Review: The Blessings of Business

Janine Giordano Drake

Janine Giordano Drake is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Great Falls.

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Janine Giordano Drake, "Review: The Blessings of Business," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2016):

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Darren Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0199927975.

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We all know that white Protestant men, some of them devout, have been running American businesses since the founding of the United States. How have they reconciled their Christian calling to abstain from Mammon (the love of money) with their business imperative to control markets and turn profits? Until the mid-twentieth century, Christian businessmen understood themselves to reject Mammon when they invested some of their profits in revivals, charities, or charitable foundations. Some of the robber barons of the early twentieth century led the nation in this posture by establishing their own foundations, schools, research institutes, libraries, and hospitals. Their businesses, meanwhile, were left alone to continue streamlining production, controlling markets, and extracting profits.

However, according to Darren Grem’s The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity, many companies in the second half of the twentieth century began to reframe the relationship between the imperatives of business and those of Christian service and evangelism. First, this shift has signaled a new type of marketing to conservative Christian consumers. In the wake of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that protected the religious freedom of both individuals and businesses, many employers took liberties to withhold their stock from the public and differentiate their sales and employment culture to draw attention to their business’s Christian identity. Chick Fil A, for example, advertised its Sunday closure and celebrated the value of the heteronormative family through marriage seminars and workplace patriarchy. Pilgrim’s Pride, a poultry processing company, invited employees to voluntary Bible studies within the workplace. Other companies, including Tropicana and Holiday Inn, had begun to behave as Christian-identified businesses, but could not maintain such a public identity because their shares were publicly traded.

Second, Grem argues, this postwar phenomenon of a “Christian business culture” has also reshaped the practice of conservative Christianity, especially in the Sunbelt and suburban South. Christian-identified companies have promoted the conviction that Christian faith harmonizes well with the risk, evangelism, and faith required for running a business. Grem argues that Southern motivational speakers like Zig Ziglar “posited the possibility of another ‘New South’” wherein the South became incorporated into the national economy through Christian enterprise (204). Yet, in promoting historically white, southern values as universally Christian values, Ziglar and other Christian business boosters intertwined evangelicalism with profit-seeking business practices and cultures of patriarchy, residential segregation, and free-market fundamentalism. They made space for branded Christian commodities, including theme parks and kitsch, to not only arise but also thrive. The phenomenon of Christian business, Grem argues, has molded evangelicalism into a production- and consumption-oriented enterprise.

A number of recent books have drawn links between the postwar South, conservative evangelicalism, and celebrations of free-market enterprise, but this monograph stands out in a number of ways. First, Grem’s coverage of the cultures of Christian, corporate charity throughout the long span of the twentieth century allows him to persuasively posit the rise of “Christian business” as a departure in both religious and business practice. While other scholars have located the rise of Christian, free-market ideologies in the South’s experience of the New Deal, Grem’s critical interrogation of more than a dozen businesses, their organizational leadership, and their policies, persuades us that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an equally significant turning point in the history of American business.

Second, Grem convincingly highlights the importance of new, white, southern suburbs and suburbanites in creating the space for evangelical businesses to thrive. Chick Fil A, for example, thrived within suburban shopping malls. Grem shows that these shopping malls were themselves a creation of racial segregation, white wealth accumulation, and markets isolated from downtown competition. Days Inn thrived not just because they offered clean and affordable rooms, free Bibles, a “Chaplain on Call,” prohibition on alcohol, and a donation of profits to a missions foundation (138).  They also thrived as a Christian business because of the new access of middle-class whites to leisure time and the interstate highway system. Grem builds upon scholarship that has focused upon religious and political ideas in the 1940s and 1950s, and shows that postwar evangelical conservatism was more than a constellation of intellectual and political ideas. Suburban, postwar evangelicals were both a new kind of business class and a new type of consumer class. As a business class, they rejected the notion that Christian, big business was an oxymoron. As a consumer class, they eschewed attitudes that consumers might fall prey to idolatry through the purchase of worldly goods. As Grem put it, “by the late 1970s building an evangelical business was itself a way to further the movement” of evangelical Christianity (132). Business leaders told both consumers and employees that they could both practice their Christian faith and help spread the gospel through supporting Christian business.

