The Politician as a
Nursing Father

This striking image from Presbyterian history should be a guiding principle for George W. Bush.

The political leader must be a "nursing father." That was a surprising image that I ran across a few years ago, when I was studying the political views of 17th-century Scottish Presbyterian theologians.

What caught me off guard was not only the striking imagery but also the context in which it appeared. These Calvinist writers were not especially fond of gentle formulations. They certainly did not seem otherwise given to the language of nurture. They were pretty stern folks who did not go out of their way to use words that evoked pictures of intimate relationships. And yet in this one instance, they employed the language of tenderness in describing the duties of political leadership.

Presidential inauguration ceremonies in the United States are also good opportunities for a change of tone. Even if the shift of mood is only temporary, it is healthy to declare a "time out" in order to remind ourselves of the larger purposes that we serve as a nation. In our election campaigns, we devote much energy to the give-and-take of partisan politics. This is the stuff--for all of its obvious excesses--on which a democracy thrives. But it is also necessary on occasion to step back and look at the bigger picture, to reflect together on the ways in which our patterns of governance can promote our common good. It is especially fitting that we do this after what we have experienced as a nation in recent months.


The period of Scottish history that I was studying was a time of much turmoil. My Calvinist writers were involved in major disputes with Roman Catholics and Anglicans--and even with other Presbyterians!--and the arguments often took the form of quite violent struggles for political power. Any form of political compromise was, as one of the Presbyterians put it, "an abomination." In his scheme of things, toleration was...well, it was intolerable.

These folks liked the Old Testament, and they drew heavily from its pages in expressing their political views. Their God was a divine Ruler who wanted his chosen people, his "new Israel," to conform to standards not unlike those that he required of the ancient Israelites. If the Scottish nation did not live up to those standards, then the country was in deep trouble. Thus the revealing title of one of the works that I read: "The Causes of God's Wrath Against Scotland."

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Richard Mouw
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