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date: 14 August 2020

Commerce, Consumerism, and Christianity in America

Summary and Keywords

American Christianity and commerce are bound together by their mutual history. In colonial America, Puritans excelled at the skills of capitalism, and in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Christian corporations have tied together religious and corporate culture. Even when corporations and churches have maintained a distinct boundary between faith and the market, American religion and capitalism seem to be uniquely compatible. Ministers and gurus use mass media to disseminate their message (via TV, radio, bookstores). Religious folk in the United States tend to act like consumers, choosing their theologies and churches based on their individual needs and desires, rather than relying on tradition to dictate their religious practices. Selling and buying in the American marketplace share many similarities with Christian categories of piety and evangelization. Further, corporations and religious communities have since the early 20th century collaborated in politics and social movements. In much of the scholarship on Christianity and commerce in the United States, this relationship is discussed as a strategic partnership between two distinct spheres of life: religion and the market. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this neat division, arguing that the fluid relationship among commerce, consumption, and Christianity in the United States emerges from the historical co-development of capitalism and religion. If Christianity and the market in the United States look very similar, or are particularly friendly, it is because they were never separate to begin with.

Keywords: capitalism, fetish, corporation, holidays, market, business, competition, democratization, selling, popular culture

Key Questions in the Study of Christianity, Commerce, and Consumerism

There are several different locations from which the sale of religion in the United States becomes visible. Following the structure of commerce itself, religion can be the product, the mode of production, or the distributer of products. Some of these locations are more visible than others. For instance, products such as What Would Jesus Do bracelets, self-help videos, and ornate gift bibles feel self-evidently religious. But who made these objects? Was their labor religious? Was the corporation that determined their value religious? Was every node in their distribution religious as well? Finally, is American capitalism itself religious? Thus the study of religion in the United States, by answering these questions, both helps to define central categories of American capitalism and also is defined by the logic of capitalism. For instance, the What Would Jesus Do bracelet is a religious object, but it is also a fetish object (an object whose value is defined by the structure of the capitalist market). Following Marx’s understanding of the fetish, products of capitalism conceal the social relations that contribute to their value. The hands and sweat that made the object become invisible as the chain of production and distribution lengthen out, shutting out the maker from the profits of her production. The erasure of labor gives the product a seemingly magical quality, having appeared in the world out of thin air.1 Fetishes thus seem to appear in social life with unnatural ease. The fetish quality of the What Would Jesus Do bracelet thus makes it easier to consider the religious identity of the bracelet’s distributor and consumer than the religious identity of its maker. To further complicate things, as Christianity has coevolved with capitalism in the United States, fetish and religious powers intermingle. Coca-Cola cans and the What Would Jesus Do bracelets not only lose their connection to the hands that produced their physical features, but also seem to do more than their mere ingredients would suggest. The power of the fetish and the power of Christian belief in the United States amplify each other to create a sense of wonder and supernatural power around consumer products.2

The study of religious production thus does necessary work in reconstructing opaque parts of a religious economy, whether that economy is a secular economy in which religion collaborates, or an economy directed by religion. Analysis of religious labor reveals the material labor necessary for Christianity to sell a product. The factory in China that makes a What Would Jesus Do bracelet, for instance, might seem unrelated to the bracelet’s circulation in American Christian communities, but it is certainly the precondition for that circulation and might also be part and parcel of the bracelet’s religious nature. The study of religious production might also highlight the institutions that organize religious commerce, whether they are corporations or churches. A chain of production might in fact link several institutions, including bible colleges, multinational corporations, and local churches.3 Further, as the scholar of practice De Certeau argues, the act of consumption is not a fully determined activity. People do not always use consumer products the way advertisements and industries want them to. Through tactics like collage, re-assemblage, or lack of interest, people use consumer products in novel ways that shift the effects of these products in people’s lives. Religious products are no different. Just because Joel Osteen or Oprah tells someone to read self-help books or magazines does not mean that people read attentively, or read with the same intentions that Osteen or Oprah might prescribe.4 Might this lack of interest or re-appropriation also be a form of religious consumption? Thus emphasis on the varied spaces of selling Christianity, including production and consumption, allows for a broader understanding of religion and capitalism’s lived reality in the United States.

With “buying,” “selling,” and “making” as new key verbs of American religious studies, attention should also refocus on the physical spaces and pathways through which these activities have taken place. The quintessential example of Puritan New England and its establishment through the Massachusetts Bay Company points to the role of empire in shaping commerce and religion’s co-definition in America. In both Iberian expansions into northern Mexico and Anglo expansions into the northeast, empire as an organizing concept held together religion and economic development as interdependent functions of civilization. More work on the role of American empire in spaces like the Philippines and the Middle East will also produce new insights into the relationship of commerce and religion.

