Buried on the fourth page of Lori Montgomery’s recent piece in the Washington Post on Paul Ryan’s alleged anti-poverty crusade is an incredibly disparaging quote from Bishop Shirley Holloway, a minor religious celebrity in D.C., who, after assuring us that “Paul wants people to dream again,” omnisciently asserts that “you don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”
It’s a bizarre sentiment that understandably provoked a snarky backlash from liberal bloggers. But it’s also an unusually honest expression of how religious conservatives and allies of Paul Ryan view the lower classes. For many on the broadly defined Christian Right, what ails the poor is that they are not “dreaming” as they should be. This may be due to circumstance, or personal failing, or some combination of both. But the message is clear: for the millions of luckless souls who find themselves in abject poverty, there is a simple, straightforward path to tangible and dramatic socioeconomic improvement. Luckily, it doesn’t require increased social spending by government, or taxes on the rich, or anything like that (in fact, it might require reduced social spending and lower taxes on the rich). As it turns out, “dreaming” is all that’s needed.
Shirley Holloway is far from the only religious leader who proposes intensified dreaming as the key mechanism by which one can escape poverty. But, without question, the leading exponent of this school of thought is one Joel Osteen, celebrity pastor at Lakewood Church, the largest church in the United States. Osteen has built an extremely lucrative personal empire on the foundational message that, if his extended flock will simply agree to dream bigger and think more positively, God will grace them with previously unimaginable levels of wealth and success. Each week, when millions of people around the world tune in to see the perpetually smiling Osteen deliver his sermon to a reliably packed arena, they hear some variation of the promise that everyone is this close to “realizing their full potential” and experiencing a vague but boundless bliss.
Osteen, who is strategically nonpolitical, effortlessly churns out bestsellers that more or less repeat this same message in a variety of ways. In 2009, amidst brutal, worldwide economic devastation, he released a book titled “It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor.” On the back cover of the hard copy, Osteen laments that “a global recession” has caused so many to “postpone their dreams.” Writing in the personal style, as though he were addressing a single person, Osteen writes that even though “you may have lost your job, your savings, maybe even your home,” you “are closer than you think” to seeing all of your most glorious dreams come to fruition. “Your dream may just be up around the corner,” this multimillionaire promises, so “don’t talk yourself out of your goals and dreams.”
In 2012, Osteen published “I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life.” Talk of “dreams” is peppered throughout the short book, which is presented in terms of days: one “promise” each day for 31 days. “God never aborts a dream,” Osteen reveals on Day 4. On Day 10, enthralled readers are instructed to repeat the following: “I will accomplish my dreams faster than I thought possible.” By Day 28, we discover that even “hidden” and “deeper” dreams, of which we are not even consciously aware, will come true. Indeed, anything that can even be remotely considered a “dream” will apparently come true, given a healthy degree of faith.
Practical economic reality is no obstacle for Osteen. “Maybe it should normally take you twenty years to pay your house off,” he writes, but “the good news is that God is in the accelerating business,” and “He can give you one good break that can thrust you thirty years down the road” (this is decreed on Day 10). Osteen repeatedly cautions against any creeping skepticism about the “explosive blessings” that are allegedly forthcoming; doing so will cause personal “stagnation” and tangibly reduce one’s favor in the eyes of God.
The wickedness and dishonesty of this message is difficult to overstate. It cloaks condescension as compassion. It preys on the credulity and optimism of financially ruined people and muddles how people perceive their economic self-interest. Most importantly, this kind of thinking aids the predatory classes in their mission to further chip away at the welfare state and avoid any semblance of economic sacrifice. When enormously trusted and popular religious figures like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer tell people that they are in full control of their economic destiny, it provides explicit class warriors like Paul Ryan the support they need to present their destructive, ultra-right-wing policies as beneficial to the very people they are trying to starve. As Bishop Holloway said, Paul Ryan isn’t simply aiming to transfer wealth from poor to rich, as it might seem on the surface. No, he’s trying to get people to “dream again.” And who could disagree with such an innocuous concept? Who is anti-dreaming?
Much like religious belief itself, this fatuity about escaping poverty through dreaming keeps people from thinking critically and analytically about matters of profound importance to their lives. It fully exonerates all of the actors responsible for historic inequality and vast economic suffering, from the extractors of Wall Street, to the corporatists of Congress, and many others. The American economy has been hollowed out as a matter of premeditated public policy over several decades. The Paul Ryans of the world do not want people thinking in such concrete, policy-based terms, so the landscape for discussion must be shifted to vague abstractions, like “dreaming” and “dignity” and “personal responsibility” and all of the vacuous platitudes endlessly parroted by reactionaries over the years.
This kind of rhetorical deceit is particularly dangerous because it effectively spins manifestly harmful and unpopular policy proposals into noncontroversial plans to enhance “personal growth.” When Americans are clearly presented with plans to further erode the already meager welfare state, they soundly and consistently reject them. The only logical response to this, for someone like Paul Ryan, is to adjust his messaging, and find the right kind of propaganda that will convince the lower classes not only that is it in the country’s best interest if they submit to more and more cuts to their benefits, but that it’s actually in their personal interest as well. The trope about “dreaming” is a particularly vulgar and transparent attempt to do just this. Telling desperate people that their dreams are somehow invalidated, or even nonexistent, so long as they’re receiving public assistance is unconscionably warped. Ryan, Holloway, Osteen, and anyone else who has even tacitly helped reinforce this vicious idea, all in the name of chipping away at the welfare state, should not get away with masquerading cruelty as concern.
Justin Doolittle writes a political blog called Crimethink. He has an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.