The Crisis of Corporate Evangelicalism


by Tim Gloege

This article was originally published on Patheos in a serialized form.

I. Who are the Corporate Evangelicals?

These have been banner days for those of us who study conservative evangelicalism; less so for those who claim that identity. Over the last two years, the movement that once seemed to be the paragon of political discipline has come apart at the seams. This was not caused by outside forces alone; as the recent proliferation of “I’m an evangelical, but… ” commentary suggests, it stems also from an identity crisis bornwithin the movement.

Pundits everywhere know something is happening, but explaining these developments is a complicated task. There is the perennial difficulty of defining evangelicalism. There’s also the fact that evangelicalism has never been monolithic—with important differences even among self-identified conservatives.

So, for the sake of clarity, I want to focus our attention on one particular slice of conservative evangelicalism, a sub-group I call “corporate evangelicals.” They currently stand at a key pressure point in the present evangelical crisis. I’m talking about the growing tensions between conservative evangelicals and business. It first appeared amid growing corporate support of same sex marriage. It emerged again when evangelicals flouted the corporate establishment picks in the Republican primaries and now grows stronger amid corporate boycotts to protest transgender bathroom legislation. It is also seen in some surprisingly hard questions that evangelicals, (yes, conservative evangelicals) are now asking about the free-market ideology they once accepted as gospel. This growing divide seems (to me at least) like a historically-significant shift. Once inseparable corporate bedfellows, evangelicals have been relegated to the couch.

I’ll be painting with a broad brush in what follows—and to be clear, these characteristics are not the sole possession of corporate evangelicals. But taken together, they capture the overarching ethos of this subgroup. It is a composite sketch that in later posts we can then compare with other parts of the evangelical coalition, vying for dominance.

Corporate evangelicals are found primarily among the white, college-educated, middle-classes who reside in, and around, America’s urban centers. Many attended a Christian liberal arts college. Others attended a public university (fewer, an Ivy-League institution), and were involved with an evangelical student group likeInterVarsity or Cru. They are married, live in a comfortable suburb or gentrified neighborhood, and are business owners or employed as a professional, manager, or engineer. Some who started in these fields, feel called to the ministry and become pastors or missionaries.

The politics of corporate evangelicals are largely conservative, but they avoid Tea Party antics.  In the recent primary season, they rallied around Marco Rubio. They were suspicious of Ted Cruz and horrified by Donald Trump. Most espouse the “family values” that has given conservative evangelicalism a semblance of coherence over the last thirty-five years. This means they oppose abortion and defend what they see as “traditional marriage.” But they avoid the harder-edged absolutism that some evangelicals display: they support exemptions for abortion prohibitions in difficult cases, and some would support secular civil unions for same-sex couples.

Corporate evangelicals have their non-negotiable “truths” (whether theological or social), but these lists are short. They fight when they feel cornered, but prefer to find common ground or, failing that, to agree to disagree. Their irenic disposition is aided considerably by a lack of strong attachments to particular denominations or churches or religious leaders. They are Protestant free agents, moving on when a connection is no longer productive. Such transitions are no more fraught than exchanging sports heroes, or a favorite actor, or a neighborhood cafe.

Corporate evangelicals are, above all, impeccable consumers of both spiritual and secular goods. Their preferences can vary considerably from each other: some favor the emergent church, others the sturdy and predictable worship experience afforded by a Willow Creek Association or Saddleback church. Still others might gravitate to small neighborhood congregations or a neo-monastic experience. But whatever the flavor, their choices are tasteful, avoiding ostentation and kitsch. Their chosen church will hew closely to their preferred variety of evangelical orthodoxy, but also will avoid excessive rancor. (Though here we should acknowledge that one person’s “faithfulness” can be another person’s divisiveness.)

The constancy of a corporate evangelical faith resides not in external connections, but in the individual’s personal relationship with God. What matters is that you go to Sunday worship, not necessarily where you attend. But even more important are personal devotional practices. Prayer is the means by which they believe they literally talk to God; personal Bible reading is the means by which they read God’s word(s) and hears God’s personal message to them.

Corporate evangelicals insist that an authentic faith is active, but here too there is considerable latitude. Nearly all consider some form of personal evangelism (“sharing your faith”) an essential practice. But many others are involved in social activism. They favor immigration reform over walls on the border and many have followed the lead of insurance actuaries in acknowledging the reality of climate change. But their activism rarely extends beyond the personal. They are kind and generous, but cannot abide the idea that racism, or poverty, or gender discrimination have systemic causes or that their solution lies beyond the power of personal relationships and individual actions.

