Evangelicals and Business: A Prequel

Elesha Coffman

The Declaration of Independence famously alters John Locke's celebration of "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those differing values have been in tension ever since. When push comes to shove, whose property, and whose happiness, matters more? What qualifies as "property" or "happiness"? And who gets to decide?

Current scholarship mostly finds 20th-century evangelicals to have been quite happy with the acquisition of property. Without big business, there would be no evangelicalism as we know it. But these two cultural forces did not always get along so nicely. Heath Carter recently reminded us that evangelicals  championed labor unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Legal historian John W. Compton, looking even further back in history, found that evangelicals once hacked away at property interests in America, ironically paving the way for progressive interpretations of the Constitution that evangelicals and other conservatives now despise. And by hack, I do mean hack. That's Carry Nation on the cover of Compton's book, wielding a Bible rather than her more iconic saloon-smashing hatchet.

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard, 2014) might not naturally join conversations about evangelicals and business. Compton sought to intervene in a different discussion, the legal-historical and political debate about why the Supreme Court in the 1930s started interpreting the Constitution as a work in progress rather than a document set in stone. A longstanding explanation stated that extreme political pressures in the 1930s, coupled with foreign ideas from the likes of Charles Darwin and G.W.F. Hegel, produced a sudden, stunning legal revolution. Revisionists argued that upheavals in the American economy contributed to the change, and that it built slowly, in step with the Industrial Revolution. While granting some of these points, Compton put religion in the picture and tied the legal innovations of the New Deal era to the social transformation begun by the Second Great Awakening. Harvard Law Review did a better job of analyzing--and affirming--Compton's legal scholarship than I can. Instead, after a brief summary, I'll offer a few thoughts on how this book can speak to the "business turn" in our field.

In Compton's narrative, despite Thomas Jefferson's praise for the pursuit of happiness, the framers of the Constitution laid the foundation for a "commercial republic," betting that Americans who couldn't agree on much else--and who, at the time, weren't very religious--could be collectively inspired by the pursuit of property. If that pursuit meant selling intoxicating liquors, or lottery tickets, or human beings, oh well, a buck's a buck, and American law would defend your right to it. Evangelicals galvanized by the Second Great Awakening rejected this bargain. They cared more about happiness, in the eudaimonia, social virtue sense, and they wanted America's laws to enforce their vision. As Compton put it, "Where the framers had sought to protect established property rights and insulate interstate markets from excessive state and local regulation, the aims of the Protestant reformers [he means evangelicals] were precisely the opposite: to constrain property rights and interstate markets in the name of the public good" (21).

In the first half of the 19th century, evangelicals mostly failed in their quest for anti-vice laws, and they came to see the Constitution as a barrier to, rather than a wellspring of, moral progress. By the later 19th century, religiously based activism had muscled moral laws onto the books, and courts became increasingly reluctant to strike them down. Compton focuses on laws against liquor and lotteries, for two main reasons. One, while slavery was obviously a bigger issue, it was eventually addressed through constitutional amendments, so it didn't provoke the same kinds of ongoing legal tensions between property interests ("I have a right to sell liquor!") and moral crusaders ("We want to live in a dry town!"). Two, because of the judicial creativity required to navigate these ongoing tensions, it was liquor and lottery (and sometimes Sabbath observance) cases that chipped away at constitutional protections for business. When the tide of public opinion, channeled by evangelical reformers, turned against booze and betting, judges declared that the Constitution didn't protect those forms of commerce after all. And so, when the public a few decades later clamored for New Deal relief, on what basis could courts declare constitutional protections for commerce inviolate? If social welfare trumped the words of the framers in one area, why not in another? (And another, and another ...)

In a sense, historians are always answering, "How did we get from there to here?" I'm very much enjoying the scholarship that helps explain how we got from Quaker Oats to Christian radio, J. Howard Pew to the Koch brothers, and Reynolds v. United States to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. I'm intrigued by the "heres" that might be arrived at from Compton's "there":

"By the mid-nineteenth century, standards of public morality were evolving in directions that clearly threatened the core ideals of the commercial republic. The emergence of an unencumbered national market, for example, now appeared to represent a dire threat to the moral health of the citizenry. For whatever facilitated the movement of 'legitimate' commercial items in the national market was sure to be equally helpful to the purveyors of liquor, lottery tickets, and other forms of vice. Thus, while evangelicals conceded that commercial expansion was increasing 'national prosperity' and 'social enjoyment,' they decried the fact that it was also allowing unscrupulous businessmen to disseminate a 'moral miasma' 'over the entire land.' Nor were evangelicals sympathetic to the other core tenet of antebellum constitutionalism: the notion that vested property rights ought to remain insulated from legislative interference. Indeed, Beecher, Finney, and other leading evangelicals often appeared to reject outright the notion of a priori limits on the regulatory authority of the state. As the temperance crusader Albert Barnes declared in 1852, it was the 'inherent right' of society to protect itself against whatever vices would 'corrupt or weaken it,' regardless of the impact upon property." (38)

There are so many ways to get from there to what evangelicals today are, and are not, saying about vice, prosperity, unscrupulous businessmen, and the regulatory authority of the state. Go to it, historians.


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