Righting America

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You Can’t Be a Literalist in a Metaphorical World, or, Conservatives Like Mike Johnson Have a “Daddy” Issue | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy 

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book,  Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April.

“Welfare Queens” by Darrin Bell. Image via Candorville.com

George Lakoff asks penetrating questions in his work, The Political Mind: “Why do certain people, most of them self-identified as conservatives, find certain acts of love—premarital, extramarital, or homosexual—more sinful than war or torture? Why should a conservative living in the Midwest find it personally threatening when gays get married in San Francisco or Massachusetts?” 

I add: Why do conservatives have such an emotional need to reduce SNAP benefits? 

Why indeed? Conservatives seem to have a single mind that informs their approach to every social issue. Lakoff, in another work, one that inspired my doctoral dissertation, argues that we live by a series of metaphors that constitute our reality. 

Conservative modes of thought are sweeping across the nation, creating a kind of soft authoritarianism. Egged on by a deep emotional fear of losing, evangelicals are comfortable with the idea of minority rule. Any form of authoritarianism – even fascism – entices those who are determined to be in charge. No conservative I know is bothered by the fact that 72% of Americans accept gay marriage. They are not deterred by the reality that more than 65% of Americans believe that there should be some access to abortion. They are not the least bit intimidated by a secular culture and progressive Christian majority that embraces diversity. 

They no longer have any qualms about reducing direct democracy, empowering the minority, or eliminating the primary guarantees of democracy.

Building on my 1993 book, The Creative Power of Metaphor, I suggest that conservatives live by a single, dominant metaphor. 

In the 1990s I thought that dominant metaphor was LIFE IS WAR. 

Now, I believe that I only discovered one of the tertiary metaphors of the conservative movement. Borrowing again from Lakoff, I think the primal metaphor is the strict father metaphor. 

Definition of The Strict Father Metaphor

Lakoff defines the strict father as the moral leader of the family, and he is to be obeyed. The family needs a strict father because there is evil in the world from which he must protect them—and Mommy can’t do it. The family needs a strict father because there is competition in the world, and he has to win those competitions to support the family—and Mommy can’t do it. 

You need a strict father because kids are born bad, in the sense that they just do what they want to do, and don’t know right from wrong. They need to be punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong, so they will have an incentive to do right to avoid punishment. 

The Strict Father metaphor depends upon a deeper metaphorical structure: God is the Strict Father. For instance, evangelicals operating out of the strict father frame struggle with the story of the prodigal son. The younger son did what all strict father adherents abhor – he wasted everything. He was lazy, promiscuous, careless with money, had evil friends, and refused to work. 

The only way evangelicals can “stomach” the prodigal son story is to turn it into a revival testimonial. In this framework, the prodigal son is a sinner in need of grace. There’s no economic reality involved in this reading. It is sloppy spiritualization attempting to hide from messy reality. 

In the strict father metaphor, we would have a different prodigal son story.

When his father saw him he was filled with indignation. He waited at the front door with his arms folded and his face showing a bit of a scowl and an ocean of indifference. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 

But the father, feeling no sympathy said to his slaves, “Quickly, get the chains and lock the boy in the cellar and leave him there with no food and water.” 

The father then called the elder son and said to him, “Order the fatted calf to be killed, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine has to learn how to be an adult in this home.” And they began to celebrate. 

And the father said to the Older Brother: “You are my son, my Beloved. You have worked hard, obeyed my every word, and you have always respected my authority. To you I leave my entire estate as your reward.” 

In the Strict Father version, the prodigal doesn’t get a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; he gets chains on his body and the sting of a whip on his back. Disobedience must be punished. The son must once again learn the total authority of the Father; he must be obedient, and most of all, he must return to work in the field every day.

A softer version of the Strict Father prodigal story would have left out the chains and whip, but the issues remain the same: Authority, discipline, obedience, and punishment. This is the Strict Father template.

Strict Father (Mike Johnson) v. the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program 

During Thanksgiving week, there is another defining example of the strict father metaphor. This one has to do with food supply. Instead of a table loaded with turkey and dressing with all the goodies, there is the reality that 30,000,000 Americans suffer from food deficiency. 

Why would an affluent member of Congress be concerned about the amount of food assistance received by a poor person? The irony of affluent members of Congress debating food assistance for poor people without consulting a single poor person is thick.  

