the nihilism of the Religious Right

In a 1951 sermon, Billy Graham remarked that government aid to the poor is misguided, since:

Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ. Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic circumstances.

Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God. New York: Basic Books, Inc. (2015): 53.

And few years later, in 1954, Graham wrote in Nation’s Business magazine that:

Wise men are finding out that the words of the Nazarene: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’ were more than the mere rantings of a popular mystic; they embodied a practical, workable philosophy which actually pays off in happiness and peace of mind…. Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner.

“God Before Gold,” Nation’s Business, September 1954, 34. Emphasis in original. Cited in Kruse (2015): 37.

A quarter century later, in his 1976 sermon on “Conditions Corrupting America,” televangelist Jerry Falwell asserted that:

…we are developing a socialistic state in these United States as surely as I am standing here right now. Our give-away programs, our welfarism at home and abroad, is developing a breed of bums and derelicts who wouldn’t work in a pie shop eating the holes out of donuts. And they will stand in line at an unemployment office rather than go look for a job.

“Conditions Corrupting America,” sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell on May 16, 1976. LU-Archives, OTGH-192. Cited in Winters, Sean Michael. God’s Right Hand. New York: Harper Collins (2012): Kindle edition.

And in the opening lines of his 2014 book, Awakening: How America Can Turn from Economic and Moral Destruction Back to Greatness, Ralph Reed offers an exquisite summary of the Religious Right’s basic economic outlook:

Are we watching our nation commit suicide? The United States of America was founded on the principles of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility based on faith in God. Yet it seems we have abandoned those principles to such an extent that it may be too late for this beacon of faith and freedom to turn around. Is America… doomed to inevitable decline and demise? This is the central question of our time. While things aren’t always as they appear (more on that later), the trends are not encouraging.

Reed, Ralph. Awakening. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2014: Kindle edition.

Sidebar: Ralph Reed is founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a perennial Evangelical Tastemaker. Reed is famous for leveraging his Christian Coalition network in lobbying for stricter casino regulations on behalf of the casino industry. Specifically, by his own admission, Reed accepted payments of no less than $1.23M from a consortium of Native American casino operations. In return, Reed unleashed scores of evangelical ministers and political activists to lobby for new casino regulations—neglecting to inform his evangelical friends that their lobbying efforts were aligned with the interests of the aforesaid consortium of casino operations, in that the regulations at issue would bar new competitors from the casino market. (Reed then had the temerity to list legalized gambling among the “alarming social trends” outlined in the first chapter of his 2014 book. Notwithstanding his stated fondness for liberty, regulatory capture didn’t make the list.) End of sidebar.

Reed’s book goes on to suggest that it isn’t too late to save America, provided that we engage in

“…spiritual searching, revival, and a rediscovery of the principles found in the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.”

Reed (2014).

According to the Religious Right, then, our political community faces a simple choice. We can continue down the road to godless communism, driven by government intervention, welfare programs, moral degeneracy and spiritual atrophy; or we can return to God on the wings of free enterprise and market competition, propelled by spiritual revival.

I discussed the basic incoherence of this worldview in an earlier post. My aim in this post is to expose the moral nihilism at its core. 


As of 2018, the highest paid state employees in 31 out of 50 states are college football coaches. In 8 of the remaining 29 states, the highest paid state employees are college basketball coaches. So in 39 states, or roughly 80% of all the states in the U.S., the highest paid state employees are college football or basketball coaches.[1] Missouri is one of those 39 states. The head football coach at the University of Missouri earns an annual salary of $2.4 Million. That’s a big number. Just to put it in some perspective, $2.4M is about 18 times the salary of the Governor of Missouri ($153,821), and more than 48 times the annual income of an average Missouri household ($49,593).[2] In other words, it would take the Governor of Missouri about 18 years to earn as much money as the head football coach at the University of Missouri earns in a single year, and it would take the average Missouri household nearly half a century.

Now consider this. Public school teachers in Missouri are eligible to retire after 30 years of service. As of 2017, the average pay for a Missouri public school teacher was about $50K per year.[3] The product of $50K and 30 is $1.5M, which is about 60% of $2.4M. So, according to the labor market, a career of teaching in a Missouri public school is approximately 60% as valuable as a single year of football coaching at the University of Missouri. (It’s worth noting that this situation is far from exceptional. The salary of the football coach at the University of Missouri is 74% below the average for a football coach in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Alabama pays its football coach $11.1M per year, which is over 220 times the average salary of a public school teacher in the state of Alabama ($50K), and almost 285 times the starting salary for an Alabama state trooper ($39K).)[4]

These features of the labor market raise a number of important questions. For instance, is the labor performed by the head football coach at the University of Missouri in a single year equal in value to the labor performed by an average Missouri household over roughly half a century? In terms of work product, is the football coach at the University of Missouri worth 18 Governors of Missouri? Is a whole career of teaching in Missouri worth less than 8 months of coaching football at the University of Missouri?

In at least one sense, the answer to all of these questions is “Yes”: whether it’s a year of coaching football or a gallon of milk, the value of something just is what it costs to buy that thing. This kind of value is called market value, since it is determined by the price that is agreed upon when buyers and sellers meet in the market to buy and sell goods or services. Thus the market value of the labor performed by a Missouri public school teacher is equal to what it costs public schools in Missouri to buy teaching services. As it happens, that cost is about $1.5M over 30 years. And $1.5M is 60% of $2.4M, which is what it costs the University of Missouri to purchase a year of head football coaching services. So in terms of market value, a 30 year career as a public school teacher in Missouri is equal in value to 60% of a single year of coaching football at the University of Missouri.