Capitalism in the United States is also made up of more than making, selling, and buying physical objects. As John Corrigan’s work on the 1857 Businessman’s Revival points out, investment in financial markets was understood through religious ideas of emotional circulation within revivals.5 More studies that trace the religious history of stocks, bonds, credit, and other immaterial financial operations are necessary in order to understand the relationship of Christianity to the immense range of “sales” that characterize American capitalism in the 21st century.

Market of Religion

Much of the work on religion and commerce emerged out of scholarship on antebellum religion, a period marked by both disestablishment and the market revolution. After the American Revolution, the end of an official state church (disestablishment) and increased social mobility democratized American religion. There is a double valence to this idea that continues throughout much of the scholarship on American religion: the shift in market possibilities (moving away from the family farm) and a shift in government (the end of state church monopolies) increased people’s flexibility in their religious lives. The proliferation of choice—in what job to have, in religious community, in elected officials—all contributed to the creation of a subject who was more like a consumer.6 In churches, as in the market, people saw themselves as people who should make their own decisions about their destiny. By joining new religious groups, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of Latter Day Saints, religious people demonstrated their wariness of clerical authority and an interest in equal relationships within a religious group. According to this theory, the emergence of a choice-driven religious subject resulted in a decrease in ministerial authority in new religious groups, putting the laity at the center of antebellum religious life.

This shift from a minister-driven religious world to a laity-driven religious world inspired scholars to use consumer models to understand churches. The sociologists Finke and Stark termed this analytical model “the marketplace of religion” by arguing that the increasingly mobile populations in the early United States resulted in a reshuffling of religious affiliation, bringing more people into evangelical churches and away from traditional denominations. They argue that the religious landscape in the United States works like an economic system (specifically a capitalist one with little regulation), and when the United States abandoned the European model of having an official state church, congregations were forced to compete for parishioners. This increased competition, they argue, kept religion vital and responsive (while European church attendance declined rapidly in the 19th century), and the population of churchgoers grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The theory of the “marketplace of religion” emphasizes religious groups acting like businesses and innovating their theologies and practices in response to consumer demand. It is also an attempt to explain why there is more religious adherence in the United States despite the rapid “secularization” of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.7 One major argument against this thesis is about numbers. Historian Brooks Holifield argues that “probably around 35 to 40% of eighteenth-century colonial Americans regularly attended religious services, with some dips here and there,” and this percentage did not change much in 1850 or 1940.8 Depending on how we count “church attendance” (is it showing up or being a member?), these numbers are more complex than Finke and Starke assume. Another problem with the Finke and Starke model is the way in which the market as metaphor elides the actual relationship of the market and religion.

Religious Corporations

There are two important strands of scholarship that do not treat the market as metaphor: scholarship on religious corporations and scholarship on religious consumption. As work on the history of law and religion demonstrates, talking about the market of religion as metaphor obscures the fact that religious organizations were the first corporations in the United States. Religious bodies’ legal status as corporations had two important effects that directly challenge Finke and Stark’s theory of competition. First, reframing the democratization theory, there was a proliferation of religious bodies in the early republic as part of the phasing out of established churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, and the Mormon Church all emerged as religious bodies equal to other more established religious bodies like the Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches. As legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon argues, churches’ legal equality as “corporations,” a category that was newly available to small religious groups, shows how disestablishment encouraged diversity. Counter to Finke and Stark’s vision of disestablishment as a vacuum of authority, disestablishment regulated churches quite intrusively through the legal mechanism of the corporation. States could force churches to have trustee boards made up of laypeople (thus ensuring that these entities could never become a hierarchical system that could compete with the state), states could regulate how members joined and left the organizations, and they could determine how much property and money churches could hold.9 Thus, the “market of religion” was in fact the predecessor to a market of businesses, but it was a highly regulated market. This market democratized American religion in the sense that a more diverse array of people could start their own religious corporations, but once formed, the corporation was limited in its organizational decision making.10

Beyond this crucial co-development of corporate status and religious organizations, many of the most powerful companies in American history were and are religious. This point has become particularly salient in the wake of Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby in 2014, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are entitled to protections granted by the Constitution’s first amendment (freedom of religion). Just as other religious bodies are exempt from federal laws that require provision of services to their employees that conflict with religious values (like contraception or health insurance that covers abortion), a religious corporation is also free from this intrusion into the practice of religion. As Sarah Barringer Gordon’s work points out, this lack of state intrusion into the religious corporation is actually quite a departure from the legal precedent of the early republic.11 The Hobby Lobby decision can be understood through the 20th-century incarnation of the religious corporation in the United States, in which corporations did more than sell religiously inflected products, but instead became religious bodies unto themselves. Growing out of religious communities and the religious feelings of executives and CEOs, these corporations embody a Christian ethos and mission even if their products are secular. We do not necessarily think of Wal-mart or Wanamaker department stores as religious stores, but they rely on religious ideas for their particular corporate culture.

