Tag Archives: politics

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.

The Election is Going to Get Messy

The freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard.

Republicans are creating chaos to shake our faith in the institutions of democracy. We can only fight that with clarity. We have to lay down simple and morally unassailable criteria by which election disputes should be judged, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion. Every case must be decided, not on strict adherence to rules, but on the standard that the freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard.

Molly Adams from USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Your voice is your freedom.

The “Citizens’ Right to be Heard” Narrative

As an American citizen, your right to have an equal say in choosing your representation is essential to your being a free person.

What happens when someone attempts to vote and is prevented by election officials, or their mail-in ballot is rejected?

The decision must be judged based on this standard: Does this person have the right to be heard? If the voter is eligible to vote in that election, if they are a citizen, they are over 18, and a resident of the district, they have the right to have their voice heard. You must let them vote and count their vote.

Anything else would be morally wrong.

Applying the “Right to be Heard” Standard

Just yesterday, a judge in Wisconsin ruled against American citizens’ right to be heard.

To vote by mail in Wisconsin, you must have a witness sign your ballot and write in their street address. The League of Women Voters sued to make election officials count ballots with partial witness addresses, if the information present was sufficient to determine the identity of the witness. This morning, a Dane County Judge rejected the League’s request for an injunction, saying that loosening the requirements would “would upend the status quo and not preserve it” and also “frustrate the electoral process by causing confusion.”

Apparently, as many as 7% of mail in ballots have incomplete witness address information. We’re talking about American citizen voters whose ballots might be missing, say, the street number for the witness. There is no question as to whether the voter is eligible to vote in this election. There is no question as to the identity of the voter. There isn’t even an actual question about the identity of the witness.

This judge chose to deny these American citizens, as many as 7% of those casting mail in ballots, their right to be heard: their right to have their vote counted. This judge, in essence, robbed these American citizens of their most fundamental freedom: their right to have a voice in the choosing of the government under which they will have to live.

In doing so to enough eligible voters to potentially change the outcome of an election, this judge also robbed the entire body of eligible voters of its voice, its right to have the election faithfully represent the will of the voters, and the freedom it gets from living under a government of its own choosing.

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!

NYTimes: This Threat to Democracy Is Hiding in Plain Sight, Sept 23. 2022

The Purity War

Creating Chaos

Republicans have been recruiting activists to become poll watchers, election workers and election officials across America. They are putting their people in place to challenge every possible vote.

They are planning to make a HUGE mess, and then argue that the only way to clean it up is to throw out every vote that has even the slightest hint of non-conformity. For example, in the NYTimes video above, they talk about poll watchers challenging votes because someone “looks like an immigrant.”

Republicans say that they are against “fraud” and that stopping even one fraudulent vote is worth making it a lot harder for everyone to vote. They talk about things like the “purity” and the “sanctity” of elections. Of course, the “purity” frame has very nasty connotations about who should or shouldn’t be eligible to vote, as with the virulently racist “replacement theory.”

Even without the racist dog-whistles, there is huge problem with “purity” being the criteria for legitimate elections. If you block 99 out of 100 people from voting, that remining vote might be pure as the driven snow, but that doesn’t make it a legitimate election.

Weaponizing Technicalities

If people are determined to subvert democracy and defy the will of the voters, they can use the letter of the law to violate the intent of the law.

We are expecting rampant voter suppression: frivolous challenges to voters and ballots and excessive enforcement of minor regulations. These will be based on a patchwork of election laws, many of which are new and designed for this very purpose.

Just recently in Arizona, a voting rights initiative signed by more than 500,000 voters was blocked from being put on the ballot. More than 250,000 signatures were disqualified over irrelevant technicalities by Republican-appointed judges. Were mistakes made? Yes. Does that justify a massive violation of the clearly expressed will of the voters? No.

The rash of new and overly restrictive voting laws and regulations will make it difficult to rely solely on the courts to remedy this problem.

