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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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