Businessmen have played a crucial role in shaping religion both in their own corporations and through their support of religious institutions. The idea of businessmen and tycoons funding religious causes and preachers took off during the early years of the 20th century when, for example, Henry Parson Crowell of Quaker Oats brought the slogan and the ideals of his brand (“Guaranteed Pure”) to his work as a trustee of the Moody Bible Institute. The institute thus became a place to “consume” religion with the guarantee of consistency and moral purity associated with its corporate patron.12 Individual religious celebrities also had corporate backing. For instance, Billy Sunday, the charismatic preacher, was supported by John D. Rockefeller during the 1910s.13 In the 1930s, corporate backing of “fundamentalism” played a key role in creating the institutions that would tie together conservative theology and free-market economics. The historian Sarah R. Hammond shows that even as fundamentalism made a sharp distinction between the world and faith in the realms of entertainment and politics, fundamentalist businessmen saw the market as a crucial connection between the their own subculture and the wider world.14 Darren Grem also shows that focusing on the financing of projects like The Fundamentals and anti-labor organizations like the Christian American Association shows that fundamentalism was not just a commitment to a literal reading of the Bible, but also a vision of free trade and corporate autonomy.15 The relationship between pro-corporate politics and Christianity was not, however, solely defined by fundamentalist Christians. It was liberal Protestantism, and not fundamentalism, that produced the definitive depiction of Jesus as a businessman in the 1925 classic The Man Nobody Knows. Written by advertising executive and theological liberal Bruce Barton, the book portrayed Jesus as a masculine entrepreneur who married Christian morality with executive skills.16 Despite deep theological disagreements, both fundamentalists and liberal Christians revered the businessman as an ideal religious type in the early 20th century.

Corporations, both through the zeal of their founders and the instituting of corporate culture and practices, also became religious institutions in the 20th century. William Leach, in his history of consumer culture at the dawn of the 20th century, shows that John Wanamaker utilized his Christian faith in developing the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. Not only did the store sell goods as part of a vision of Christian prosperity, but he also provided space for Dwight Moody’s revivals.17 Another American institution, Wal-mart, also emerged out of a religious ethos, argues the historian Bethany Moreton. Some of the important contributions of Moreton’s work are not just her interest in the religion of the founders, but also her focus on the religion of the region, the workers, and the shoppers of “Wal-mart country” (the Ozarks). At the origin of Wal-mart is a network of institutions—revival leaders, associations, colleges—that continued to influence the corporate culture of the company into the late 20th century. The evangelical minister John Brown, who converted the investor Jesse H. Jones, founded a Bible college that went on to define Christian managerial training and missions to Central America, which in turn would help define Wal-Mart’s vision of transnational corporatism. Free trade was not just an ideology of individual autonomy for Wal-Mart, but a vision for reaching new Christian converts. Most provocatively, however, Moreton recovers from the archive the contribution of female clerks in defining the corporate culture through their understanding of Christian service, a form of cheerful, poorly compensated labor on which the company relied. Moreton demonstrates the interrelationship of corporate culture, labor, and consumerism by showing how female Christian shoppers in the Ozarks also saw “shopping as service to family, and service in turn as a sacred calling.”18

