Corporate Evangelicalism

Corporate Evangelicalism May 7, 2015

Recently, Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God has generated considerable attention for its claims about the way that the 1930s and post-WWII alliance between politically conservative businessmen and evangelicals created modern ideas about “Christian America.” According to the book’s self-description, Kruse “reveals how the unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics created a false origin story that continues to define and divide American politics to this day.”

One Nation Under God is high on my summer reading list. First, though, I’m reading Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. Gloege first, because he studies the half-century before the material in One Nation Under God.

I am fascinated by the idea of what Kruse describes as an “unholy alliance.” Gloege is onto this problem as well. He suggests that a marriage between evangelical conservatives and “consumer capitalism” led to a “hobbled … ability to offer systematic critiques of capitalism.” Yes, this is true, but I disagree with that statement’s implication that evangelicals should be offering systematic critiques of capitalism. I think they should have been critiquing the way that Andrew Carnegie busted unions and placed his workers in insanely hazardous conditions, and I think Christians should criticize the way that American corporations today exploit overseas workers. And putting the specific conditions of its factories in China aside, I think Christians should question the morality of American companies legitimating repressive dictatorships in such nations. Very few Americans, evangelicals included, want unregulated and entirely unfettered capitalism (or at least very few would want it if it were explained to them in any detail). But while I endorse limited and targeted critiques of corporate excess and corruption, I think systematic critiques of capitalism would be entirely misguided because I credit capitalism with the staggering rise in human prosperity and comfort many of us now enjoy. Perhaps that is evidence of my own evangelical hobbling! I think I’ve simply read too many books that criticize evangelicals for not being more critical of capitalism. In my opinion, many mainline American denominations are too little appreciative of capitalism’s social benefits.

That quibble aside, which I partly retract below, Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure is a masterly study of the deep influence that corporate America has exerted on the culture of evangelicalism since the late-nineteenth century.

Gloege takes as the object of his study “corporate evangelicalism,” the collaboration between salesman-turned-revivalist Dwight L. Moody and corporate elites such as Cyrus McCormick, Jr. As Gloege explains, Moody and like-minded evangelicals were hardly the first to incorporate lessons borrowed from the worlds of commerce and advertising. But they did so at a time dominated economically by the rise of large, horizontally and vertically integrated corporations. Thus, it should not be surprising that “corporate evangelicals” brought about a world of “religious organizations structured like corporations,” religious ministries/businesses that carefully package their products to appeal to specific segments of the American marketplace. This model eroded the authority of denominations, a significant check against radical individualism. Thus, Gloege draws a fairly straight line from Dwight Moody’s corporate evangelicalism to today’s world of “pliable, segmented evangelicalism,” in which celebrity pastors and writers “can make it on their own without any institutional validation.” Moody Bible Institute itself, which helped give birth to this brave new world of business-oriented parachurch organizations and networks, found itself left in the dust by savvy new competitors.

The biggest problem, in my view, is not that evangelicals too often gave the captains of industry a free pass. It’s that, as Gloege explains with such sophistication, evangelicals brought the values of consumerism and modern capitalism into the church with far too much enthusiasm and too little caution.”Segmented evangelicalism” has its benefits and drawbacks. The desire to fill market niches and attract new religious “consumers” goes hand in hand with both the vitality of American evangelicalism and its evangelistic imperatives. At the same time, it feeds into a culture of celebrity and creates situations in which popular leaders have very little accountability beyond their own followers.

Scholars of American religion should pay close attention to Gloege’s introductory discussion of the term “evangelicalism.” Like many others historians, I have adapted David Bebbington’s four-fold definition of evangelicalism: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. Gloege objects that Bebbington’s definition “perpetuates their theological judgments” by implying that non-evangelicals do not take seriously the Bible, conversion, or Jesus’s death. Moreover, Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” does not pay attention to the ways that “churchly Protestants” differentiate themselves from their evangelical cousins. Gloege explains that for these Protestants, evangelicals distinguish themselves (and not positively) through their “intrinsic individualism,” their naive faith in a commonsensical reading of the Bible, and their reliance on “quantifiable and empirical ‘results’ of faith” in evaluating their ministries. Gloege, in turn, rejects “the practices of equating ‘evangelical’ with ‘conservative Protestant’ and positing ‘liberal’ as its opposite.” In my view, Gloege’s discussion poses a significant challenge to accepted definitions of the term “evangelical.” Scholars should work harder to explain what both insiders and outsiders see as essential to “evangelicalism.” Gloege then defines “conservative evangelicalism” as structured around an “individualistic relationship” with a personal, masculine God; an “individualistic, ‘plain’ interpretation of the Bible … superintended by dispensational assumptions”; and a suspicion of “social reform.” In other words, from the perspective of both “churchly Protestants” and “liberal Protestants,” evangelicalism is inextricably bound to the hyper-individualism exemplified by the modern American consumer.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    It is rather odd that those who claim to be disciples of a Savior who overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple should have baptized corporate capitalism and raised it up almost to the status of an idol.

  • steve burdan

    Outstanding overview – can’t wait to read the books!

  • RustbeltRick

    Turner, above, seems hung up on one word: “systematic.” He seems to think that systematic critique of capitalism is code for “rhetoric that calls for the complete elimination of capitalism as an economic system.” I highly doubt that Kruse and Gloege are calling for that. The fact that the two men are selling their books, rather than giving them away, seems to argue for at least a tolerance of capitalism. Turner is straw-manning a bit.

  • Andrew J. Schmutzer

    A stimulating review. Refreshing here is the exploration of what any given definition of evangelical implies for BOTH sides of the ecclesiastical spectrum. I’m intrigued by the tacit gnosticism books like these tend to reflect about their own complex-cultural milieu. Both ends of the spectrum capitulated to pressures of their day. D.L. Moody applied a production-like pragmatism, given his era, to the winning of souls. This lives on today in the current mentality: the end is so noble the means must be justified. I question, however, whether Liberal Protestantism is not also marked by similar strands of individualism, calibrated for their own ideologies, “rich in things but poor in soul,” as Harry E. Fosdick wrote of his own.

  • I am fascinated by the idea of what Kruse describes as an “unholy alliance.”

    Is Kruse a preacher or a historian? If the latter, I question his authority to decree what is holy or not. If the former, we must accept his religion in order to accept his premises.

    Perhaps God used these imperfect vessels to spread His word to millions. Who can say?

    Clearly, when “religious history” is written by those with a theological-political ax to grind, it’s buyer beware. This is a disturbing trend.

  • John Turner

    Yes, at least partly guilty as charged.

  • John Turner

    Yes, I agree with you about liberal Protestantism being deeply influenced by individualism, such as the Emersonian idea that each individual finds the divine within himself.

  • John Hutchinson

    “Yes, this is true, but I disagree with that statement’s implication that evangelicals should be offering systematic critiques of capitalism.”

    Seriously? There is a category distinction to be made between “free market economy” and capitalism for one thing.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Right, one can critique capitalism without not believing in any forms of market-driven economies. Not every who critiques capitalism is a Marxist.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Practically anyone can become a ‘preacher’ by claiming God called them to preach. They are not any more credentialed to declare something unholy than anyone else . . .

  • That’s not as deep as it probably seemed at the time. In either case, we must accept his religion in order to accept his premises.