Tag Archives: emotion

The Prosperity Gospel: The moral code that binds corporate and Christian America.

It’s not just a marriage of convenience.

The marriage between market fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists isn’t just one of convenience. They actually share a common moral code. We can’t beat the conservative movement until we understand what they believe and how they prey on people’s desire to be good.

Why do they believe what they believe?

A Democratic volunteer recently told me that she was burned out from the constant barrage of hate and negativity. I reminded her that the worst of it comes from the leadership, the candidates and the ads, but that voters are generally pretty decent.

When we meet voters who support our opponents, it can be hard to understand their motives and even harder to understand their negative judgment of us. But if we want to persuade or even convert voters, we have to understand why they (mostly) aren’t “bad” people.

The secret to the conservative movement’s success is that they appeal to people based on their desire to be good. When conservative voters espouse positions that we believe are morally wrong, we have to remember that they were raised to believe that those positions are morally right.

This is not about the MAGA fan base or the “the cruelty is the point” crowd. Those people are not persuadable and their behavior will most likely turn off more voters than they gain. It’s about the people who still identify with conservatism based on concepts like “family values” or “fiscal responsibility.”

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The Unholy Alliance

Why does Joe Manchin believe that child tax credits are bad because they foster a culture of dependency? Why do people think that the most moral way to help the poor is to give tax breaks to the rich, or that it is bad for government to interfere in your business, but good for government to interfere in your medical treatment? How did “voodoo” Reaganomics become as American as apple pie?

There used to be a broad consensus in America and much of Europe around a mainstream liberal value system. The majority of Americans believed in New Deal and Great Society programs and more activist Keynesian economic policies.

In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, so-called “free market” ideology was at a low point. Goldwater’s wipe-out instigated a massively-funded long-term collaboration between conservative politicians, corporate interests and the religious right. Historian Heather Cox Richardson calls this coalition movement conservatism. By the 1980’s, free-market anti-government ideology dominated our culture while “market fundamentalism” became an orthodoxy in economic circles.

Set aside for the moment, the massive investment, the network of people, the institutions they built and so on, all of which you can read about in many other places, and focus on the purpose of all that effort: to popularize ideas. They are reaping the ultimate fruit of this labor now in Supreme Court rulings that radically alter the relationship between our economy and our government, to their enormous benefit.

How did movement conservatives achieve this?

They did it by creating and promoting a moral justification for their free-market beliefs. This is critical: it was not a rational or a fact-based argument. They created a way for people to look at the world that made heartless market fundamentalism feel morally right.

Human beings across the political spectrum have a very strong need for self-respect, to think of themselves as a good person. That’s why they vote for the party and the candidate that they feel to be morally right. Not everybody is motivated by religion, but we’re all motivated by a gut level sense of what constitutes right and wrong.

People don’t judge what is right and wrong based on facts, but on the stories we tell that put those facts in contextWe frame the debate with narratives that assign meaning to what people see and experience. Movement conservatives understood this, which is why they developed a whole different way of explaining what it means to be a good person.

Now, the public debate is a competition between two these belief systems, consensus liberal and movement conservative, and their radically opposed narratives about what is right and wrong. What people perceive to be right depends on whose belief system they use, and in fifty+ years of organized effort, conservatives got a whole lot of people to use theirs.

Classical Conservatism

Historically, the conservative belief system is based on rational self-interest. They believe that society is about competition over limited resources. While people are inherently bad, if everyone is driven by rational self-interest, they will make individual decisions that collectively lead to positive benefits for the whole society.

Classical conservatives weren’t making judgments about what was morally right or wrong. They were just trying to explain how things worked based on what they thought was a “realistic” assessment of human behavior.

Movement Conservatism

The “unholy alliance” between market fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists wasn’t just a marriage of convenience. There were clear benefits for both sides, but the true driving force behind this merger was the near perfect alignment of their belief systems: their core view of the world, of human nature, and of right and wrong.

The Prosperity Gospel

The “Prosperity Gospel,” in the formal sense, is just a wing of Christian fundamentalism practiced by “God wants you to be rich” preachers like Joel Osteen. However, if you look at the prosperity gospel as a moral narrative, you can see that it has quietly become the dominant moral code of American politics.

In this narrative, “God” and “The Invisible Hand of the Market” (The Hand) are virtually interchangeable, as are “God’s System” and “The Free Market.”

The Narrative

If you are virtuous, God/The Hand, will reward you with material gain.

Virtuous is defined as hard working, self-reliant, respectful of authority and your place in the hierarchy, and abstaining from sins of the flesh: your basic “family values.”

Because God/The Hand rewards the virtuous with material gain, those who are the most successful at material gain must be so because they are the most virtuous.

Because God/The Hand can’t be wrong, wealth itself is evidence of virtue.

This is why taxing the wealthy is seen as punishing them for their superior morality. In their view, it’s best to give even more money to those who already have the most money, because they have proven their virtue and they will use that money the “right” way.