Another important aspect of this historical work on the emergence of Christian corporations is the way it shows the overlaps among political, consumer, and religious history. Darren Dochuk, in his historical study of religion and oil, demonstrates that a series of alignments took place between established eastern oil barons like the Rockefellers and liberal Protestantism (represented by Harry Emerson Fosdick) and the independent oilmen looking for new frontiers of extraction who were aligned with fundamentalist evangelicalism.19 As Darren Grem argues about Dochuk and Moreton’s contributions, these studies “have not only challenged the notion of essential conflict between ‘social/religious’ conservatism and ‘economic’ conservatism, they have backdated the origins of conservative ‘fusion’ and collaboration from the age of Ronald Reagan to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”20 In books on the relationship of corporate America and Christianity, Darren Grem and Kevin M. Kruse use this chronological repositioning of the “fusion” to argue that the conservative Christian opposition to the New Deal is a key location of the corporate/Christian ideological synthesis. Religious corporate executives’ resistance to Roosevelt’s New Deal helped formulate a vision of free trade that intermingled with Christian theology and practice. Well into the 1950s, the NAE used the New Deal as an ideological straw man against which it developed a vision of Christian capitalism. Oilmen J. Howard Pew, Conrad Hilton, and the executives of Firestone, Chrysler, Kraft, General Motors, Walt Disney, and more joined forces in a religious anti–big-government movement. Then in the Eisenhower administration, this coalition successfully created a permanent niche within the culture and institutions of government (the National Prayer Breakfast and the motto “One Nation Under God”) that tied together corporate and religious interests in the administration of government. Figures like Billy Graham played an essential role in transitioning the alliance from its fundamentalist origins in the 1930s to the less theologically strict postwar evangelicalism.21 Kevin Kruse argues that this fusion between pro-corporation politics and conservative Christianity is also the source of the idea of the United States as a “Christian nation,” resulting in proliferation of this phrase as common sense for politics and law.22 It is worth noting that not all Christian leaders in the 1930s came out against the New Deal, thus clouding Kruse’s narrative unification of Christianity (in both liberal and conservative varieties) and pro-corporate political ideology.23

Moreton’s work on Wal-mart integrates labor into this story of religion and corporate culture by examining the idea of “corporate culture” as a regionally and historically distinct phenomenon, formed as much by consumers and laborers as executives. Thus the religious culture of a region or a city plays just as much a role in the configuration of corporate culture as does the converted CEO. Richard Callahan also examines the religion of labor, namely the dangerous and grueling labor of coal mining in Appalachia, and how it inflected the outpouring of religious gifts (healing, speaking in tongues) that characterize Appalachian religion.24 The less dirty work of middle management also has become infused with spiritual concepts and practices in the corporate cultures of Chik-Fil-A, ServiceMaster, Hobby Lobby, and the corporate deployment of Christian “life coaches,” as well as self-help literature like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.25 More work is needed to understand the changing meaning of work and interconnecting categories like piety, discipline, and practice in 21st-century corporations.

Religious Products

In the history of American religion, it is not only corporations that sell religious products. Churches and religious associations have, since the American Revolution, treated their services like a commodity that can compete with secular entertainment. In the influential study Selling God, Lawrence Moore looks at how churches and religious organizations have competed with an array of nonreligious activities like the theater, newspapers, novels, and the birth of consumer culture in the United States. By competing with these nonreligious goods, religious ideas and practices became shaped by the desires of consumers. Moore calls this “secularization,” by which he means that religious practices and objects and nonreligious commodities became increasingly indistinct. The rise of theatrical evangelical preaching, religious novels, and the founding of religious institutions specifically for sport and leisure (e.g., the YMCA) are all examples of religious objects and activities becoming molded to the desires of a consumer market. Scholarship on the rise of evangelical radio and television in the 20th century has continued this project, showing how religion’s adoption of market strategies has resulted in religious formations that compete directly with their secular counterparts. This scholarship has some key touchstones: Aimee Semple McPherson employing the spectacular performance styles of radio and theater (she also stirred up scandal like a celebrity of the stage), and ministers using the media of records, TV, and the proliferation of evangelical mass-market paperbacks.26

But are products, like the best-selling Left Behind book series, always competing with their secular kin? Studies of the print industry in the United States show that Christianity, rather than responding to an already established consumer culture, created its own consumer demand based on specifically Protestant practices. Historian David Nord argues that the publishing industry was initiated by religious printing concerns like the American Tract Society and the Methodist Book Concern in the early 19th century, which flooded the young nation with free print materials.27 These books and tracts helped to create a reading public, which then responsively asked for more to read. As scholars of the book like Paul Gutjahr have demonstrated, the centrality of text to American Protestants has contributed to a vibrant book culture where many other books (such as the Left Behind series) are necessary to explicate the central text of the Bible.28 Thus the religious culture of Protestant reading necessitates a religious publishing market.