If this description of corporate evangelicalism resonates—if you say, “I know these people” or even “that’s me,” then I’ve done my job. But note the paucity of doctrinal content in what I have outlined above. There is no creedal definition that captures this group; they are found in a variety of theological contexts. This is how religion works. Belief is only actualized in experience; practice does not comport to neat categories nor limit itself to one side of a secular/sacred or public/private binary. All embodied beliefs, practices, and orientations—corporate evangelicalism included—are as much a product of economic, social, and cultural position as they are of a generative creed.

Corporate evangelicals have never constituted a majority of self-identifying evangelicals any more than the upper-middle-classes are a majority of the American population. But theirs is the identity to which many evangelicals aspire. They have always stood at the movement’s core, leading many of its key institutions, writing for its publications, and organizing its meetings and conferences.

So corporate evangelicalism the face of respectable evangelicalism. And these evangelicals are most affected by the present troubles. What happens to them, in many ways, will determine the future shape of the movement as a whole.

But before we can talk about that future, we first need to understand its past. And so next time, I will examine the historical roots of corporate evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century and how it has developed into its present form.

II. Defining Evangelicalism

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: what do I mean by the term evangelical? There are as many definitions as there are pundits trying to explain Donald Trump. And you can expect a new batch soon, now that Pew has reported 78% of white evangelical voters support the presumptive Republican nominee that many once found anathema. (Thirty-six percent “strongly support” Trump by the way, ten points more than did Romney, but I digress.) So what is this thing, this “evangelicalism,” we are talking about?

There are few things as vexing to historians of American religion (and probably their readers) than the task of defining evangelicalism. It’s an unwieldy term. Robert Wuthnow recently made a compelling argument that the “evangelicalism” of public discourse is a creation of modern pollsters. David Bebbington’s sturdy quadrilateralhas faced growing critique from Mark Noll and others (I too have reservations). Yet for all the term’s shortcomings, “we are stuck with it,” Molly Worthen convincingly argues, because “to observers and insiders alike there still seems to be a ‘there’ there: a nebulous community that shares something, even if it is not always clear what that something is.”

Can we capture that “something?” Though I’ve had my doubts, I have come to believe that we can. And, like Worthen, I’m convinced that the way forward lies in “history—rather than theology or politics.”

There is a broad consensus that a new religious “something”—what I call evangelicalism—appeared in Great Britain and colonial America in the 1730s and 1740s. British advocates included George Whitefield, whose preaching trips helped galvanize the movement in the colonies. In the nineteenth century, it produced revivals and exponential growth of Methodist, Baptist, and other sects. It spurred reform movements backing abolition, opposing secret societies, and promoting dietary fads. Evangelicalism spread across racial lines (though it often ironically reinforced them). It touched nearly every denomination and ethnic group. And evangelicalism’s effects are perhaps even more complex today. A historical definition must reflect this mass of people and movements spanning over two and a half centuries.

But to be properly historical, our definition needs at least four additional characteristics. First, it must be distinctive enough to have a starting point. Can we differentiate evangelicalism from what came before? Second, it must relate to some plausible causes for its existence. In other words, it must help us understand why evangelicalism emerged in the way, place, and time that it did. Third, it must embody some recognizable continuity over the span of its existence. And finally, it must accommodate development and change over time.

It’s here, I think, where Bebbington’s definition falters. Though eminently useful (including for my own thinking), it is simply not historical. If the essence of evangelicalism lies in conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, one is hard-pressed to differentiate it from Puritanism or another early Protestant group. Thus, it is not clear why we should mark its beginning in the mid-eighteenth century British world, rather than a century or two before somewhere else. Why also,according to Nathan Hatch, did early “Methodist growth terrif[y] other more established denominations?” Why did Whitefield and Charles Finney and D. L. Moody and William Seymour and Aimee Semple McPherson each generate such controversy? A historical definition of evangelicalism should help us answer these questions.

A historical definition of evangelicalism starts with the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in the 1680s. (Not coincidentally, this is another “something” that is difficult to define, but which historians cannot seem to do without.) In Great Britain, the Enlightenment represented a growing confidence in the ability of individuals to think rationally and choose wisely. Participants harbored deep suspicions of tradition and social hierarchies, and cultivated a penchant for empirical evidence.

