Book Review: The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity

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Philip Roth’s 1971 novel Our Gang mocks Richard Nixon and his cabinet (Kissinger, Agnew, et al.) for their knavish attitude toward both the abortion question and the suffering caused by Americans in Indochina. The most humorous and spot-on caricature of the drama, however, is not to be found in its state department but on national television.  Reverend Billy Cupcake—based on the “Great Legitimator” Billy Graham—has the suspicious knack of always stumbling upon a layperson who just so happens to be expounding the position Cupcake otherwise ought to be arguing for. By seeming happenstance, the reverend comes across a student who craves more authority not less, scientists who don’t think science can answer all of life’s tough questions, and a woman in an elevator who extols the indescribable virtues of Nixon’s fictional surrogate.

Roth captured Graham’s folksy, nonsensical argumentative style in the character of the totally unappealing Billy Cupcake. And yet the flesh-and-blood evangelist he was based on did appeal to many people—millions (perhaps hundreds of millions), in fact. On the annual Gallup poll of “Ten Most Admired Men,” Graham made the list fifty out of fifty-one times between 1955 and 2006, and his 1973 sermon in South Korea was supposedly attended by over a million locals. Why was Graham so popular? There were many reasons, but the most striking is that he possessed both the tenacity of a CEO and the persuasive simplicity of a small-town Bible-thumper.

In religious historian Darren Grem’s recent book, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity, the goal is to emphasize just how unusual this combination of traits is by tracing the codependency of conservative twentieth-century preachers (whose idea of wealth-building began and ended with the collection plate) and faithful corporative executives (whose high merit of Christianity was that it more easily distinguished the deserving from the undeserving poor). The men of God couldn’t reach a large audience without compromising their message, while businessmen forced substantial swaths of people (their employees) to listen endlessly to pro-capitalist, anti-labor scriptural exegetics with minimal success.

In Grem’s telling, R.G. LeTourneau, a tycoon redeemer and early cold warrior, paid evangelicals to speak at his companies’ meetings in between his own pontifications on the merits of free-enterprise. Chick-fil-A’s corporate campus possessed (who knows, they still might have it) a mile-and-a-half long hiking trail lined with Bible verses on wooden stands, while ornamental tablets engrained with life advice from Proverbs were featured in its onsite museum. What’s more, in the 1980s the righteous chicken vendor encouraged employees to sing devotional songs—not to the father, the son, or the Holy Ghost—but to the Chick-fil-A way.

These anecdotes are relatively harmless—is the occasional hymn really that much more annoying or unnecessary than, say, the typical all-staff meeting? But quite a few others that Grem documents are downright sinister. Christian duty and biblical adherence were often grafted onto corporate matters that were wholly secular in nature.(A fundamentalist would certainly reject the notion that there was anything that stood outside of God’s cosmic plan.) The New Deal was denounced by believing radio hosts as “anti-Christian,” and it was suggested by some that Franklin D. Roosevelt could possibly even be the anti-Christ (in a marvelous historical accident, he just so happened to win 666 delegates in the 1932 Democratic primary). Texas millionaire and founder of the right-to-work movement Vance Muse wrote of the Roosevelt administration, “That crazy man in the White House will Sovietize America with the federal hand-outs of the Bum Deal—sorry, New Deal.  Or is it the Jew Deal?” Those familiar with the content of the Nixon tapes will recall that Graham was afflicted with a similar theoretical prejudice against Jews. Muse himself was a total cretin who denounced labor unions as breeding grounds for interracial fraternizing—a real no-no in his mind.

In the late nineteenth century and early parts of the twentieth, conflicts between labor and capital, workers and managers were a constant fear for business owners. So it’s only natural that they recruited evangelical organizations to offer spiritual guidance for those with decision-making power and phony compromises for those without it.  When that didn’t work, fire-and-brimstone sermonizers could always be brought in and counted on to settle down both parties. With the Chicago labor strikes of the 1880s culminating in the Haymarket riot, America’s first state-backed Red Scare was initiated. A talk given shortly after the incident by D.L. Moody—founder of Moody Bible Institute, the Mayflower of modern Christian fundamentalism—connected what happened with both foreign ideas and domestic perversity. “Either these people are to be evangelized or the leaven of communism and infidelity will assume such enormous proportions that it will break out in a reign of terror such as this country has never known,” Moody warned.  Again and again, The Blessings of Business shows conservative preachers like Moody to be remarkable at lumping together the causes of their animus.  One’s stance on racial segregation, sexual mores, the conflicts between science and dogma, and the suspicion that socialism necessitates tyranny are all unified, not without effort or strain, into one coherent bloc. This wasn’t just fashion or rhetoric either. A lot of intellectual energy was spent showing how these things were interrelated—in other words, to show how one thought about anything really did depend on how one thought about everything, and vice versa.

How inconsistent many of these preachers were over time makes this effort at systematizing their views even more impressive. In a 1967 sermon, Jerry Falwell condemned Martin Luther King, Jr. for using his churches to interfere in politics. In 1976, he accused the devil himself for the idea that ministers should stay out of public affairs. But the situation changed; Roe v. Wade was decided. A moral minority was then necessary and justified to impose its views on the rest of us. Likewise with preachers who attacked Christian socialists for extrapolating politico-economic doctrines from the Gospels, only to later find in those same texts the preambles for property ownership and market competition.

Importantly, Grem is not condescending in his analysis of the relationship between Christianity and business. Corporate executives are not depicted as dark forces conspiring behind the altars, and those in the pews are not ridiculed for being credulous dupes. As the author makes clear, “The links between evangelical consumers and corporate providers was no story of economic hoodwinking or false consciousness. Evangelical consumers knew exactly what they were doing and desiring.”

However, like Philip Roth, Grem crams too many characters into his story. Some are dropped off along the way and never heard from again. Others reappear later on in different contexts with no explanation of how they got there or where they’ve been. Moral and political abstractions are sometimes used to replace critical engagement. For example, Grem writes, “[Zig] Ziglar’s postures in denominational matters signaled his broader commitment to define and promote conservative norms of race, gender, sex, and the state in America.” What this entails is left out. For Grem’s next book, one might suggest he use his historical mind to close in on something more precise and let his adversaries own words do more of the condemning for him.