Christian consumer products often vacillate between mimicking the trends of secular culture, and calling attention to their spiritual difference. In the 1970s, Christian culture simultaneously began to mimic and differentiate itself from mass culture, bringing together the Christian brand of popular culture with a conservative or countercultural aesthetic and politics. Earlier figures like Aimee Semple McPherson, Father Coughlin, and Oral Roberts used media like radio and television to identify themselves as the center of culture. After the 1960s, when conservative Christians had rejected the sensuous and rebellious quality of rock and roll, young Christians integrated rock and roll into evangelical culture but used this form to identify themselves as another kind of subculture. This turn had political effects, as Eileen Luhr explains in her account of suburban religion and politics. As “militant outsiders,” using punk and heavy-metal music, young suburban evangelicals participated in the culture wars over abortion and prayer in school.29 Not all Christian products since the 1970s, however, have had an overtly political message. In particular, many of the most popular ministers of the 1990s and 2000s have muted the rhetoric of battle and marginality in their churches.

The ministers associated with the “megachurch” movement express a message of non-aggressive mainstream values, and thus compete or collaborate with mainstream secular forms of community and entertainment.30 These figures’ mainstream appeal comes from their use of therapeutic culture and the “mind cure” tradition. Rooted in the early 20th-century philosophies of New Thought and psychoanalysis, a broad range of Christian and “spiritual” leaders in the United States have proffered a vision of “do it yourself” transformation that privileges mind over matter. If you think it, you can do it.31 As scholars of consumerism like William Leach and T. J. Jackson Lears have argued, the history of shopping and self-crafting through purchase are also informed by these intellectual traditions.32 Thus, in the figures of ministers like Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, who pioneered self-help book sales and megachurches, respectively, the consumer and religious aspects of this tradition come together. In the figures of Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Brian McLaren, Paula White, and Rick Warren, an American tradition of self-crafting through the quick practice of purchase continues to resonate. These leaders unabashedly are selling life solutions (in the form of books, seminars, and DVDs).33

Analysis of religious products is often a byproduct of another project: materializing American religion. By asking how religion takes on material form, in stained glass, images, parlors, and altars, work by scholars of material religion often reveals the role of commodification in American religious life. Because much of the material life of religion needs to be purchased or is made for purchase, dwelling on its materiality often brings to the fore religious practices’ relationship to consumer practices. For instance, a Christmas gift might embody ideas about Jesus’ birth and the moral value of family, but it also embodies the cycle of consumerism and ideas about taste and satisfaction defined by ad men. In other instances, however, ministers and practitioners might preempt marketers in determining the shape and quality of religious objects by producing and selling their own religious goods.34

Devotional Shopping

It is not just the objects people purchase for religious occasions and self-transformation that make religion and consumerism such close allies in American culture: it is also the way people buy these objects. Scholars of practice show that consumption has a particularly devotional quality in the United States. Leigh Eric Schmidt’s work on “consumer rites” argues that the complete synthesis of holy time and market time in holidays like Christmas is not simply a story of decline and secularization. In fact, the blurring of market and holy time is a return to a premodern sensibility in which fairs and markets took place on Sundays and merchants sold their wares on holy days despite church rules. Holy days were inherently festive before the 16th century, and it is only in the aftermath of the Reformation and the Enlightenment focus on economic rationality that the holiday as a festive time of consumption became identified with “idolatry and idleness.”35 American Puritans played a key role in distinguishing the space and time of the market from the space and time of church, a distinction that 19th-century Christians challenged by embracing holy days like Christmas.

The anti-festivity bias of the 18th century and early 19th century was replaced with a sense of nostalgia for festivity, fueled by Romanticism’s influence on the culture of American domesticity.36 Late 19th-century Americans borrowed from the genteel traditions of aristocracy and folk traditions of European culture to develop the aesthetics and mythos around holidays, and in doing so, they rejected a long-standing Protestant bias against the combining of market and religious time and space.37 Through the emergence of domestic holidays like Christmas that celebrated the family through consumption (buying gift books, cards, ribbons), religious consumption became tied to a feminized ideal of religion: a set of practices deeply associated with the wife and child in a nuclear family.38 As work on “kitsch” in American material religious culture points out, we tend to disregard religious practice associated with women as more commercialized.39 If the increasing association of marketing and religion are a moral problem, this problem is often gendered, making us associate the degradation of religion into commercialism with the centrality of women and the home in American spiritual life.

In the 20th-century, consumer rituals such as birthday parties, weddings, and Super Bowl Sunday became occasions to outsource the labor of organizing and making the material objects necessary for celebration. Elizabeth Pleck, in her study of family rituals, argues that a service economy developed around family rituals as women entered the work force.40 Holiday culture in the United States also was a site of assimilation for ethnic families in the 20th century, as nonwhite non-Protestant families demonstrated their commitment to American values by not only buying into the consumer practices around Christmas and Mother’s Day, but also by making ethnic holidays more gift-centric. Festivity thus has become a category of American life that implicitly demands purchase, but as Leigh Schmidt points out, this is not necessarily new.

