New Book by Darren Grem Explores Business and Evangelicalism

Darren GremDr. Darren Grem joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi in 2012 as Assistant Professor of History and Southern Studies. His book, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity, just came out from Oxford University Press. The Blessings of Business details how business leaders, organizations, money, and strategies advanced the religious and political ambitions of conservative evangelicals in the twentieth century.

Darren earned his B.A. from Furman University and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and then held postdoctoral fellowships at Yale University and Emory University. Currently, with John Corrigan and Amanda Porterfield, Dr. Grem is editing The Business Turn in American Religious History, a scholarly essay collection that reconsiders the role of business in American religious politics and culture. With Ted Ownby and James Thomas, he is also putting together an edited collection in honor of Charles Reagan Wilson, taken from the 2015 Porter Fortune History Symposium on Southern Religion and Culture.

I recently interviewed Darren about the book’s inspiration, the research experience, and future projects.

Blessings of BusinessCan you talk about the origins of this book? What led you to write about Christianity and the business world?

I grew up in a conservative, evangelical household in South Carolina, and I’ve long been curious about where all the religious and political lessons I received as a kid came from.  During and after college, I briefly did marketing work for a company which touted “Christian” principles at work and employed a number of students from Bob Jones University (a fundamentalist school in South Carolina), so my background in business and interest in the intersection of religion and business came in part from that experience.  My dad also worked for a company out of Texas that sent Bible verses out with company e-mails, and it was intriguing to me to consider non-churchly places and spaces as “religious” environments and places where the religious ideas and aspirations of evangelicals found expression.

In grad school, I was hurting for a dissertation topic since my original idea wasn’t panning out. While doing some research for that dead-end dissertation topic, I re-visited this famous article from 1976 in Newsweek about the rise of evangelicals in American public life. The article mentioned a number of big businessmen who had shaped evangelicalism all the way back in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  It also had a picture of this publication called The Christian Yellow Pages, a business directory that listed companies similar to the one my dad worked for and I had worked for.  I was unaware of most of the businessmen named by the article and the notion of doing “Christian” business as a kind of countercultural act in the 1970s.  Thus, I was curious if there was a story there that hadn’t been told before, a kind of business history of modern American evangelicalism.

The book, therefore, tells the story of how corporations became places for evangelical activity and expression and how businessmen, sometimes working individually, sometimes collaboratively, shaped what we think of today as conservative “Christian” culture and politics.

Can you talk a bit about the sources you used? How did you get to know the personalities of people like Herbert Taylor, and R. G. LeTourneau?

Most of the main figures in the book (Herbert Taylor, J. Howard Pew, R.G. LeTourneau) had archive collections available for consultation. Others (such as S. Truett Cathy, Zig Ziglar, and most of the other second- and third-tier businessmen in the book) had few archival materials or had nothing more than snippets available in various archives, so I had to use public materials or had to consult collections that had stored correspondences or other sources. The uneven nature of the materials available kept this book from being what I initially conceptualized it as, namely as a straightforward, event-by-event, chronological business history of how conservative evangelicals used the corporation to retain and expand their social and political influence in American life. Instead, it became (to draw from an analogy from fundamentalist history) a more “dispensation”-driven story, one that tells about the various relationships at certain points in time in modern American history between conservative evangelicals, corporations, corporate interests, and businessmen. In that sense, it also became a kind of long-form version of the short-form studies that scholars in business schools write, which are often case study driven.  The upside of such a “dispensational,” topical, case study approach was that I was able to get to know my subjects and the nuances of their politics, religious perspectives, and personality quirks and temperaments. Taylor, for instance, was very measured and rarely negative in tone or caustic in his writing. LeTourneau was the same, an almost unfettered optimist.  Pew was very staid and impersonal in his correspondences, although he could turn grouchy and short. Unlike other businessmen, I also honestly believe he also threw nothing out.  His personal papers, which are available at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware, would take years to mine and, if his estate would allow it, a well-contextualized biography of him would be a fantastic dissertation for any up-and-coming grad student to write.

Were corporate archives open and accessible?

Most of the private businesses I detail did not and do not have public archives. I remember asking Chick-fil-A years ago if I could consult any in-house records or materials, but they only offered to take me on a tour of their corporate campus. Same deal with a few other businesses. Publicly-traded companies had basic financials and corporate information available, but I did not find them terribly helpful for telling the religious histories or measuring the way such companies made “religion” in their dealings and activities. Once more, publicly available materials, in some case studies conducted by business scholars, others interviews in various periodicals and newspapers, were helpful in that regard.

The simple fact of the matter is that companies keep materials closed for business and P.R. reasons.  Conducting research on companies is easier said than done, and there were many roadblocks or dead ends or questions left unasked and answered by the sources at hand. As every historian knows, we face limits all the time in reconstructing the past.  In telling the various stories behind the corporate-conservative Christian alliance, the corporate part was often the harder story to tell.  My book is therefore a history of how corporations shaped conservative Christianity but not the history or even the fullest history that could be written.  Gaps are there but thankfully there are other works — Bethany Moreton’s book on the evangelical origins of Wal-Mart; Timothy Gloege’s book on Moody Bible Instutute — that tell other stories and there are books coming down the pike — I’m thinking of Daniel Vaca’s forthcoming book on evangelical publishing companies — that will deepen our understanding of corporate formulations of evangelicalism in modern America.

I’m always fascinated by how people construct and imagine Jesus, often in ways that bear little resemblance to the historical Jesus. What did Jesus look like to these businessmen?