Evangelicalism, then, was the application of enlightenment ideas about self and society to Protestantism. And the core conviction this produced was the belief that God interacted primarily with individual believers. In today’s parlance, it was the conviction that authentic faith consists first and foremost in a “personal relationship with God.” Believers spoke to God in prayer, and God spoke back through the Bible. Moreover, God confirmed the authenticity of this faith through tangible, empirically-measurable evidence. This shift was revolutionary. Evangelicals summarily dismissed over a thousand years of tradition that held God engaged humanity as a community—the church—and established human authorities—educated and ordained ministers of the Word—for the sake of order. It also overturned the traditional evidence of faith: entrance into the church community through membership and faithful participation in the life of the church.

The emergence of evangelicalism in New England coincided with the growing importance of enlightenment ideas in other arenas of experience. Indeed, it was a perfect complement. “Do you really believe in an all-powerful God,” an enlightenment skeptic might have asked. “Wouldn’t such a being be capable of engaging believers directly? Wouldn’t that God be reasonable and benevolent, and thus want to provide evidence to anyone seeking the truth?” For true believers, evangelicalism seemed like a way to reintegrate a heterogeneous society that old Puritan forms could not encompass and the answer to nagging doubts that the Enlightenment had produced.

Thus many clergy, including some in Boston’s genteel elite, initially believed George Whitfield’s evangelicalism was an avenue to shoring up their social dominance. But this hope was short-lived. By the mid-1740s, reports of social disturbances, direct challenges to the religious and social order, and numerous church splits proliferated. God apparently spoke in a cacophony of contradictory voices. Depending on who was interpreting the Bible, it might be calling believers to submit to their ministers and social betters, or advocating political uprisings and slave rebellions, prodding attempts to walk on water, or ordering that luxury items and the standbys of Puritan theology be burned in public bonfires. In response, horrified elites concluded that respectable religion needed to be mediated by tradition, institutions, and authorities after all. Ordained ministers must be the final arbiters of God’s revelation.

Evangelicals who disagreed simply started their own churches—easy enough in a new secular nation. But such groups were usually deemed “sects” and thereby deprived of the social authority of established denominations. They typically could expect only the barest tolerance from social elites. And if they pushed too far past established norms—especially in family structure or sexual mores—even that was in doubt.

This same basic pattern continued for the next century. Until the Civil War, evangelicalism was largely relegated to the periphery—on the literal western frontier (while it lasted) and among the populist-leaning “lower orders.” There were brief periods when respectable Protestants experimented with evangelicalism—the influence of enlightenment ideas in American life made it intrinsically appealing. But the disorder that always seemed to follow led elites back to the safety of old ways. Evangelicalism was not a fixed identity, but a fluid orientation.

I’ve focused primarily on religion in this post, and it has already gone too long, but I’ll end by noting that “respectable” Protestants’ views of evangelicalism paralleled their attitudes to other enlightenment-inspired phenomena. Take democracy, for example. Did they agree that all men were created equal? Sure (if perhaps grudgingly). Did this mean they wanted to do away with the electoral college, allow for the direct election of senators, abolish slavery, and support other democratic reforms? Not on your life. Institutions controlled by elites were the God-ordained method of maintaining the social order. They considered only those properly disciplined by church, school, government, and a well-ordered middle-class family life to be virtuous enough for public leadership.

Respectable Protestants also harbored suspicions about that other arena of enlightenment individualism: the market. They participated in the antebellum market economy without apology and did well for themselves. But nearly all agreed that unsupervised markets would destroy the social order. Repeated financial panics—in 1819, 1837, and 1857 seemed to confirm this. Once again, it fell to institutions—family, church, schools, and government—to contain self-interest and train participants in the ways of honesty, thrift, and hard work. Markets produced many fine things, but they were net consumers of virtue, rather than producers.

The puzzle that we will tackle next, is how corporate evangelicalism came to exist. How did middle-class Protestants come to the point that they could accept evangelical individualism without fear of disorder? How did evangelicalism stabilize and accommodate respectable mores? And how did the “free market” come to be associated with the production of virtue rather than the temptation to vice?

III. Where Did Corporate Evangelicalism Come From?

Imagine a world where families operate like corporations. Parents are management, but efficiency and profitably determine all aspects of family life. Children are both assets and employees; resources are allocated according to potential. And if things don’t work out with a troublesome teen or toddler? Well, you can send them packing, no harm, no foul. Children too can move to another family or negotiate with their parents for bedroom upgrades, extended curfews, and increased allowance.