Despite these historical studies of American holidays as inherently connected to commerce, scholars of 20th- and 21st-century American spirituality feel a sense of decline. Against Finke and Stark’s sense that Americans in the early republic could act like consumers, picking their church and theology based on ability to fit their needs, scholarship on contemporary religion describes the religious consumer as a distinctly postmodern formation, and one that can only truly exist in relationship to a late 20th-century/early 21st-century, consumer model. Picking and choosing among the multitudes of products, the contemporary religious consumer is “spiritual” because he or she is not bound to any particular brand. Vincent Miller argues that this shows a decline from an appreciation of tradition as coherence and communal obligation.41 Instead of submitting to the unified theology and practice of a particular religion, the contemporary consumer selects bits and pieces from many traditions and thus is bound by the ethical concerns of no tradition. This critique is historicized and re-described in Kathryn Lofton’s book on Oprah, which argues that in the religion of Oprah, there is no distinction between a consumer and a religious subject.

Lofton’s work on Oprah combines several of the historiographical traditions I have outlined: it is a description of a “religious” corporation called Harpo, inspired by the spiritual proclivities of its founder and its audience, but it also sells spiritual products (methods for spiritual self-realization and accessories for the practice of this realization). It is also a source of theological and ritual ideas, much as a church would disseminate a coherent worldview and practices to enable this worldview. Thus it competes with other religious organizations, if in fact the American religious landscape is a religious market. And, finally, Oprah is squarely within the tradition of consumer history, shaping modes of shopping that are certainly devotional and sometimes transformational. Lofton’s point in describing Oprah through these different traditions of historiography is to argue that commercial and religious history do not touch or merge at key points, but they are instead the same history. There is no such thing as religion that is unformed by markets or markets unshaped by religious motivations; thus Oprah is not a degraded form of religion or a spiritualized marketer. Rather, Oprah is the “religious now” or what religion feels like in late capitalism: something to shop for, but to shop for devotionally.42

Religion and Popular Culture

The history of subjects like Oprah is part of the study of religion and popular culture, a body of work that shifts the possibilities of what makes an appropriate object for the scholar of religion. The study of religion and popular religion need not address institutions of either the religious or mercantile type, but it often describes consumer objects (fashion, music videos, toys) that are deeply related to capitalism. Because these kinds of objects are “popular,” they are widely circulated through capitalist networks, and the study of religion and popular culture uses theories of markets, consumption, and of course religion to describe its objects. This kind of work, Kathryn Lofton points out, typically falls into three categories: religion appearing in popular culture, popular culture appearing in religion, and popular culture as a religion (fandom).43 Religion, all these studies show, seems pervasive in the United States, not just because of churches and New Age communities, but because Americans (whether they are religious, spiritual, or neither) buy things that have religious significance or participate in leisure activities like baseball “religiously.” There is, however, a major difference among studying religion in popular culture, studying religion as popular culture, and studying popular culture as religion. In the first formulation, we look for religious symbols and characters in our movies, novels, and marketing schemes, and “religion” is a highly stable element that can be located in the midst of a foreign substance. In other words, to study “religion in popular culture” is to assume that we know what religion is and that it is very different from the market and consumerism. In formulations such as “religion as popular culture” and “popular culture as religion” the assumption is that the definition of religion is actively being determined by new and contingent forces, including the shape of capitalism.44

Scholars at the forefront of this field study religion and consumerism, or religion and industry, with the acknowledgment that religion is not a settled category. Religion might in fact be defined by popular culture or capitalism rather than against it. The pioneer in this kind of work is David Chidester, who never employs a stable definition of religion to such objects as Coca-Cola or baseball, but seriously considers why people use the idea of religion to describe their relationship to these consumer goods and activities, and works backward to ask how our common application of religion to consumption might be part of a longer historical formation of the category “religion.”45 David Chidester’s work on popular culture also brings us back to the themes raised by scholars of the market of religion: namely, the seeming association between democracy and religion when religion participates in an open market. If something is popular, it is popular because many people like it, and thus it is associated with followers rather than leaders. These intuitive conclusions, that religion is more democratic when it is more marketable, or that something like baseball is religious because it evokes strong feelings, might tell us more about the way religion and consumer desire have become interwoven concepts in American culture than it does about the history of religion’s relationship to commerce.

