and more hedonistic. Therefore, all attempts, by folks like us, to argue for social justice are at best mistaken and at worst morally reprehensible. Finally, on a related point, Lakoff’s analysis finally helped me make sense of one what seemed to me the most profound contradiction within conservatism—opposition both to abortion and to infant care programs. Well, think about it in Lakoff’s terms, people who get pregnant at bad times do so because they have not learned self-discipline. We can not let them off the hook by allowing abortion. However, once the child is born, again, folks are in this condition because they have not learned self-discipline. If one is to learn self-discipline, then one has to bear the consequences of one’s bad choices. Therefore, any infant care programs for unwed mothers lets them off the hook for their bad behavior. In this way, the great contradiction, at least in their minds, is resolved! Yet, what it also reveals is that when you run into a person who opposes both abortion and infant care programs, they do not oppose abortion on pro-life grounds. Instead, they really oppose abortion on the basis of their prior commitment to strict father morality. Quite an eye opener, isn’t it?
Now, I have gone just a bit afield in effort to outline and explain the moral commitments that comprise strict father morality. Before we close, however, we have to return to the question at hand, namely, how is it that strict father morality leads to misreading the bible? Well, in short, strict father morality becomes a lens through which the bible is read and appropriated. One presupposes that strict father morality is true and then one reads the bible with this assumption already in place. Texts, then, are interpreted so as to conform to our certain interpretive principle embodied in strict father morality. Consider some of the consequences. First, one who embraces strict father morality will gravitate to the sorts of passages that highlight harsh judgment. For example, strict father moralists love to cite the OT injunctions to stone a person who engages in sex with another of the same sex or to stone someone caught in adultery. They will tend to avoid passages like that in the NT where a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. Those early strict father moralists looked forward to having Jesus affirm their plans to stone the woman, but alas, he ruined their day. Passages such as this and those which reference forgiveness of debt and return of ancestral land have to be given alternative interpretations—i.e., they must be brought into conformity with strict father moral commitments. When all else fails, the offending passages are simply ignored. Any passages that instruct us to engage in care for the least of these are re-interpreted in any one of a variety of ways. Common strategies include moves like: well, that was true for the simple agrarian society of Jesus’ day, but not for ours, or well, that applies only to extending care to the nuclear family (or, when pushed, this might be extended to the church family), or the commands are spiritualized into statements about intentions rather than actions. Again, because strict father morality is believed first, all reading of the bible must align with strict father morality. This set of presuppositions extends, as I have already suggested, well beyond the issue of poverty and care for the poor. I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with this view. It has gained a good deal of ascendancy in America today, and it will require diligence on our part to undo the profound havoc it is wreaking in our socio-politico-economic environment.
We are now at the conclusion of our presentation. So, let us wrap up with a quick summary of the major theological points that under gird our commitment to social activism.
2. A primary point of reference for determining those expectations is found in God’s call for us to be imitators of him.
3. In order to be imitators of God, we must know something about God’s nature.
4. God’s nature and the image of him in us are best captured by the relationality and self- giving love expressed in the relationships of the Trinitarian persons. In short, we are to be imitators of the Trinitarian God, and we are to embody the same self-giving love.
5. The further revelation of God in Jesus actually demonstrates for us the kind of life that pleases God. We, therefore, must make the imitation of Christ primary. It is no surprise that the life of Jesus also demonstrates the self-giving love of the Trinitarian God.
6. All of this leads us to live in a way that puts the interests of others above our own. When this is coupled with the biblical expression of God’s particular concern for the poor and the marginalized, it becomes clear that the life that pleases God is one that is characterized by care for the poor and marginalized.
7. The confession of Jesus as Lord is a statement about the universe, not just about my own personal piety. Therefore, this way of being characterized as the imitation of Christ and living in accord with God’s expectations cannot be satisfied until it is embodied at all levels and “justice rolls down like the waters.”
From these, then, for our final conclusion, we simply restate what we noted earlier: To be engaged in social activism and to peruse social justice is not something that one adds to faith in Christ, rather it is what follows directly from taking seriously the call to be imitators of Christ.