Some people think that market value is the only objective truth about value. They reason as follows. “We all place different values on things, based on what’s important to us. For instance, some people value nothing more than living in the biggest house that they can afford; so they build a place in the suburbs, furnish it with whatever Ikea and Target are selling that year and spend the rest of their professional lives sitting in traffic for two or three hours every weekday. Others prefer a midcentury bungalow in a crowded neighborhood that’s only a few miles from the office. Some people don’t care all that much about their house or their job, as long as they can remain in the community where they grew up. Others care very little about where they call home, provided that they can earn decent a living doing something that they find meaningful. Some people value quiet; others want vibrant nightlife. Some people have dogs, some have cats, others have both and some people prefer to have no pets at all. No one is in a position to judge the value of these or any other of the infinitely many preferences that find expression in the different choices that people make. 

So the only objective truth about how valuable things are is the truth about how much things cost: the only truth about the value of a given house is the truth about how much someone is willing to pay for that house; the only truth about the value of a gallon of milk is the truth about how much people pay for a gallon of milk; and the only truth about the value of a teaching career is the truth about how much teachers are paid.” Let’s call this view ‘market realism’, since it asserts that the only real truth about value is the truth about market value.[5]

Notice that if market realism is correct, then there is no such thing as value that exists independently of the value that people assign to things. According to market realism, value is constituted by what people are willing to pay. It follows that people decide how valuable things are; and there is no value apart from what people decide. So if market realism is correct then there is no such thing as intrinsic value. The view that there is no such thing as intrinsic value is called nihilism. (The word ‘nihilism’ comes from the Latin word nihil, which means ‘nothing’. Hence, ‘nothing-ism’—as in, the worth of a thing is nothing unless humans say otherwise.) Thus a consequence of market realism is nihilism. 

This underlying commitment to nihilism explains why the market realist isn’t concerned about the disparity between how much the State of Missouri values the football coach at the University of Missouri and how little the State of Missouri values its public school teachers. Nor is the market realist likely to be bothered by the fact that the public school system in Kansas City hasn’t been fully accredited in three decades.[6] (For 30 years, in other words, the public school system in Missouri’s largest city has, in the judgment of those whose job it is to evaluate such things, failed to provide its students with an adequate education. Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that funding is the sole reason why this is the case. But it’s undoubtedly part of the reason.)[7]

According to the market realist, all of this is as it should be: the value of things is determined by how much we pay for them. So we pay our teachers exactly what they are worth, because the worth of teachers is determined by how much we pay them. The same goes for college football coaches, entire school districts, children’s healthcare, professional sports arenas, roads, bridges and so on.


I agree with the market realist that what we are willing to pay for something reveals how much we value that thing. No matter what we say we value, and no matter what we think we value, we direct our resources to that which we actually value.[8] Consumers demonstrate what they value as individuals in the way that they spend their personal resources (e.g. spending on clothes or travel, investing in hobbies, donating to charity, saving for retirement or what have you). And our political community demonstrates what we value as a society in the ways that we use our collective resources (e.g. spending on law enforcement, national defense, public education, infrastructure, healthcare subsidies and so forth). 

I also agree with the market realist that, as far as it concerns most things, value is determined by the market: objectively speaking, things like cars, toasters, T-shirts, houses, couches and college football coaching services are just as valuable as the price that they command.

But I disagree with the market realist’s nihilism. In my view, some things have value independently of whether or how much we value them. In particular, I believe that all human beings are intrinsically valuable. So it’s not up to us to decide the value of certain things that are essential to human flourishing—like access to basic education, nourishment or healthcare.

As a political community, we are free to decide how valuable we think these things are; and what we decide will be reflected in the resources that we devote to educating our children and caring for the sick. But we aren’t free to decide how valuable those things actually are.

So my disagreement with right-wing evangelicals amounts to this. Since I’m not a nihilist, I think it’s possible for the members of our political community to be mistaken about the value of things like public education and access to healthcare. Christians shouldn’t favor a distribution of resources that’s determined entirely by free enterprise in search of profit. Instead, we should use whatever political influence we have to secure resources for public goods that engender human flourishing—goods like public education and affordable healthcare.

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


[1]According to Business Insider, “College football and basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees—here are the biggest paydays.”  See also ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[2]ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[3]National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.” This figure doesn’t adjust for annual salary increases over the course of a single 30-year career, since pay schedules vary dramatically by district. (More on this in Chapter Ten.) In any event, most such raises are vitiated by inflation. So an adjusted figure would overstate the average 2017 market value of 30 years of teaching in a Missouri public school.

[4]See ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”; National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.”;State Personnel Department, “State of Alabama Trooper Candidate Information Guide.” 

[5]For technical reasons that are irrelevant to present concerns, economists call this view marginalism. For a secular critique of marginalize from an influential economist, see Mazzucato, Mariana. The Value of Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group (2018).

[6]U.S. News & World Report, “Kansas City School District Doesn’t Make Full Accreditation.” 

[7]Baker, Bruce D., and Kevin G. Welner. “School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell?” Teachers College Record 113, no. 11 (2011): 2374-414.

[8]See Matthew 6:21. See also the economic theory of revealed preferences (versus expressed or stated preferences).

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 .