Week 14: Religion and the Free Market

  • Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
  • Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

In the final week of the readings course, we concluded with two fascinating texts. The first was Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, wherein Kruse offers an different narrative for the advent of a Christian America. While the standard narrative notes the rise in America’s religious identity as a product of “the foreign policy panic of the 1950s,” Kruse instead places the inception with “the domestic politics of the 1930s and early 1940s” [xiv]. His interest is to illustrate how the domestic policies of the welfare state drove businessmen to support a type of christian policy to undermined Roosevelt’s New Deal. By focusing on largely on Billy Graham and President Eisenhower’s administration, Kruse articulates a compelling argument for Corporate America’s Christian America. The second of the two texts, while less political, is just as engaged with the flow of money. Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel provides a narrative history of the creation and rise of this “hard to measure” religious movement. While often ridiculed by the public and the media, Bowler treated the prosperity gospel seriously as she endeavors to highlight major twentieth-century figures, note its rise and transformation and ultimately highlight the unifying themes of the movement. He argument is that “the prosperity gospel is a decisive theological, economic,and social force shaping American religion” [9].

These texts treat their religious subjects in somewhat of opposing ways. Kruse is interested in how religion and religious rhetoric is used in social and political arenas. Religion, as defined by Kruse, is a tool of the corporate right in their ideological battles with liberalism. The reader gets a sense that Kruse puts little stock in any notion of legitimate religious concern by these corporate and political leaders. This contrasts well with Bowler’s prosperity preachers. As a group, they have been vilified and strongly associated with “naked greed” (note the John Oliver segment on televangelism found here). However, Bowler illustrates the cosmological understanding of positive thinking and the role of mind-power in the religious movement. While the prosperity preachers attain great levels of wealth, Bowler notes that this serves to indicate a faith filled life of devotion to the gospel. Religion, as conceived by these two authors, operates differently with different agendas and purposes.

While Bowler and Kruse deal with largely different thematic focuses (politics vs. prosperity gospel), they both encompass a large portion of the twentieth century. Kruse operates primarily from 1930s up through the Nixon administration, though he brings the narrative all the way up to the 2008 presidential election in his epilogue. Bowler traces the roots of the prosperity gospel to the late nineteenth century and brings its story up to the present day. In conversation, these texts illustrate how religion has continued in the face of modernity and even increased in adherents and attendance. Kruse notes that it was the 1950s and 1960s that had the highest rates of religious attendance and association in American history. It was the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations who “religionized” political space. Furthermore, Bowler notes that “The prosperity gospel served to bridge the gap by convincing the sanctified that modernity would not diminish their faith” [52]. The actors in both texts have similar relationships with the free market and capitalism. The prosperity believers understand the free market as a tool to actualize their faith. Their wealth is a measure of the success of their immaterial faith. For Corporate America, capitalism can be saved only through the strong relationship with God and religion. Capitalism and wealth figure prominently in both narratives but in nuanced roles and positions.

For my own research, Kruse and Bowler prompt an exploration of the economics of conversion. In what ways does conversion affect the individual’s, church’s, and state’s economics. Mormonism exhibited some interesting and different economic systems int eh nineteenth century which could have an impact on those who were converting and gathering to those Mormon centers. In addition, Kruse and Bowler addressed narratives in a contrary way. Kruse offers a revision of the standard narrative regarding a Christian American in the twentieth century while Bowler engages with an academically marginalized group. It provides me with probing questions that will hopefully move my work forward: “What am I relying on from the standard narrative that I should question?” and “What groups, people, things, etc. have been marginalized or overlooked that warrant serious analysis and engagement?”

Week 14: Religion and the Free Market

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