How Trump & Hillary are (sort of) like God

unilad-donald-trump-bible6Donald Trump has been affecting how I think about God. Really. His popularity baffles me, but a new theory explaining it is making me think harder about what kind of God is revealed in the Bible.

Stick with me…

George Lakoff, UC Berkeley neurolinguist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, believes current U.S. politics can become understandable if we think in terms of parenting styles. Here’s how it works:  In American parenting, there are two main styles which differ in their belief about what children need if they are to mature into responsible adults. The “Strict Father” style values clear rules and strict accountability above all else, while the “Nurturing Parent” style values empathy and people caring for one another above all else. For the record, I know great parents (and great kids) in both camps.

What kind of family should our country be? What is our gut-level vision of the kind of leader our national family needs?  People who want a Nurturing Parent tend to be more liberal in their politics, while the Strict Father types tend to lean more conservative. And for the record, I know great people in both camps.

The point that explains current conservative politics is that not all Strict Fathers are the same.  Some are strict non-interventionists, giving people space to explore and experience the consequences of their actions, regardless of how bad those consequences might be. But other Strict Fathers are more like kings –- setting rules and impartially punishing anyone who breaks those rules. When we understand that BOTH of these qualify as Strict Fathers, we can begin to understand why conservatives are backing a candidate as un-conservative as Donald Trump. He may be a bit dictator-esque, but at least he’s a Strict-Father, Law-and-Order kind of guy. Very deep down, he fits the conservative image better than that Nurturing-Parent Hillary (George Lakoff’s essay about this is the first explanation of the Trump phenomenon that has made sense to me, and I highly recommend it).

But believe it or not, this is not (supposed to be) a political post but a theological one. From here on, at least….

As Trinity and Humanity dwell together with our Father in Christ through the Spirit, what kind of family are we? What is our image of the kind of God/Father we have?

We, the People of Yahweh, have been arguing about that question for thousands upon thousands of years. Our Scriptures contain two voices, often at odds with each other, talking back and forth about which kind of God we have. And it’s not as simple as the difference between the Old and New Testaments, either.

In both testaments, we can observe Yahweh as a Strict Father who (in response to rule-breaking) punishes his children with natural disasters, disease, starvation, and invading armies. Jesus spoke of the same Yahweh, who would within a generation come in fire and judgment to Jerusalem, where not one stone would be left on another (which is exactly what ended up happening).

Yet, in both testaments we can also see Yahweh as a Nurturing Parent who protects his children from their own foolishness, who lets his children argue with him, and on their advice chooses to cancel well-deserved punishments.

Sometimes we see this tension displayed as coming from within Yahweh himself. For example, the first 10 chapters of Hosea are Yahweh’s extravagant description of Israel’s sins and the brutal punishments coming her way, until abruptly without warning in chapter 11:  “How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11.8-9). In the same self-conflicted mode, Jesus speaks of Jerusalem as a fruitless fig tree that will soon be chopped down and burned, and then proceeds to weep over his longing to gather the city under his wings like a mother hen.

What kind of God are we dealing with?  A Strict Father or a Nurturing Parent?

I used to think Jesus settled and ended this argument, that he once and for all revealed God to be “nice” and not “mean.”  But in recent times, I have come to see that as too easy an explanation, one that fails to take Scripture with adequate seriousness.

In Jesus we find revealed a God who is Father, Son & Spirit in holy eternal communion with one another and with us. Love is the final Word.  This is a settled fact of the gospel, not under question here.

But as I have discovered in my own parenting journey, Love lives in a persistently unsettled tension between Strict and Nurturing. Real-world Love is both tough and flexible. Consistent yet merciful.  Compassionate but not codependent.  As a Dad, I have no formula or equation for when I should be hard and when I should be soft. You could say it’s a constant fight between my Inner Trump and my Inner Hillary.

The fight doesn’t end. AND IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO.

This is precisely what the agony of parenting is all about. And it is here that I recognize this strange One of the Bible. When I let go of my ideas about GOD and his omni-this and omni-that, I can glimpse in the Bible someone like me –- a loving parent who is finding that Love in the real world is really really COMPLICATED.

I have decided that THIS is the God I believe in –- the God who is so human that he has to argue with himself about how best to love his children.

Even if that means he sometimes acts a little Trump-y and other times a little Hillar-ish.

And I’m going to say it: This God is the MOST HUGELY CLASSY GOD YOU’VE EVER SEEN, AND BELIEVE ME, HE WILL MAKE HUMANITY GREAT AGAIN.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

6 comments so far

  1. Elisabeth Kurzawa on

    Very clever title, John. I appreciated what you shared in the article too.

    • John Stonecypher on

      Thanks Lis! Regarding the title, I admit I may be learning a little bit too much from our friends in the click-bait industry…

  2. Catherine Deddo on

    Or maybe it isn’t so much that God is like me in His agony to love well, but we are more like Him when we see the depth of loving to perfection.

    • John Stonecypher on

      Hi Catherine, great to meet you! I’m struggling to make sense of the Bible’s frequent depiction of Yahweh’s self-conflict (I’ve been reading a lot of Walter Brueggemann lately). It’s certainly possible to chalk that up to authors projecting themselves onto God — fair enough. But I’m wanting to explore the possibility that 1). The real Yahweh might be as changeable, dynamic, and unsettlingly passionate as the Yahweh of the Bible, and 2). That this might be a GOOD thing for God to be that way.

  3. Jonathan Stepp on

    This is a great post, John, and I agree with you. I would, however, like to make a distinction that I think is important. There is a difference between a strict father and a bully, or a strict father and an abuser. In his public persona, designed to win certain voters, Trump displays many signs of being a bully and an abuser. Some people, with a certain personality type, will perceive that bullying/abuse as an authoritative strength and be drawn to it because it makes them feel safe.

    To speak more directly to your point, I believe the God revealed in Jesus is both a strict and nurturing parent, but there are times when she comes across in the scriptures as a bully and abuser – e.g. when Elisha is empowered to summon two bears to kill some kids who made fun of him. Some of these scenes, I think, have to be chalked up to a distorted perspective on the part of the Bronze age people who experienced and recorded the events. It may be that not everything in the scriptures attributed to God’s action was actually God acting.

    With regard to American politics, I think Reagan might be a better example of your point than Trump is. He endorsed many policies that were sort of in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” vein and yet came across in his public persona as a kindly grandpa who was telling you to shape up for your own good. People responded to the way that strict father/grandfather persona made them feel safe. It’s interesting to note that some people have tried to liken Trump to Reagan in the present election cycle, but I think they are missing an important difference: Regan’s public persona was strict father but Trump’s public persona is bully/abuser masquerading as strict father.

    • John Stonecypher on

      I agree COMPLETELY with your distinction between Strictness and Abusiveness. Well said!


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