How American Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity

Christians have been involved in the marketplace for as long as Christians and markets have existed. The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity by Darren Grem catalogues how Christian men not only have been involved in business, but also shaped 20th-century conservative Christianity in the United States.

The inside front cover of the book features Jesus’s admonition that one cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13). Yet Grem—who serves as assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi—contends that American Protestants have been trying to prove otherwise.

Built on Money and Power 

Part one (chs. 1–3) catalogues the influence of businessmen in providing financial backing and business acumen to the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals, as well as much of the early funding for Moody Bible Institute and Westminster Theological Seminary. Much of the rest of these chapters deal with how other Protestant businessmen helped fund multiple organizations during this period—Christian Business Men’s Club International, Biola University, Campus Crusade for Christ, Young Life, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, Fuller Seminary, Billy Graham Crusades and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Christianity Today, The Navigators, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and more.

It’s encouraging to read of the effect these Christian businessmen had and continue to have through the creation of longstanding, influential, and recognizable evangelical institutions. This is one of the positive aspects of the book.

Part two (chs. 4–6) describes how Chick-fil-A, Tropicana, Holiday Inn, Days Inn, ServiceMaster, and a myriad of small businesses were involved in a “new” phenomenon of Christians owning and managing small businesses. Thus, according to Grem, Christianity became linked to consumerism and corporatism, where being “born again” meant being born again by consuming evangelical goods.

The remainder of this section details quite well the rise of TV evangelism, the kitschy culture of Heritage USA’s theme park, the rise of the Christian book and music publishing industries, as well as Zig Ziglar’s “free market revivals” of positivism and self-esteem. Grem concludes with examples of how evangelicals forayed into the political sphere with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the election of Ronald Reagan, the Christian Coalition, and James Dobson’s Family Research Council. Grem concludes by contending that evangelicalism’s future depends on what got it to its current place in society: money and power.

Words of Warning

The Blessings of Business helpfully brings to the fore influential Christian businessmen whom evangelicals have either forgotten or never known. But readers must make note of three things prior to engaging Grem’s arguments.

First, one of Grem’s criticisms throughout the book is that many of the men were fundamentalists, often used in a pejorative sense. One aspect of fundamentalism is a dualistic worldview, a separation of the sacred from the secular, where the sacred should retreat with a fortress mentality from the secular forces that swirl around. Ironically, Grem often writes from this same dualistic perspective. He isn’t just providing a history of these leaders’ influence; he’s criticizing them for their money, power, and stature, and for using it outside the sphere of the church in order to effect change in society and culture.

Related, Grem criticizes fundamentalist Christians who long for the “mythical” era of the 1950s with its white enclaves, Main Street-like scenes from Andy Griffith; a time when traditional family values of heteronormative sexuality, Christianity, and patriotism were woven into an idyllic Norman Rockwell painting. Yet Grem again falls prey to his own criticism. It’s apparent he longs for an alternatively mythical time when Christians weren’t engaged in enterprise, or engaged in the culture and society around them.

Second, Grem often makes claims without citing any source. For example, in multiple chapters one reads about what he calls the “divine contract” (35). He explains: “If one could take heart in the rock-solid convictions of fundamentalism . . . then one could expect blessings now, because the contract was already signed.” Reneging on the contract by the individual resulted in eternal damnation. Yet there’s a lack of support in the paragraphs covering the Divine Contract concept. Later, Grem states that Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy “affirmed the long-standing evangelical theology of the divine contract; he expected immediate and guaranteed rewards for faithful service” (121).

Again, there’s no citation for where Cathy said this, or where this was part of “long-standing evangelical theology.” Grem does likewise throughout the book. He also claims businessmen’s usage of the word “liberty” was code for anti-liberalism in theology and politics (72). Similarly, “discretion” is understood as “discrimination” (90). Grem doesn’t successfully provide resources to substantiate these claims, however. He additionally argues Wycliffe Bible Translators was not only religious, but also wanted the “Bible-less” to “affirm an American way of life grounded in faith and capitalism” (101). Without establishing the source for this claim and others, we’re left with the raw material of speculation, which, at worst, makes Grem’s arguments appear as nothing more than ideological assertions.

Finally, Grem says the general American consumer has unknowingly funded tax-exempt and/or tax deductible evangelical causes through everyday purchases of chicken sandwiches or car batteries. But Grem fails to recognize this is normal and not conspiratorial. Many evangelicals unknowingly fund tax-exempt and tax-deductible liberal causes, as multiple corporations give to Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and The Clinton Global Initiative. It’s also unclear if Grem would prefer the forces of supply and demand, or government policy, be changed to eliminate these corporate dollars flowing to evangelical causes. His silence and one-sided presentation of money’s origin and destination comes across as disingenuous.

A helpful follow-up research project for Grem and others would be to explore how corporations, their foundations, and big-time college sports (often through corporations) influence higher education—the industry of which he’s a part—as well as many other secular causes. This is especially pertinent in light of the more than 100 companies fighting a culture war by asking the North Carolina legislature to repeal the so-called “anti-LGBT” law HB2. In other words, if Grem is displeased with the current structure, what alternative would he propose? Moreover, is this problem limited to corporations and Christianity, or are all dimensions of social, political, and economic culture eligible for a similar kind of scrutiny?

Ultimately, Grem provides benefits by detailing the influence Christians in business can have on the world. Yet he falls short in his dualistic approach, ideological assertions, and one-sided presentation of how money (from business) flows to causes.

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