Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
Scholarly interest in capitalism has been on the rise. The most obvious sign of this interest has been Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which received a surprising amount of media attention for being a rather dense book with new methods but an old argument. Piketty is a French economist, but scholars from a variety of disciplines have also sought to incorporate capitalism into their research. Last year, The New York Times pronounced a capitalist turn in history departments. The article highlighted Cornell’s History of Capitalism Initiative, which, by the way, is hosting a conference November 6–8 that is worth paying attention to if you are an Americanist. To give another example, Edward E. Baptist’s new book has joined a body of work that situates the expansion of capitalism, and specifically finance capitalism, in the Atlantic slave trade and slave labor.
Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estaterevels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.
This interest is not limited to scholarship on the United States and modernity. A number of works have explored the relationship between Christianity and economics broadly. To provide one example, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, which won ASCH’s Philip Schaff Prize in 2013, traces the problems and products of wealth in Christian churches during and after the decline of the western Roman empire.
These works rely upon a variety of methodologies. Some highlight a type of religiosity present in economic practices. Others show the mutual relationship between religious and business organizations. In my last post at the blog I suggested how the tracing of metaphorical motifs might allow us to traverse archives in order to undo the impact of compartmentalization. Specifically, I wanted to draw connections between anti-monopoly, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and other popular late nineteenth-century protestations in order to illustrate a broad sense of dread of invisible systematic subversions.
Taken together, I think this growing interest in capitalism is interesting because it tests how scholarly vocabularies from cultural studies, history, religious studies, and economic theory can (or, perhaps, cannot) mingle. I do not believe that interdisciplinarity is always a good in and of itself, but the particular junctures created and debated seem to me to be productive in bringing together conversations whose separation has made sense disciplinarily but not historically. As Winnifred Sullivan notes in her critique of liberal reactions to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, beliefs and practices under the sign of religion have always been—and she is speaking within the context of American religious history—entwined with business.
I think it will be especially productive to examine formations of religion and business within the context of state projects. How have states adjudicated the economic and the religious? How, at the same time, have they replicated certain economic and religious assumptions and practices within the body politic? Or among colonized groups? In future posts on this blog I hope to address these questions with some historical examples while also laying out some of the theoretical and methodological problems that have resulted from the disciplinary intersections that have occurred due to rising interest in capitalism.
Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.
*Image courtesy of the Pullman Virtual Museum.