Mom and Pop Operation

Michael Metzger

The IRS only has a 36 percent approval rating. At the height of the oil spill, British Petroleum scored only 16 percent. But Congress is the worst. It has a nine-percent approval rating. It is presently a failing institution. Would Congress benefit from seeing how the institution of family, as defined by the Christian faith, flourishes?

The Bible defines the institution of marriage as a monogamous lifelong union between a man and a woman. A family is the fruit of this union. The institution of family flourishes when led by an adult mother and father. Now consider Congress, another important institution. Would it flourish if led by an adult mother and father working together?

The mother and father image is from George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Cal Berkeley. He writes, “People think in frames.”1 These frames shape how we see facts. For a fact to be accepted, “the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.” Lakoff says Republicans operate inside the frame of the strict father. Democrats operate as the nurturing mother. These differing frames explain the party’s two different takes on fixing America’s debt crisis.

The Democrat’s frame of the nurturing mother explains why they like John Maynard Keynes’s view of government—that it can nurture or nudge an economy and create jobs by spending a lot of money. Keynesians summon all sorts of facts to supposedly support this claim while conveniently ignoring other facts that undercut their argument.

The more fiscally conservative University of Chicago School argues that Keynesian stimulus can’t heal a sick economy—only time can—and fits the Republican’s frame of the strict father. Chicagoans summon facts supporting their claim that economies can only truly recover on their own and arguing that policy interventions only slow the recovery. But Republicans also conveniently ignore facts that undercut their argument.

The problem is Keynesians and Chicagoans believe there’s no middle ground: they operate as if you can’t simultaneously cut and increase government budgets. This is why the super committee failed. But our economic crisis has less to do with facts and more to do with frames. Congress is a dysfunctional family with a mother and father working against each other. Congress will only flourish when Democrats and Republicans combine the two frames, mother and father working together.

There are at least two lessons here for the faith community. First, if you want to change behavior, preach in pictures, or frames. Think of the Civil War. The crisis had less to do with facts and more to do with frames—both sides assuming God was on their side. But as Lincoln lamented, “Both read the same Bible, both pray to the same God.” The problem wasn’t so much what the Bible said; it was what believers saw.

Now think of the problems facing today’s church. Divorce rates among evangelicals are generally the same as those in the population at large. According to a recent article in Relevant, 80 percent of self-identified Christians have sex before marriage, compared with 88 percent of the general population. The problem in both cases has less to do with facts—scripture is pretty clear on these matters—and more to do with the frame. Culture has framed divorce as a matter of convenience and sex as casual hook up.

“You can’t see or hear frames,” Lakoff writes. “They are part of what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious”—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences.”2 These neural pathways affect upwards of 95 percent of the way people behave. Lakoff says too many people are “under the illusion that if only people understood the facts, we’d be fine. Wrong.”3 People understand facts inside frames. If the aim of a sermon is to change sexual behavior, it requires a picture that parishioners don’t see coming—one that reframes how they mistakenly see facts.

The second lesson addresses the question of why Congress currently doesn’t look to the church—or institutions such as family—to solve their problems. Lakoff says that would require building institutions that earn cultural capital and are then taken seriously. This requires large block grants and endowments, he writes, such as when “a group of conservative leaders got together around William F. Buckley, Jr. and… started magazines and think tanks, and invested billions of dollars.”4 Did you catch billions?

James Davison Hunter notes that the focus “of self-described Evangelical foundations… has long been on missionary work and evangelism.”5 It’s rarely on building institutions. In 2004 the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Annenburg Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gave a combined total of over $200 million dollars in grants to “arts and culture.” In the largest Catholic and Evangelical foundations, only $10 million was given to these endeavors. Lakoff would suggest that it’s hard for the church to earn cultural capital with such relatively small investments.

Congress is too big to fail. Yet it only flourishes as a mom and pop organization—a family led by an adult mother and father working together. The challenge for Congress is recognizing how any frame can cause good people to ignore inconvenient truths. The challenge for the church is two-fold. Changing behavior has less to do with facts and more to do with frames, so preachers would be wise to reframe the message in a new picture. Second, Congress currently doesn’t take seriously the church’s definition of the family. Does the church have the financial wherewithal to build institutions that would one day be taken seriously by Congress?

1 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004), p. 17.
2 Lakoff, Elephant, xv.
3 Lakoff, Elephant, xiii.
4 Lakoff, Elephant, p. 15.
5 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 82.


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  1. Mike,

    Could you clarify the argument?

    Argument: Culture is built by Institutions. The most desired institutions come from the church.

    Is the challenge how do we build a church that concerns itself with building institutions?

    Is it safe to say that whatever builds a church to concern itself with building institutions would likewise build a congregation that honors institutions, such as marriage, whihc includes hatred of divorce and love of sexual purity?

  2. When it comes to preaching in frames, are there any examples you could point to, past or present? Any resources you could recommend?

    Excellent insight- I didn’t think Poppa Metz read Relevant magazine!

  3. Brent:

    I am pretty sure there are many books on the topic of preaching with imagination – with examples galore. For what it’s worth, I have found it more productive to read imaginary works by such writers as Flannery O’Connor, C. S. Lewis, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Follett (start with Follett’s “Fall of Giants”).

  4. Gerard:

    Happy to clarify – sorry about any confusion I might have created. Culture is constituted (and created) by ideas, images, key individuals, items, and institutions. All are important but I don’t believe they are equally important. I vote for institutions being most important, but good folks can disagree on this. The healthiest institutions align with reality, and the church ought to be one of the go-to organizations for understanding how reality works. That’s obviously not the case as it stands today, but that’s the gist of the argument. The church ought to offer the knowledge of reality to institutions far and wide. So, yes, the challenge is how the church concerns itself with assisting in building healthy institutions in the wider world, including marriage.

  5. Great read, Mike. Of the two fold challenge, I believe I understand the first part – preaching/communicating in frames (of course, the challenge is to do so effectively – at least for me). The second fold, though, I have a difficult time wrapping my brain around.

    When you mention building financial institutions that would be taken seriously by the wider world, I think of House Blend Cafe. It is a local coffee shop in Orlando, Florida. It was ‘planted’ by a church that decided they wanted to be active in the market place in a way that brings good to the community and the world. They are, non profit. Thus, all profit received is poured back into the community on a localy and world wide level. They offer an excellent product – great coffee and unique breakfast and lunch offerings that are done well, on par with any establishment I frequented while living there (really in Ocoee, Fl).

    Is this the type of venture you would propose, or would this serve as an illustration of your challenge? Or, are you trying to get us to think of something entirely differen – on a larger scale or level?

    Thanks, again!

  6. I’m urging you to think both/and. The local coffee shop is a good example of establishing a beachhead, a presence. I am not familiar with House Blend Cafe, but it sounds like a good start. Thinking institutionally causes us to ask an additional set of questions however. By definition an institution is reality defining and boundary forming. Marriage as an institution for example defines it as a man and woman in monogamous union. It forms boundaries, defining divorce out of bounds. The more central institutions are generally more successful in defining reality. That’s why Facebook has successfully redefined “friend.” You might not agree with its definition, but you have to acknowledge it took a network of influential institutions to redefine “friend.” A little local branding company couldn’t have done it. That’s why House Blend Cafe is an important contribution but insufficient if the aim is to change the world. That would Starbucks also taking the church seriously – which would require that the church is seen as an institution that is making an important contribution to companies such as Starbucks. That sounds daunting, doesn’t it? It’s like eating an 800-pound gorilla. Daunting – but it can be done one bite at a time.

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