When Speaker of the House Mike Johnson claims that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program,” he conveniently ignores the facts that 41 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, and that the alleged fraud in the program doesn’t exceed 2% of the budget. As for the emotional argument that SNAP is “bloated,” the reality is that SNAP comprises a very small portion of the federal budget and it is not a key driver of our federal debt. In 2022, spending for SNAP made up 2.4 percent of total federal spending. 

Johnson’s miserly politics looks suspiciously like Pharoah cutting the rations of Hebrew slaves and nothing like the amazing generosity of God. Walter Brueggemann says, 

From the outset, Pharaoh, blessed by God’s Nile, was the leader of the breadbasket of the world (see Gen. 12:10). By his own actions and those of his food czar, Joseph, Pharaoh advanced the claims of the state against his own subjects, achieving a monopoly on land and on the food supply. That land and food supply became a tax base whereby wealth was systematically transferred from the peasant-slaves to the central monopoly.

The strict father operates on merit, competition, hard work. In a strict father family, hierarchies of power and wealth are justified on “merit.” If a person is “given” food benefits, the desire to compete, to win, to provide disappears. Conservatives really believe that cutting welfare benefits will build discipline, improve lives, and make America great again. 

President Reagan Gave Conservatives a Permanent Metaphor for Opposing Welfare Benefits

Conservatives are not void of metaphorical construction. Ronald Reagan, for instance, invented the metaphor of the “Welfare Queen,” and it served as the defining principle of conservatives for decades. 

Whether or not the Welfare Queen was a total fabrication, or a real woman, is not relevant. The power of the metaphor is that the Welfare Queen came to stand for all African Americans on welfare. She was a lazy, uppity, sexually immoral black woman who was a cheater living off of the taxpayers, driving a Cadillac paid for by taxpayers, having children just to get money for them. 

Despite the fact that most welfare recipients are white, and few own vehicles of any kind, conservatives eagerly accepted Reagan’s metaphor. Match “Welfare Queen” with “Strict Father” and you have a shotgun wedding made in conservative heaven.

Reagan’s description of the Welfare Queen driving a Cadillac enabled him to reach southern poor whites. The Cadillac symbolized something valuable and upper-class that was not earned. He also deftly employed the racist and sexist tropes that whites were above nonwhites, and men were above women. 

The rhetorical trope for this was metonymy. The definition of metonymy: the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant. For example, “suit” for business executive, or “track” for horse racing. 

Here’s how metonymy works: In Reagan’s created frame the welfare recipient is a lazy uppity immoral black, and that fits a social stereotype of blacks. Eliminating welfare is giving those unworthy blacks what they deserve—nothing! 

Reagan’s prodigious powers of persuasion convinced poor, white, worthy welfare recipients to vote against their own self-interest. They supported Reagan’s stand against welfare because they already lived out of a more powerful metaphor: the Strict Father. They knew that Reagan didn’t include them in the Welfare Queen trope. They were on welfare, but they didn’t drive Cadillacs. 

The Welfare Queen and Strict Father metaphors explain how Speaker Johnson can ignore facts and reality to insist on cutting SNAP benefits. The “Welfare Queen” haunts the dreams of all hardline, strict father legislators. 

“And I Will Show You a More Excellent Metaphor” 

In the rich language of the Bible there are better metaphors to live by than the strict father. There’s a phrase that appears frequently in the Bible: “Made a feast.” From Abraham making a feast for his guests with unleavened bread to Jesus feasting with his disciples at the table with bread and wine, there is a sense of joy and generosity in the air. 

Instead of the clutching greed of the Strict Father guarding all the benefits, we get God’s inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, and fathomless love. No wonder the Strict Father metaphor struggles to find its footing in the kingdom of grace. 

The feast that God provides gives us a vision of God “cutting a rug” with all peoples of all backgrounds – rich and poor. When you think about it, an appeal to rhythm makes perfect sense: without the satisfaction of certain appetites, nothing gets born – neither songs nor babies. 

Imagine feasting, singing, dancing, the sense of rhythm in the nurturing God’s kingdom as the ingredients for a stronger metaphor. 

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah imagined the reality: 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

The shroud in this passage is the Strict Father metaphor – the illusion of white male superiority – that separates the rich from the poor, and from God. Strict father types believe that extravagance is waste, that generosity is a sign of weakness, and that feasting is somehow not acceptable. 

Evangelicals have “daddy issues;” more seriously, evangelicals need better metaphors for framing reality. Evangelicals need a new primal metaphor. 

Roger Miller sang, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.” Well, you can’t literalize in an ocean of metaphors and symbolic language.