Those who are less materially successful must be so because they are less virtuous. The only way to help people become more successful, is to help them become more virtuous.

For this reason, any attempt to assist the poor would actually be harming them, as it would take away their incentives to be virtuous, making them less virtuous and therefore less successful.

Sound familiar? This is where the concept of the “undeserving poor” comes from. As disturbing as it may seem, people have been taught to believe that it is genuinely morally wrong to assist people in need.

What is the role of government in this narrative?

God’s system/the Free Market is natural and perfect as it is.

Government should stay out of the market. It should also repeal all previous attempts to interfere in God’s perfect system, such as environmental regulations and social programs.

However, in order to help people become more successful, government should promote virtue by prohibiting and punishing so-called “sins of the flesh.”

This explains the across-the-board opposition to business and environmental regulation and their perception of any form of public ownership as morally wrong and therefore Evil Socialism.

This also reconciles their anti-government positions with their use of government to impose “family values.”

There’s a lot more detail to this and how it is applied, but that’s the core of the narrative.

Why People Believe This

If you actually believe all this, conservative positions appear both logical and morally right. Here is the thing: many millions of Americans were raised to believe this in their homes, churches and schools.

Sometimes we think that people raised to see the world from a conservative perspective should be able to figure out what’s “wrong” with their beliefs, but they know what they know because they were told it was true by sources they were taught to trust. How do we know what we know? Because we were told it was true by sources we were taught to trust.

Narratives about the nature of people, how the world works, and what constitutes right and wrong, are taught and modeled to children by their parents and families and then reinforced by teachers, community leaders and news sources.

When it comes to the prosperity gospel, there are whole industries (Christian parenting, school privatization) working to establish these moral codes in young people to influence their political beliefs in adulthood.

We won’t reach these people by telling them that they are wrong. From their point of view, they are not wrong. We have to get them to see things from a different point of view.

The Bottom Line

We need to advocate for a better and kinder moral code.

When you add the prosperity gospel to the “self-interest” core of traditional conservatism, you end up with a moral code that tells you that you have no responsibility for the well-being of others. Even worse, it tells you that others are bad for needing help from you and that you are bad for needing help from others. I can’t even begin to guess how much destruction this has wrought on our society.

When you are out there knocking on doors, let voters know that their natural inclination to help other people is not only not wrong, but is morally right and should be encouraged and rewarded.

I talk about the contrasts between their core values and ours in Empathy is President Biden’s Superpower and in virtually every issue of this newsletter.

In brief:

I would rather live in a world where everybody helps everybody all the time, than a world in which nobody ever helps anybody.

Skip the attacks. Mountains of data show that at best, they don’t work and at worst, they cause backlash. Let the criticism of our opponents be implied in the contrast between what they advocate and what we advocate and between how they behave and how we behave.

Share with people our narrative about what it means to be a good person. Make people feel safe, let them know that they aren’t out there all alone, that they are part of a community, that we share responsibility for taking care of each other and that they too deserve help when they need it.

Our core message? As always:

It will be okay. We can do this if we work together.

We don’t know what will happen in the midterm elections, but either way, it will be close. There are too many people out there who still vote for our opponents despite everything that many in their party are doing. It just means that we have a lot of work yet to do to get the American people to understand and adopt our value system as their own. This has always been a long-haul mission. No surprises there. Win or lose, we keep going, together.

Thanks, as always, for reading. I hope you are able to use this in your work and your activism!

I look forward to your feedback and ideas.

Warmest Regards,


Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this mission!


The Prosperity Gospel in Action:

New York Times Opinion, Oct. 8, 2021
Joe Manchin Should Stop Talking About ‘Entitlement’

Attack Ad Research:

Liam C Malloy and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz (2016). Going Positive: The Effects of Negative and Positive Advertising on Candidate Success and Voter Turnout. Research and Politics, January-March 2016.

Richard R. Lau, Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner (2007). The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.  Journal of Politics, 69 (4), 1176-1209.

Learning from Lakoff

In 2011, I spent a semester at Berkeley studying cognitive linguistics with Professor Lakoff whose work I have admired since I read Moral politics in 1996. I was so convinced of the importance of his work that I returned in 2015 to spend a year working directly with George to develop a training program to help people put his work into practice. I am only now finishing this project, and the end result is the LeftWords training program you can learn more about here!

Quintessential George Lakoff at the Berkeley coffee shop. (BAP photos)

I had the privilege of working with the brilliant and delightful Professor George Lakoff at University of California, Berkeley. I went to study framing. I learned far more than I ever imagined about how our minds actually work.

These discoveries in cognitive science elevate Lakoff’s work on political framing from “good advice” to “critical truths we ignore at our own peril”. We have to understand the foundation of our competing moral systems if we are to succeed in reaching people and overturning the Right’s dominance over our public debate. Continue reading