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On Theology and Politics in America: A Historian's Perspective

From the online Progressive Spirituality conference I posted about earlier...by Dean Grodzins, Assistant Professor of History at Meadville Lombard Theological:

"George Lakoff (see his essay), looking at contemporary America, argues that in conservative theology, God is seen as a Strict Father, while in progressive theology (at least that which is theistic), God is seen as a Nurturant Parent. Each view has political consequences, with conservative theology linked to conservative politics, and progressive theology linked to progressive politics. I suggest, as a historian, that this division is old, going back to at least the 18th century in American Protestantism; I also suggest that this division has always had political consequences....

"Most histories of religion in America do not discuss the Strict Father/Nurturant Parent division, as such. Instead, historians have written much about the divisions in American Protestantism between, in the early 19th century, “liberals,” such as Unitarians and Universalists, versus “Calvinists” or “evangelicals,” or in the early 20th century between “Modernist” evangelicals versus “Fundamentalist” evangelicals (note that nobody was called a “Fundamentalist” before the 20th century). These splits were in part over issues such as whether to read the Bible historically, or whether certain traditional church doctrines, such as the Trinity, were Scriptural, or whether people were predestined to be saved or damned, or how far Christian fellowship should be extended.


The specifics of the debates were quite complicated and shifted over time. There was usually no clear link between such theological arguments and political behavior. Theological “liberals,” for example, often took “conservative” stands on political issues, while theological “conservatives” were frequently reformers. So, for instance, in the most important 19th-century American political debate, over whether to abolish slavery—a debate that culminated with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States (1865)—there were theological “liberals” who defended slavery and theological “evangelicals” who crusaded to abolish it (the reverse was also true).

Yet if the underlying division in American Protestantism is seen as the Strict Father versus Nurturant Parent views of God and the family, then the development of the historical religious debates, and relationship between historical religious and political beliefs, become clearer. This is most obvious in considering the history of child rearing, which has always been a major topic of religious and political concern, discussion, and argument. In the 18th century, for example, the Calvinists of New England, who all professed the same creed, have been shown to disagree sharply over how to raise their children.

Some took the Strict Father view, regarding their children as sinful and potential monsters, whose will had to be broken, usually by severe corporal punishment. Others took the Nurturant Parent view, which held the child’s nature as needing to be developed and unfolded; these Calvinists avoided corporal punishment of their children. Linked to these views of child rearing were two different conceptions of God, one as terrifyingly powerful, wrathful, and seemingly arbitrary (a God who was supposed to take satisfaction, for instance, in the damnation of infants), the other as a loving, and firm but fair. By the early 19th century, these divisions would grow intense enough to lead to an actual organizational split in the New England churches, between the “liberals,” who held to a nuturant parent view (and who usually described God as a loving father, or even as a “Father and Mother”), and evangelical Calvinists, who generally held to a Strict Father view.

Within evangelicalism, however, there remained many who did not wholly embrace the Calvinist version of the Strict Father God. By the mid-19th century, some of these evangelicals began to break openly with traditional Calvinist views of both God and child-rearing. A famous example was the theologian Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), who advocated a Nurturant Parent view of Protestant evangelicalism in his famous book, Christian Nurture (1847; 2nd expanded edition, 1861).

The political implications of the different views were apparent in many areas. One was education. For example, the educational reformer Horace Mann (1796-1859), who created the first professional public school system and established the first teacher training schools in the United States, himself made a personal religious journey from Strict Father Calvinism to Nurturant Parent Unitarianism; he saw his mission as nurturing students, and towards that end, fought to end corporal punishment in schools. Again, the founders of the kindergarten movement in the U.S., such as Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894), and the movement for the education of blind and deaf people, such as Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), held to the nurturant view of God. The same was true of the leaders of the religious movement against the death penalty. In the debate over slavery, meanwhile, the strongest anti-slavery advocates, whatever church they belonged to or creed they professed, had in common a sense of empathy with the suffering of slaves—empathy being, as Lakoff point out in his book Moral Politics, a characteristic Nurturant Parent emotion—while proslavery advocates, of whatever church or creed, stressed the necessity of order and discipline, characteristics of the Strict Father view. (See Lakoff, Moral Politics, chapters 5 and 6.)

Much research and thinking needs to be done before all the specific historical connections and correlations can be made between views of God and family and views of politics. What seems already clear, however, is that strong connections can be drawn between religion and politics, contemporary or historical, through moral visions of the family."

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