Pharaoh’s Empire in Modern America

Last week, 150 clergy and religious leaders from all around Minnesota gathered to begin walking a path together. It was an opportunity to imagine the kind of world we want to live in and commit to working together to make that a reality. Yet we began by talking about the world we live in today.

In recent weeks, we learned one of the big banks created millions of fake accounts to drive up profits and increase their stock value. Ordinary customers were charged fees and fines they didn’t understand, and that money ended up in the hands of shareholders and high-level executives. Today, payday lenders prey on the most economically vulnerable members of our communities, signing them up for loans they know won’t get paid back, and charging 300% (or more) interest. Today, new mothers without paid family leave go back to work less than 24 hours after giving birth. Today, people who come down with a routine illness have to choose between going to work sick in order to get a paycheck, or staying home, losing a day’s wages, and potentially losing their jobs. Today, for-profit prisons with a vested interested in increasing the prison population fight for legislation that puts more people behind bars—and it’s black and brown bodies that are most likely to end up there. And speaking of black and brown bodies, after the slaughter of two more young black men at the hands of law enforcement this week, we are reminded again how little value our society places on black bodies.

It might look like random corruption, chaos, and violence, but the world we live in today was carefully designed and constructed. It’s not like the weather; it didn’t just happen on its own. It’s the result of a well-coordinated strategy.

Lewis Powell was a corporate lawyer about 50 years ago who went on to become a United States Supreme Court justice. He perceived that corporate America was under attack, and in 1971 he wrote a confidential memo to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce with a blueprint for how the corporate movement could regain its influence.

“Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations…

“Business must learn the lesson… that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

–Lewis Powell

He said, in a nutshell, that the corporate movement would need to build a broad, diverse, and highly coordinated infrastructure. Corporations would need to work together to lobby for pro-business legislation. They would need to create think tanks to develop pro-business policy proposals that could be disseminated to likeminded lawmakers all around the country. They would need to find ways to own the media so news coverage was always favorable. They would need to form political lobbying organizations to promote their agenda. Most importantly, they would need big funders to make this all possible.

Four decades later, what have we got?


Today, corporations work together to lobby for pro-business legislation through organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. Think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council develop pro-business policy proposals and export them to likeminded lawmakers across the country. Media organizations owned by corporate interests disseminate a pro-business worldview. Political lobbying groups promote a corporate agenda. And big funders like the Koch brothers make all of this possible.

Having built that, the corporate movement has learned to leverage that infrastructure to accomplish its agenda. They’ve succeeded in electing people to public office who share their worldview; reducing government power over the market by deregulation; privatizing an array of public services; cutting taxes to redistribute wealth to the top; undermining and distorting public programs; and diminishing grassroots people power. Today we are living in Pharaoh’s Empire, where too many of God’s people suffer economic oppression and exploitation, while Pharaoh amasses great wealth.

Moses was a Hebrew who grew up in Pharaoh’s household; he had one foot in each world. He saw how his people suffered as slaves in Egypt, and it was too much for him. After murdering an Egyptian he saw mistreating one of his fellow Hebrews, he fled to the foreign land of Midian, where he hoped to forget all he had seen and build a comfortable new life. Then Moses encounters the burning bush and is confronted by God: “I’ve seen it, too, the way my people suffer. Go and bring them out of Egypt.” Moses is faced with a choice: a comfortable life in Midian where his people’s troubles are far away, or the messy and dangerous work of liberation.

It’s the same choice many of us face every day. We’ve seen our people’s suffering. Will we turn away, building comfortable lives for ourselves and trying to forget what we have seen? Or will we choose the messy, dangerous work of liberation? Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to build our own broad, diverse, and highly coordinated infrastructure to advance our agenda, the liberation of God’s people. Liberation is not like the weather; it won’t just happen. It must be carefully designed and constructed, bringing together into a common struggle all who long for the freedom of the oppressed.


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