The Court of Public Opinion

He Said, She Said

The right-wing attack machine has spent two years insisting that we’re encouraging fraud and stealing elections. We’ve spent two years trying to say it isn’t true. What happens when we’re the ones who have to argue that elections are being stolen? We’re heading into the mother of all ‘He Said, She Said” debates.

Just talking about what they’re doing wrong or assailing their motives isn’t going to work. The attack machine will continue to use their “firehose of falsehoods” in their ongoing campaign to destroy faith in elections and in democracy. We know from experience that fighting every claim individually is a recipe for failure.

Restoring Confidence with Clarity

We need to restore order to the chaos. We need to set clear and universal terms by which people will judge election disputes in the court of public opinion, terms that will appeal to people across the political spectrum. We need to override the case for what might be technically right with the case for what’s morally right.

Our message is morally powerful: the freedom of American citizens depends on their right to be heard, with “being heard” meaning “getting to vote and having your vote counted.” Wherever a vote is challenged, we must rule in favor of the voters’ right to be heard.

Leaders, election officials and judges could restore confidence in the election process as a whole by using this simple criteria as their guide across the board, knowing that the public will understand their choices and judge them as morally right. After all, they will be ruling on the side of freedom.

Citizens have the right to be heard.

Talking Points

The power of the Citizens’ Right to be Heard narrative depends on our making sure people understand the relationship between voting and freedom. We have to state and repeat the fact that voting is what makes us free.

I talk more about the connection between voting, the will of the people, and freedom in my previous issue, Reframing the Threat to Democracy.

This is about self-government. What makes America a free country is our right to live under the government that we choose. We have elections to determine the will of all of the people, the will of the entire body of eligible voters, in choosing that government. That’s why every citizen must have equal access to vote and why we have to count every vote.

In all election disputes, nothing matters more than this: What will make this election more faithfully represent the will of the people?

How does that apply to the wave of challenges we are about to face? What happens when someone attempts to vote and is prevented by election officials, or their mail-in ballot is rejected?

The right of American citizens to have an equal say in choosing their representation is essential to their being a free person. Taking away that voice is taking away their freedom.

A person is not free if they have to live under a government they did not have a voice in choosing and obey laws that they did not have a voice in making.

In decisions about whether a person should be allowed to vote, or whether their ballot should be counted, there is only one standard that matters: Does this person have the right to be heard?

What determines whether someone has the right to vote in that particular election?

It’s about eligibility. Are they a citizen? Are they 18 or older? Are they a resident of the district? If yes, they have the right to have their voice heard. Anything else would be morally wrong.

What are some important strategic points we need to make?

These are American citizens whose right we are fighting for.

There’s a BIG difference between not being eligible, and being eligible but not making it over all the bureaucratic hurdles.

If the person is actually eligible to vote, it’s not fraud, it’s a paperwork error. Errors can be fixed.

We must take every possible step to remedy these errors, because losing their vote means losing their freedom.

We could use a little audacity.

How would you feel if you went to vote on election day and didn’t realize that your drivers’ license had expired? Does not having a current drivers’ license mean that you are no longer a citizen?

Is forgetting to sign your mail in ballot a crime worthy of depriving an American citizen of their freedom? No.

Depriving someone of their vote is like stripping them of their citizenship rights!

It would be morally reprehensible to violate the most fundamental freedom of an American citizen because the post office took too many days to deliver their ballot or they only had a college ID.

Republicans capture the attention of the public debate by turning everything into a dramatic case of moral injustice. We could use to lean harder into the moral angle, even if it pushes us a little out of our comfort zone.

The Bottom Line

They intend to sow chaos so they can argue for throwing out millions of votes by eligible voters. We have to start now to push our message of what is right. Every single one of us has to promote this narrative of “protecting American citizens’ right to be heard.”

We might have to fight the legal battles individually, but we know that in the public debate, fighting the lies and attacks individually doesn’t work. We have to have a simple and consistent message. That’s the only way it will get through.

If we can generate enough public support for “citizens’ right to be heard,” we can make the case for applying that standard across the board as a means of restoring public faith in our elections.

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!

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