As work by the leading scholars in the field of religion and popular culture demonstrates, all studies of religion and consumerism or religion and corporatism should not assume that the category of religion is an obvious part of this equation. The category of religion will have to remain flexible to understand, for example, how Americans understand ideas like fun, work, production, debt, investment, and value. These categories cannot be explained through a simple, binary, definition of religion and capitalism in the United States. Keeping in mind the contributions of scholars like Mark Valeri and Sarah Barringer Gordon, if economic practice and the legal status of the corporation changed the idea of what religious practice and a religious organization meant for early Americans, these developments require an understanding of religion as a category constantly in flux. Similarly, a flat understanding of markets cannot capture the intricacies involved in the “sale” of Christianity in the United States. Religion and capitalism constantly remake each other through their collaboration in history and in the present.

Review of the Literature

The study of the relationship between Christianity and capitalism in the United States begins with sociologist Max Weber’s thesis that Puritans in the United States demonstrated a particular capacity to produce capital, and to save and reinvest the money they made. Further, Puritans’ ability to reinvest their capital, Weber argued, stemmed from the Calvinist theology of predestination, or the idea that God had already chosen who was saved. Because Puritans believed that their selection by God was predetermined, they needed to demonstrate their chosenness in their vocation through hard work, while also living in ascetic simplicity. This special combination resulted in a tendency to make money but not spend it, and instead reinvest it for further money-making ventures.46 Due to Weber’s thesis, scholars have often seen American Christianity, with Puritans as the starting point, as uniquely intertwined. Americans are capitalistic strivers because they were Puritans and puritanical because they were capitalists.47 There are two central challenges to this model. First, the American project did not start solely with Puritans, and secondly, Puritans themselves (historians have argued) had a more complicated relationship with capital than Weber might allow us to see.

Beginning with the later challenge, historians of Puritans have inquired into the concrete decisions that Puritans made as Calvinists and merchants. Puritan merchant practices changed over time. Initially restricted by the church and state limits on usury, religious ideas declined over time, and these merchants embraced the trends of transatlantic commerce.48 This change could be explained as a shift in the locus of authority. As church discipline waned, civil courts increasingly oversaw disputes about economic practices, and the prohibition over usury disappeared. This change, however, need not be explained as a decline of religious sentiment, but as a shift in Puritan religion that accommodated new market practices as virtuous.49

Historian Mark Valeri argues that the “Puritan” ethic transformed into the “evangelical” ethic in the 18th century. Moral philosophers like Adam Smith linked sociability and the market by arguing that economic actors came together in a network of interests and sympathies and thus created the flow of trade and the stability of society simultaneously. Valeri shows that the practices of an emergent evangelicalism, including the revivalism and its attendant publications that circulated across the Atlantic, also used this idea of a network bound by sympathies.50 Evangelicalism shared an understanding of “social order” with theorists of the market: “individuals united into a commonwealth by virtuous affections and reasoned discourse” capable of reshaping “aggressive profit-seeking . . . and hard-nosed litigiousness into civility.”51 Valeri shifts the discussion here away from the question of whether Calvinism enabled capitalism or whether Puritans were secularized by the market, by showing how the theologies, sensibilities, and philosophies of the 18th century became deeply synchronized. This shift in sensibilities demonstrated a shift both in religion and in the market. The more that circulation of sympathy became a practice of 18th-century merchants, the more this mode shaped religion in its image, decentering the church and its local community and heightening a sense of a dispersed and anonymous reading community.52 Simultaneously, “evangelical religion . . . promoted and enhanced . . . the ideal of individuals who formed solidarities through interior affections . . . across great distances . . . and did so without deference to local and customary communities.”53 It is impossible, in other words, to disentangle the relationship of evangelical sensibilities from market sensibilities in the 18th century.

Further, colonial Calvinism was not the only religious tradition to interact with the market in the formation of the United States. In the middle colonies, a range of non-Calvinist traditions reckoned with market forces.54 Christian sensibilities of a variety of stripes (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian) also played a role in the administration of slavery throughout the American colonies, but especially in the South.55 But most significantly, the Iberian Empire’s collaborative mix of missions and mercantilism shaped the sensibilities of the southwestern regions of what we now think of as the United States (including California, Texas, and New Mexico).56 Puritan religion was not the only religious formation intersecting with commerce in the colonial era, and thus the Protestant ethic alone cannot explain religion and capitalism’s special relationship in the United States.