For the evangelical businessmen, he was their personal Jesus who saved them of their sins and promised them eternal life.  As I point out, however, this did not lead to some sort of Weberian, worried, pie-in-the-sky capitalist hoping his (rarely her, which is yet another story to tell for another scholar!) wealth proved his eternal status.  The activist impulse in evangelicalism and, yes, in even separational fundamentalism was paramount. That’s the idea that one should and could “save” the world or remake it in line with evangelical teachings.  I point out, however, for businessmen, their image of the world and therefore of Jesus was not necessarily that of their respective denomination or church but in the image of the institution that mattered most to them: the corporation.  There were some interesting intellectual and theological gymnastics that had to happen for that image to become salient for these businessmen and for others.  For instance, for these businessmen, they viewed that enterprise in terms of a contractual obligation, like any business contract.  Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had signed the spiritual contract, making sure their salvation and doubly ensuring he would be with them as they proceeded in whatever social, political, or economic mission they undertook. Jesus also emulated what type of businessman they could and should be, and they read whatever Bible they were reading as containing clues or proofs for that.  So, in short, Jesus was the first real contractual, corporate capitalist, whether through the deal he struck with the Father to die on the cross, his general attitude of service to others, his role modeling of certain moral or spiritual lessons, his enterprising go-getterism, his manliness, his positive self image, et cetera.

Taylor’s “Four-Way Test” includes calls to fairness and work to benefit all. Did this rhetoric shape business decisions in a way that promoted fair labor practices?

That was a bigger question that I was interested in tracing out, and it would be difficult to determine an exact causal relationship between the Four-Way Test being a creed used by Rotarians and the various enterprises they were engaged in.  I’m hoping Brendan Goff’s dissertation on Rotary will soon come out as a book and perhaps address that question. That said, the “Four-Way Test” offered, at least to me, a moment to consider the multiple worlds businessmen  (such as Taylor) straddled and how someone with various conservative leanings and connections could work out an early kind of social service creed, derived in part from progressive politics and theological sensibilities, as means to applying his religious ideas and perspectives to the burgeoning world of large-scale, national and international corporations.  In short, I conclude, such creeds were in and of themselves important for promoting the idea that conservative Christians could be worldly businessmen and promote businessmen, particularly fundamentalist businessmen recasting themselves more broadly as “Christian” businessmen, as the ultimate authorities on matters of work, rather than workers or employees themselves.

Did the attitudes of fundamentalist business owners and leaders create a religious workplace, i.e., were assembly line workers participating in compulsory times of prayers, etc.?

That was certainly the case at R.G. LeTourneau’s various plants and other companies, at least before various state codes and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and its attendant legal interpretations) made compulsion illegal. After that, compulsion actually gave way to a kind of take-it-or-leave-it “open” offer approach among evangelicals.  In effect, they could not and did not make any religious activity, such as in-office prayer meetings, a condition of employment, pay, and so on.  Evangelicals, however, were very strategic, once more, in navigating this new legal and pluralistic landscape, attaching their religious pursuits to a kind of “religious freedom” approach in the workplace.  There’s an irony here that I think many evangelicals today miss.  Laws with secularizing intentions (anti-promotion of one faith in a business) sets the stage for an ostensibly secular approach to religion (situating religious practice at the seat of individual preference) that evangelicals (who promote “free” choice regarding one’s religion) use to promote the continuance of their religion in a given workplace.  Arguably, it’s a social formula that helped early evangelicalism flourish, a de-institutionalizing of church from state (or in this case, church from business) that allows evangelicalism to continuing under new, choice-centric terms in the private sphere of the small or large business.  And it has, so much so that evangelicals now claim “religious freedom” (a secular pursuit and ideal, in a way) as the means to preserving a kind of state sanctioning of their faith (or, more accurately, their interpretations regarding sexuality) in the private sector.

What do you make of current efforts in Mississippi that protect “religious freedom” by giving businesspeople the option to NOT provide services or make a sale? It seems the opposite of businesses using Christian ethics to expand business opportunities. Although maybe Cathy’s Sunday practice is along these lines.

First, that is clearly more of an election-year ploy to court votes and use a complex social, legal, and private-sector question to cultivate a “persecuted” complex among a segment of the electorate that feels persecuted (even though they basically run the state’s majority party and are a popular majority in terms of sheer numbers).  But more broadly, my book hopes to explain why anyone would consider a private, for-profit business as an environment where matters of faith or social politics are sorted out. That, say, baking or selling a wedding cake for someone who is gay is somehow a matter of religion or something for courts to decide is, to me, an odd thing, when you step back and you consider that religion itself is a historically-contingent social phenomenon that, in an advanced capitalist society like the U.S. and the South, should have receded from public purview and importance a long time ago.  That such an act has political connotations or (seemingly) cosmic or high stakes ramifications for certain persons requires you to think about where this kind of “religion” they’re professing and doing came from. That evangelical activists even see losing business (with not selling certain goods for a profit, or with Chick-fil-A’s Sunday closing policy) as the mark of doing “Christian” business is also a puzzle to figure out.  That gay persons actually care about the corporation or small business as a political space is also interesting in and of it self, and it’s a comment on the prominent place that private enterprises have achieved as spaces where we debate broad questions of state, citizenship, religion, and politics.  Hopefully, my book shows where all these multifaceted developments and attitudes came from and keeps the conversation going about where certain corporate-centric definitions of “religion” and “Christian” came from.

What’s your next book project?

My next monograph will detail how the Great Depression was remembered and used by postwar Americans in popular culture and political culture.  Right now, I’m researching Warm Springs, Georgia (where Franklin Roosevelt often vacationed and, of course, died) as a site of memory and religious veneration.

Square Books will host a reading and signing for the book on Friday, June 10 at 5pm.