A noteworthy piece in the April 6th edition of the New York Times trumpeted a new twist in the field of American history, declaring, "A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism." It went on to say, "After decades of 'history from below,' focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers, and brokers who run the economy."
Two immediate reactions:
1) The new history of capitalism is, in fact, on the rise.
2) This emerging field will not supplant "history from below." A central task ahead for both historians of capitalism and social historians is to find ways to weave their respective stories and perspectives together.
This second point raises interesting questions and problems for those of us who are working particularly on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism in modern American history. While the Times article's only nod to religion was a mention of Bethany Moreton's work on Wal-Mart, the reality is that this is now a thriving subfield, as was clear at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in San Francisco this past weekend.
I was able to make the first part of a panel entitled "America's War of Religion: The Cold War on the Home Front," where Princeton's Kevin Kruse presented from his forthcoming book on the relationship between the corporate and Christian elites in 1950s America. Kruse's paper argued that the rise of the "one nation under God" paradigm was motivated less by a Cold War anti-Soviet agenda than it was by a backlash against the New Deal. During this period corporate executives like J. Howard Pew - on the lookout for ways to legitimize their business plan for America - forged new partnerships with the Christian clergy. Big business underwrote the media empire of Los Angeles Rev. James Fifield, for example, who went on to become an influential proponent of Christian libertarianism. By the time President Eisenhower was presiding over the first national prayer breakfast, the foundations of the Reagan Revolution - still decades in the future - were already being laid.
Kruse and Moreton are not alone in their interest in the relationship between Christianity and corporate America; Darren Dochuk, Tim Gloege, Darren Grem, and a number of other scholars are also working at this nexus.
At the same time, as Janine Giordano Drake documented in her excellent post last week, another cohort is currently hard at work mapping the contours of working-class Christianities in the American past. At OAH, some of us - including Drake, Jarod Roll, Ed Blum, and I - came together on a roundtable to discuss the enduring significance of Herbert Gutman's groundbreaking 1966 article, "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement." One of the most important questions to emerge out of the conversation was this: how does the work being done on Christianity and the working classes fit with that on Christianity and corporate America?
This question was not resolved in our panel and I cannot begin to do it justice here. But if we are going to understand more clearly the relationship between Christianity and capitalism in modern America, we must work toward a synthesis of these two emerging literatures. Periodization might prove something of an obstacle here. Much of the work on the labor side is concentrated in the period between the Civil War and WWII, while the majority on the corporate angle falls in the post-'45 era. There are certainly a number of exceptions to this rule but both literatures would, in general, benefit from expanded chronological scope. That being said, it is not too soon to begin the synthetic work that lies ahead. Surely there are connections to be made at the level of persons, institutions, ideologies, policies, and more. Let's make them.