the incoherent worldview of the Religious Right

In service to the mission, I should offer a brief comment on the worldview of the Religious Right. The three central tenets of the Religious Right’s worldview are as follows:

(i) Prosperity theology. If you work hard and live a morally upright life, God will provide for your material needs. It follows that if you are poor, you have failed to work hard or failed to live uprightly, or both. So the poor are responsible for their own poverty; and providing public assistance to the poor only serves to encourage laziness and immorality. Therefore, we should offer little or no public assistance to the poor, etc.

(ii) Christian libertarianism. The allocation of resources should be determined entirely through free enterprise and market competition. It follows that we should allow market forces to decide the value of everything, including labor and access to medical care. Some people shouldn’t earn a living wage or receive medical benefits, since some people’s labor just isn’t worth that much. But that is a small price to pay for avoiding communism (especially since those who don’t earn a living wage or medical benefits are either lazy or immoral—see prosperity theology). Therefore, we should have no market regulations to protect the poor, and no publicly funded health care option for those who don’t receive insurance through an employer, etc.

(iii) Christian nationalism. America is a Christian nation. And American has traditionally been a great nation, enjoying military and economic supremacy abroad, and law and order at home. But our nation has fallen into moral degeneracy. America will not reclaim its former glory unless we return to our Judeo-Christian roots. Therefore, we should once again have prayer and Bible reading in our public schools, and we must defend the traditional definition of marriage as ‘one man and one woman’, etc.

These three commitments cannot be brought together in any coherent way. I don’t mean to say that every tenet of this worldview is entirely false. On the contrary, as with many popular falsehoods, each tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview is least partly true—but only partly true. Observe.

According to Christian libertarianism, our society should distribute resources entirely on the basis of free enterprise and market competition. Generally speaking, the free market rewards those who are willing and able to sell something that consumers value. Importantly, the free market does not discriminate between things that consumers value and things that consumers should value. Thus, in assigning rewards to those who possess things that consumers value, the free market does not discriminate between, for example, those who sell life-saving medicines and those who sell pornography. So, on the free market, one can make a fortune in the pharmaceutical hustle or selling Hustler. The market cares not which. 

Now, according to Christian nationalism, America has fallen into moral degeneracy. Note that moral degenerates tend to value the wrong sorts of things—that’s what makes them morally degenerate. (For example, Bob is behaving in a morally degenerate fashion if, say, Bob pawns all of his daughter’s textbooks in order to obtain money for booze and gambling. Bob’s behavior is morally degenerate because he should value his daughter’s education far more than he values booze and gambling: he values booze and gambling too highly, and his daughter’s education not highly enough.) So, given our nation’s overall state of moral degeneracy, Americans do not tend to value the things that they should value; and Americans do tend to value things that they shouldn’t value.

Market forces and moral degeneracy conspire in alarming ways. For example, since Americans tend to value the wrong things, such as pornography, Larry Flynt and Hugh Heffner amassed fortunes by producing and selling pornographic materials on the free market. Meanwhile, Americans fail to devote sufficient resources to objectively important things like education. Predictably, the net result is that Flynt and Heffner got rich while most school teachers have to live on Ramen Noodles for five years to pull together a down payment on a modest home. Here’s the takeaway: when we combine an overall state of moral degeneracy with an unregulated free market, pornographers prosper more than teachers.

Finally, recall the first tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview: prosperity theology. It should now be clear that the free market in a morally degenerate society does not distribute wealth in a way that is sensitive to moral worth. It is therefore incoherent to maintain both that our society is morally degenerate and that the free market in our society rewards those who work hard and live uprightly.

Here’s the upshot. You can’t embrace Christian nationalism, Christian libertarianism and prosperity theology, because they can’t all be true–they don’t cohere. So the worldview of the Religious Right is incoherent.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

2 Comments

  1. I enjoy your writing. I don’t necessarily agree, so allow me to be one of the first to comment. How prevalent is prosperity theology on the Christian right? I’m of the reformed evangelical persuasion. Is Russell Moore Christian Right?

    My friend, Sam Perry at OU, is doing a lot of work studying Christian Nationalism. You seem to include christian nationalism as one tenet of the religious right. But I think, in your view of what is “the christian right,” they are one and the same. For instance, I am a conservative (or conservatarian) Christian. In some way, that makes me part of the Christian Right. But I don’t subscribe to 1 or 3 in their entirety. Is it possible that you’ve conflated Christian Nationalism with the Christian Right?

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    1. Hello Ryan,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Perhaps I need to clarify my position (either in my head or in my writing), but I don’t believe that I’ve conflated Christian Nationalism with the Christian Right. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the two are coextensive. I guess I’d say that you’re a full-fledged member of the Christian Right if and only if you endorse all of (i)-(iii).

      I’m not all that familiar with Russell Moore’s stances on things, but I believe that his public statements are fairly progressive in comparison to the public comments of other prominent members of the SBC. So, if I had to guess, I’d say no.

      Prosperity theology, as I’ve defined it, is a hugely important tenet of the Religious Right’s ideology. (At its most extreme, it’s straight out of Max Weber.) Not to be confused with the prosperity gospel, but I do mean to draw a connection between the two. Prosperity theology by my definition is like the prosperity gospel lite–it’s the prosperity gospel minus the yachts and planes: if you work hard, you will make money and be able to pay your bills (amount TBD; planes and yachts not guaranteed).

      Thanks again for the comment, and thanks for your interest in my work.

      Cheers,

      Scott

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