The book is packed with original research from the archives of dozens of businesses, parachurch organizations, and important evangelical leaders; it should not be faulted for failing to do more. But it does raise a number of important lines of inquiry for other researchers to continue. Primarily, the book claims to analyze how the rise of Christian business has shaped conservative Christianity. But we learn much more about businesses have used Christianity to influence their sales and make their statements, and much less about how these Christian commodities have actually entered into the lived experience of conservative Christians. While Grem is critical of what he calls the “evangelical culture industries” for having “flattened the definition of ‘Christian’ life [to] the consumption of goods and experiences,” he largely takes evangelicals’ word for it that purchases within these industries have also enhanced Christians’ faith.  Grem writes, “There is no doubt that Heritage USA and Christian television, music, and radio were personally edifying for evangelicals and enabled new directions in evangelicals’ long-standing religious mission and broader social or political crusades” (164). Why is the edifying value of Christian television beyond doubt?  If the evangelical culture industries have turned evangelicalism into a series of products and experiences that can be manufactured and consumed, how has this new Christian paradigm changed the “religious mission and broader social and political crusades” of the twentieth century? The book inspires further research on how Christian faith, evangelical identity formation, evangelical political beliefs, and actions coded “evangelical” have all shifted in an era of intentionally Christian business.

The book’s greatest strength is in its careful analysis of the records, and production, of Christian businesses. This sharp focus, however, is also the book’s greatest weakness. The records of Christian business can only provide a limited window—the perspective of owners and managers—into how conservative Christianity has been reshaped by businesses. Business and biographical records cannot, by their very nature, tell us why marketing ploys have succeeded or why employees have not revolted on their employers. One is curious how Christian employees of Christian businesses have felt about their work relationship, and to what extent their work life has confirmed the evangelical faith that they supposedly shared with their employers. Janis Thiessen’s new book, No Talking Union, begins to address this question through a rigorous oral history of Mennonite employees of Mennonite companies and organizations.[1] Thiessen found, however, a great deal of disenchantment among employees who had assumed that their employers’ ethics would match their assumptions about what a Christian employer looked like. The rise of Christian business has paralleled the decline in unionization and well-paid industrial jobs, and the rise of more numerous, insecure, and contingent service-sector jobs. How have employees within these new Christian businesses shifted the way they understood the Christian faith? One is especially curious about how employees within Christian businesses have been compensated relative to the compensation packages of their competitors. Bethany Moreton’s work on Walmart taught us that this self-identified Christian business financially exploited Christian women.[2] Even in the absence of publicly identifiable unions and lawsuits, Thiessen’s example of rigorous oral history should help us navigate the impact of corporate Christianity upon the lived experience of evangelical conservatism.

Finally, while the book should not be faulted for failing to address Catholic business leaders and the rise of Catholic businesses in the late twentieth century, its slippage between conservative evangelicalism and conservative Christianity raises important questions about the definition of Christian business in the late twentieth century. To what extent was Christian business a southern and specifically evangelical, postwar phenomenon? To what extent is conservative Christianity a specifically southern phenomenon? To what extent is conservative Catholicism a form of conservative Christianity? Grem, Bethany Moreton, Darren Dochuk, and Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf have each recently made arguments about the specifically southern nature of postwar Christian conservatism.[3] The methodological choice to focus upon the South fits neatly within the literature, for it builds upon arguments that southern evangelicalism has always leaned toward congregational autonomy and suspicion about the federal government.

However, evangelical Christian business culture developed parallel to the rise of a national, Catholic business culture and a number of Catholic-identified businesses (particularly, hospitals). The conservative, evangelical Protestant choice to use the term “Christian” rather than “evangelical” or “Protestant” also indicates a desire among conservative evangelicals to speak for the larger body of Christians in the United States. To what extent have Catholic and Protestant business cultures borrowed from one another and joined together in redefining twentieth century Christianity? If we discover that there is a parallel Catholic business culture that developed alongside the southern, evangelical culture that Grem describes, then to what extent is the rise of Christian business an evangelical phenomenon?

Grem should not be faulted for the methodological design of the project, for he successfully addresses southern religion, and the ways that many of the businesses he follows are both southern- and Christian-identified. But, as future scholarship addresses other forms of self-consciously Christian business in the late twentieth century, we will gain a better understanding of the extent to which Grem’s study is specifically about southern religion, and to what extent it is about American business and religion writ large.

[1] Janis Thiessen, No Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labor (Montreal: McGills-Queens University Press, 2016).

[2] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[3] Moreton, To Serve God and Walmart; Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012); Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).