That disconcerted feeling you have right now? It’s probably similar to what an antebellum Protestant would experience encountering corporate evangelicalism. Never mind whether market-driven families are good or bad, it simply feels unnatural, right? Yet most evangelicals don’t think twice about “church shopping” based on programs, amenities, and “personal fit,” or devoting substantial portions of church budgets to the praise and worship industrial complex, or farming out the development of Vacation Bible School curriculum to an unknown corporation, or discarding a denominational affiliation like last year’s skinny jeans. It’s just what you do.

There is nothing intrinsically natural or unnatural about corporate evangelicalism. Religion is no less immune to business influence than family is to science, or business itself is to family. But such borrowings are not inevitable either. Some stick, others never take. They are, in other words, historically contingent, and as such they beg for an explanation.

Really we are tackling two questions this time. First, when did (at least some) evangelicals become “respectable?” And then when and how did middle-class Protestants start applying the rules and assumptions of the marketplace to the sanctuary?

Let’s begin with the birth of respectable evangelicalism in the 1830s. Upwardly-mobile evangelicals, like the Methodist author Phoebe Palmer, reoriented their inherited faith to accommodate their new social circumstances. Many of these pioneers were women and they effectively domesticated the “personal relationship with God” to comport to the domestic sphere, swapping the howl of the frontier camp meeting for a quiet conversation in the parlor.

An evangelical orientation that abided by the standards of middle-class propriety soon spread across denominations. It reached not only women, but also the husbands, sons, and brothers who inhabited the male-centric world of middle-class business. The lawyer-turned-revivalist Charles Finney also made inroads among the business classes with the message that salvation was a choice.

But none of this changed the middle-class conviction that faith and market operated by different rules. Nor did it change respectable suspicions of the market. “The whole credit system, if not absolutely sinful, is nevertheless so highly dangerous that no Christian should embark on it,” Finney warned.  And no respectable Protestant before the Civil War would have suggested that religious institutions operate on commercial principles.

The distinction between faith and market began to change amid a financial panic in 1857. As stocks plummeted and banks collapsed, evangelical businessmen dropped to their knees at noontime prayer meetings. They were conducted in downtown auditoriums and purportedly led by, and for, businessmen. (Read Kathryn Long’sfantastic book to learn more about how women’s participation in these revivals was erased.) The success of this “businessman’s revival” encouraged the co-mingling of business and religious identities. It also subtly shifted the focus of evangelical participants to the wider public world.

When the Civil War broke out a few years later, many of these same evangelical businessmen organized material and spiritual support for the Union Army. In the 1870s and after, they turned their attention to northern cities. They organized relief after the Great Chicago Fire, for example, tackled urban vices like prostitution, fought government corruption, and provided social services through organizations like the YMCA. There is plenty to criticize in these efforts (ask your nearest labor historian), but they led many a middle-class Protestant to think of business as a source of social virtue, not a threat.

The consummation of a market-based faith came through the Gilded Age ministry of the celebrity revivalist Dwight L. Moody. A successful, but uneducated, shoe salesman from Chicago, Moody exploded the old churchly Protestantism. His homespun preaching might have sounded like old-time religion, but it summarily displaced traditional understandings of self and salvation with business-inspired analogs.

Moody approached evangelization as a sales call. By his account, salvation was not found in a church community, or understood as a journey to the “celestial city.” It was a series of choices made by individuals. The most important of these was conversion. It was like becoming God’s junior partner; you entered into a direct personal relationship with God and were promised divine guidance and support.

This guidance came primarily through the Bible. It should be read “as if it were written for yourself,” Moody taught, like a businessman reading his daily correspondence. Where traditional Protestants saw theology as a safeguard to proper interpretation, Moody saw it as a barrier. One should simply read it “plainly” like a newspaper.

Moody’s business identity was key to his respectability. He presented himself a “man of business” and wore business suits rather than clerical robes. He also sat prominent businessmen on his platform whenever possible. The visages of Rockefeller, Dodge, and McCormick visually conveyed that his message had the blessing of the corporate establishment. Evangelical assumptions were smuggled into “respectable” Protestantism in business garb.

