Chikin Religion and Corporate Capitalism; or, Why Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby Explain a Lot More About Religion than you Realize

Paul Harvey

Some time ago on the blog, I asked, "Why is there so much sex in Christian conservatism, and why is Jerry Falwell in bed with Milton Friedman." and pointed to Bethany Moreton's article, "Why is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism, and why Do So Few Historians Care About It,"Journal of Southern History, August 2009, 717-739. Moreton and others seem to be leading a renaissance in studies of religion and corporate capitalism through the course of the twentieth century.

To that intellectually exciting endeavor, we may add our esteemed blog contributor Darren Grem (Deg), who today successfully defended his dissertation, "The Blessings of Business: Corporate America and Conservative Evangelicalism in the Sunbelt Age, 1945-2000." Darren studied with James Cobb and Bethany Moreton, so he's well situated to combine southern history, business history, and religious history as he has in this dissertation.

In my era in graduate school, back in the Paleolithic era of typewriters and mimeographed sheets, we used to talk about "bringing the state back in," the idea being that social history had tended to focus on the lives of "ordinary people" and forgetting that the state shaped their lives immeasurably, and thus that political history could not simply be written off. Maybe people still talk about that -- I don't know -- but certainly the state as an actor has gotten its due attention in more recent scholarship.

There seems to be something similar in religious history now, in bringing economics back in. Follow the money, and you learn an awful lot about the course of American religion through the twentieth century. Darren Dochuk (of Purdue) is doing that with his new project on oil and evangelicalism. In this dissertation, Deg does it this way, from the abstract to his work:

Scholars and pundits have often cast postwar conservative evangelicalism as a kind of doppelganger of liberal activism, as a grassroots expression of populist will against the social revolutions of the 1960s. In contrast, my dissertation argues that the rise of the New Evangelical Right first began as a revolt against the New Deal state in the 1940s and 1950s and, as such, depended heavily on another will—the will of corporations and corporate actors, especially those working out of the economic and social context of an emergent, postwar “Sunbelt.” There, in the midst of a burgeoning regional economy that stretched from Virginia to Georgia to Texas to California, a postwar generation of business leaders worked with evangelical leaders to resurrect the cause of religious and political conservatism in the midst of the early Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Culture Wars heated up, they brought their faith, free market policies, and “family values” to the forefront of American public life.

The blessings of business were everywhere—in the ministries of lay evangelists like R.G. LeTourneau and celebrity evangelists like Billy Graham; in corporate-funded missionary groups like Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and The Navigators; in independent evangelical colleges strung throughout the South and West; in everyday operations at thousands of small businesses and dozens of mass-market corporations; in evangelical-inspired “biblical success” books and in a cottage industry of evangelical-led entrepreneurial seminars attended by millions; in evangelical megachurches, book stores, and record labels; and, most especially, in the careers of evangelical political leaders from Jerry Falwell to George W. Bush. In documenting both the successes and failures of these corporate-evangelical alliances, I explain why conservative evangelicalism reemerged when and where it did. But I also show how corporate power has shaped—and continues to shape—religious growth and politics in modern America.

Deg plans to expand his work before publishing outside the Sunbelt per se, as of course it's a national story.

And what does Chick-Fil-A have to do with all this, you are asking. Deg is the man with the answer, in a piece soon to be published that extracts some of the major themes of his work in examining the growth of the chikin-serving conglomerate: The Marketplace Missions of S. Truett Cathy and Chick-fil-A," to appear in Darren Dochuk and Michelle Nickerson, eds., Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Space, Place, and Region in the American South and Southwest, forthcoming from the Penn Press:

Famed for its signature fried chicken sandwich and strict, “closed on Sunday” policy, Chick-fil-A purports a singular mission: “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us [and] to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist who incorporated Chick-fil-A in 1964 and opened its first restaurant in 1967, played the greatest role in the company’s history, although he was not solely responsible for shaping its corporate culture, expansive growth, and broader social influence. Indeed, behind Chick-fil-A lay the history of a region, nation, and world transformed.

"The corporation," Deg continues,

"has been more than a specific arrangement of capital, labor, goods, and services. It has also been an important site of political, cultural, and even religious activism in the Sunbelt’s local and global communities."

While we congratulate Deg on completing his Ph.D., we look forward to the body of extensive work that's going on right now on the deep interconnections of religion and modern American corporate capitalism.


Luke Harlow said…
Congratulations Darren!

There's a glass of Rogue Hazelnut waiting for you.
Phil said…
Great work, Dr. Grem! A job well done.
Christopher said…
Congrats, Darren. I are Chick-Fil-A yesterday and then came home and saw this. I'm looking forward to reading your article.
Congratulations, Darren! Wonderful news.
Randall said…
Darren: This will make a terrific book. Congrats.
deg said…
Thanks, y'all. And many thanks to Paul for spelling "chikin" the Chick-fil-A way.
Anonymous said…
Great post, very interesting!
The Atheist Perspective
Anonymous said…
you just wrote the best dissertation possible: a successfully defended one!!! Congrats man!!!
deg said…
Ha! No doubt, Ed, no doubt.