Acton Institute Powerblog

ABC’s Nannies & Mommies

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One of ABC’s new dramas, Brothers & Sisters, features Calista Flockhart as a hard-hitting conservative pundit named Kitty Walker.

Despite its title, the show is not all that family friendly (although it has not yet been rated by the Parents Television Council). But for this post, I won’t be focusing on the questionable social and sexual mores of the show. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of the show’s portrayal of politics.

“Politics is about the privilege and the honor of taking care of people.”

In the most recent episode, “Sexual Politics,” Kitty has taken a job as a political adviser to Sen. Robert McCallister, played by Rob Lowe. McCallister is a young and handsome political star from California and is styled as “a John McCain-style Republican.”

Here’s a speech he gives to a group of ladies and donors (My comments are in brackets. The full episode is available for viewing at ABC.com here by clicking on the Brothers & Sisters graphic and selecting the episode marked 1/14/07. McCallister’s speech begins at approximately the 01:22 mark of the show):

I barely left the house most Sundays [not even to go to church?!]. My mom would cook elaborate dinners for neighbors, friends, and sometimes people we barely knew. By ten I could whip up a perfect meringue, to glaze a pan, dress chicken [these last two may be terms for particular dishes and I probably have not gotten them right].

But by the time puberty rolled around I’d had enough. Football, friends seemed more important. So I told her I was done. I was a guy, I didn’t want to spend Sundays in the kitchen with my mom. And you know what she said? She told me that someday I would realize that taking care of people is not masculine or feminine. It’s a privilege and it’s an honor. And she was right.

And one day I realized that politics is about the privilege and the honor of taking care of people, of making certain that the weak are protected, the poor are sheltered, and the hungry fed. My mother passed away six years ago, but I work every day to honor her memory in politics and in my kitchen. Thank you very much.

This captures pretty well the spirit of big government conservatism, as represented in real life by some other California Republicans. In such a view, it is the task of government to “take care of people,” periphrasis for a nanny State if I ever heard one. Indeed, politics are about sheltering the poor and feeding the hungry, taking care of people who obviously can’t take care of themselves. It’s not about empowerment but about infantilization.

Contrast this with a rather different view of politics, as portrayed in the words of Lord Acton, one that doesn’t arrogate politicking to the status of the highest possible human endeavor:

There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.

In Acton’s view, the highest purpose for the government is to promote and protect liberty, which is itself only a precondition for virtuous living.

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce.”

This leaves room for a vibrant civil society, represented in McCallister’s speech by the kitchen image. But do you see how in McCallister’s speech the role of the kitchen was subsumed, or rather consumed, by politics? Politics is the nanny, but the kitchen is the mommy.

I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Pledge of Allegiance, and would find it highly difficult to square such a pledge with Christian doctrine if the qualifier “under God” were removed.

But the concluding words of the pledge do get one thing right and that is the necessary relationship between liberty and justice. You can’t have one without the other, for justice grows from the foundation of liberty. And indeed the ideal of this nation is the realization of “liberty and justice for all.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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