Further Reading

Callahan, Kathryn Lofton, and Chad E. Seales. “Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.1 (March 1, 2010): 1–39.Find this resource:

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Chidester, David. Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Corrigan, John. Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Grem, Darren E. The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Lofton, Kathryn. Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Moore, R. Laurence. Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Nord, David Paul. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Stievermann, Jan, Philip Goff, Detlef Junker, Anthony Santoro, and Daniel Silliman. Religion and the Marketplace in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Williams, Daniel K. “Evangelical Economics: Reexamining Christian Political Culture from Market-Based Perspective.” Reviews in American History 39.1 (2011): 175–184.Find this resource:


(1.) Richard Callahan, Kathryn Lofton, and Chad E. Seales, “Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.1 (2010): 12.

(2.) David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 3–4.

(3.) Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

(4.) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

(5.) John Corrigan, Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

(6.) Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

(7.) Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

(8.) E. Brooks Holifield, “Why Are Americans So Religious? The Limitations of Market Explanations” in Religion and the Marketplace in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(9.) Sarah Barringer Gordon, “The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property before the Civil War,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 162.2 (January 2014): 307–372.

(10.) Sarah Barringer Gordon, “The African Supplement: Religion, Race, and Corporate Law in Early National America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 72.3 (August 6, 2015): 385–422.

(11.) Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom,” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, July 8, 2014.

(12.) Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (UNC Press Books, 2015).

(13.) Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Mercer University Press, 2004), 105.

(14.) Sarah R. Hammond, “‘God Is My Partner’: An Evangelical Business Man Confronts Depression and War,” Church History 80.3 (2011): 498–519.

(15.) Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 23–41.

(16.) Charles Lippy, Do Real Men Pray? Images of the Christian Man and Male Spirituality in White Protestant America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005); 113–142; and Leo Ribuffo, “Jesus Christ as Business Statesmen: Bruce Barton and the Sellign of Corporate Capitalism,” American Quarterly 33.2 (Summer 1981): 217–221.

(17.) William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), 198.

(18.) Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christtian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 101.

(19.) Darren Dochuk, “Fighting for the Fundamentals: Lyman Stewart and the Protestant Politics of Oil,” in Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America, eds. Andrew Preston, Bruce J. Schulman, and Julian E. Zelizer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 41–55.

(20.) Darren E. Grem, “Christianity Today, J. Howard Pew, and the Business of Conservative Evangelicalism,” Enterprise and Society 15.2 (June 2014): 340.

(21.) Grem, Blessings of Business, 48

(22.) Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015); and Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

(23.) As historian Benjamin Brandenburg argues, prominent religious conservatives, including Pentecostal minister Aimee Semple McPherson and Presbyterian intellectual J. Gresham Machen, supported the FDR’s New Deal. Benjamin Brandenburg, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” Journal of Church and State 58.2 (2016): 396–398.

(24.) Richard J. Callahan, Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).

(25.) Lake Lambert III, Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009); and Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(26.) Matthew Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Lerone A. Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Douglas Carl Adams, Selling the Old Time Religion, American Fundamentalists and Mass Culture, 1920–1940 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001); Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Jerry Z. Park and Joseph Baker. “What Would Jesus Buy: American Consumption of Religious and Spiritual Material Goods,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46.4 (2007): 501–517.

(27.) David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(28.) Paul C. Gutjahr, “No Longer Left Behind:, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America,” Book History 5 (2002): 209–236.

(29.) Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Los Angeles: University of California press, 2009), 117–119.

(30.) Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

(31.) Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013).

(32.) William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011); and T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

(33.) Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

(34.) Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); and John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(35.) Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 25.

(36.) Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 31.

(37.) Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 32.

(38.) Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 73–74, 126.

(39.) Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

(40.) Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck, Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 17.

(41.) Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

(42.) Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

(43.) Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2010); and Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, Religion and Popular Culture in America, 3d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).

(44.) Susan L. Mizruchi, ed., Religion and Cultural Studies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) does this too.

(45.) Chidester, Authentic Fakes, 18.

(46.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Courier Corporation, 2012).

(47.) Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 22.

(48.) Bernard Bailyn, The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955).

(49.) Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

(50.) Mark Valeri, “Weber and Eighteenth-Century Religious Developments in America,” in Religion and the Marketplace in the United States, eds. Jan Stievermann, Philip Goff, Detlef Junker, Anthony Santoro, and Daniel Silliman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 71.

(51.) Valeri, “Weber,” 72.

(52.) Valeri, “Weber,” 74.

(53.) Valeri, “Weber,” 74.

(54.) Patricia U. Bonomi Under the Cope of Heaven : Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(55.) Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870, ed. John B. Boles (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1988).

(56.) Ramón A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).