As Gilded Age industrial capitalism evolved into modern consumer capitalism, corporate evangelicalism transformed along with it. The new evangelicalism complemented the individualistic contract ideology embraced by professional opponents to unionization. It resonated with neoclassical economic assumptions about human behavior that began with the choices of “rational” individuals. And as white-collar work became routinized and goods more plentiful in the early twentieth century, it accommodated the practice of constructing personal identity through consumer choices. Acts of piety and acts of consumption became increasingly entwined in the minds of corporate evangelicals.

Moody’s associate and successor on the revival circuit, Reuben Torrey, was one of the many promoters of a consuming faith. He packed auditoriums around the world by treating the Bible like a divine catalog, listing goods and services available to any believer who met the associated requirements. Prayer, he taught, was the God-ordained way of getting things.

The new assumptions of corporate evangelicalism had cascading effects on traditional Protestantism. The belief that God would personally provide for material needs severed longstanding obligations between the wealthy and the poor. By the new accounting, God directly guided believers in how and where to give: perhaps to the poor, perhaps toward a new church gymnasium, or to a political action committee promoting family values. Anecdotes of divine promptings and last-minute unsolicited donations convinced many. It was charity structured by market relations: God’s “invisible hand” directing beneficence more efficiently than any charity or government could.

Corporate evangelicalism effectively transformed believers into economic actors. For anyone accepting the underlying logic, it only followed that these economic ideas were God-given “natural laws.” The market was transformed from an arena of moral danger into a divinely-engineered, self-correcting system. To challenge that system—whether by government regulation, labor unions, or socialism—was to challenge both the “American way” and God’s design.

Of course not everyone embraced economic individualism. The working classes put their faith in the power of solidarity and collective bargaining. Indeed, labor activists could argue for the “naturalness” of their approach with churchly precedents. Like traditional church discipline, might not unions also enact discipline over wayward workers for the greater good? Meanwhile social scientists, inspired by Darwin, postulated that nature and/or nurture were the primary drivers of human behavior, not individual choices. Humanity, like other species, should be studied as populations, not individuals.

Communal understandings of humanity helped spawn “modernist” Protestantism in the early twentieth century. Liberal theologians emphasized a social gospel over individual salvation. Sin was a matter of social structures, not choices. And salvation came by reform rather than a personal faith. God was the inanimate force of historical progress, and the Bible an ever-evolving record of that progress. It must be interpreted scientifically.

By the 1910s the battle lines were drawn. Socially-oriented liberals clustered in universities and the bureaucracies of mainline denominations. Free market fundamentalists poured their efforts into new parachurch institutions, consciously structured like corporations. Towering above its contemporaries was the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI). Though founded by Moody in the 1880s, it was transformed by the president and promotional guru of Quaker Oats, Henry Crowell, into a highly bureaucratized headquarters of corporate evangelism. Crowell also used branding strategies to undermine the religious authority of denominations, promoting Moody’s individualistic evangelicalism as “old-time religion,” free of liberal contamination.

During this time, corporate evangelicals rallied a nationwide fundamentalist coalition against their modernist foes through a publication that purportedly outlined “The Fundamentals” of an interdenominational conservative Protestantism. They relentlessly attacked modernist theology, Darwinian science, and socialist economics as weakening church and state. With liberal theology seemingly discredited by World War I and then further gains during the Red Scare in 1919, they believed public opinion was on their side.

But, of course, such optimism was misguided. Liberals shrewdly formed coalitions with accommodating conservative and moderate denominationalists. Though the Federal Council of Churches they became the public face of American Protestantism. The fundamentalist movement, in contrast, sputtered in the mid-1920s, after which it was mercilessly mocked before being summarily ignored for the next thirty years.

This then is the creation story of corporate evangelicalism, but we should take care not to draw too stark a contrast with their liberal opponents. Liberal Protestants had their own forms of individualistic, capitalist-friendly, Protestantism, ably explained bySusan Curtis and Matthew Hedstrom. And some of the most prominent business leaders of the Progressive Era, John Rockefeller, for example, were allies of the liberal cause. Just as most judges do not treat their homes like a courtroom, no business person is compelled to understand their faith in economic terms. But some did, and corporate evangelicalism was one important manifestation of that impulse.

Thus, a new way of being an evangelical Protestant emerged in the 1910s, one that resonated with the times. Yet, the growth of corporate evangelicalism was sluggish until the last half of the century. Next month, I will explain this and look at some of the other varieties of evangelicalism that existed alongside it.

Tim Gloege is a historian based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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