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Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation

Author(s):Porterfield, Amanda
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.Net (March 2019)

Amanda Porterfield, Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.  viii + 204 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-937265-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

In Corporate Spirit, Amanda Porterfield (Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University) argues there is a long “kinship between churches and commercial institutions” (p. 1), based on corporatism. The apostle Paul wrote that diverse church members are all incorporated into the body of Christ. This involves: 1) members, playing different roles, yet unified and equal in the church; and 2) accountability for behaviors incompatible with the corporate spirit. Porterfield heavily emphasizes accountability in her history. Quickly, by historical standards, churchly structures, practices, and internal cohesion, became models for other organizations, even those whose core identities were not religious in nature.

The opening three chapters cover developments up to the English settlement of North America. The early Christian church is portrayed as a well-organized counter-cultural force in the Roman Empire — modeling humility, respect for others, and charity over typical Roman values. By the fourth century, Christian organizations “exerted greater influence than their numbers would suggest” (p. 16). After the fall of Rome, churchly systems of penance imposed accountability based on legalistic and a transactional thinking — well-suited for commercial thought. Other corporate organizations blossomed, including monasteries, guilds, independent cities and civic organizations. These religious and secular organizations conferred personal dignity, duties, rights and obligations on members.

Porterfield describes Anglican Protestantism (with a measure of Dutch input) as a key influence on commerce right before English colonization of North America. I think Porterfield underplayed the contribution of the European Reformers. Nevertheless, she accurately portrays the religious individualism loosed by the Protestant Reformation as interpreted by the Anglican Puritans. This individualism was to promote fundamental changes from the medieval corporate model.

Part 2 of the book opens with the New England Puritans (chapter 4), whose faith paradoxically encouraged merchants to seek ever more independence from their own church’s regulation of commercial behavior. This religious anti-regulatory tendency was aided and abetted by the rise of a generally non-Christian, Enlightenment individualism. A decisive turn came after American independence when U.S. law adopted the Enlightenment’s “idea of natural law,” which sanctified contracts, and by extension, corporations. How this legalism differed from the older church model is mainly addressed indirectly by the historical narrative.

In any event, Christian corporatism did not simply disappear; but the moral fabric of American society was thereafter pulled in different directions. (This is the main theme of chapter 5, which spans from the early Federalist period to the Civil War.) Porterfield notes that the “Pauline ideal of liberty through corporate membership was reworked . . . as personhood acquired new importance in the context of early industrialization and American law” (pp. 97-98). In contrast, “rapid advances in mechanization and slavery undermined respect for persons” (p. 98). Porterfield illustrates the meaning of these claims from a narrative of corporate developments. Another major claim is that in the antebellum period, “religious and commercial corporations developed similarities” (p. 103). In a symbiotic relationship, ideas imported from business pushed the “Christian community in the direction of greater calculation and rational organization” (p. 103). Whether “calculating” churches are true to their own nature seems a relevant question, left for the reader to decide.

Starting with the post-Civil War era, the last three chapters (6, 7, and 8) seem to demonstrate the increasingly problematic nature of any remaining relationship between business and religious corporatism. In my reading, the “corporate spirit” seems to become but a shell, to be filled by ever-changing, and often contradictory, popular ideas. And this may be Porterfield’s intended message. She asserts: “Religious and commercial corporations evolved together . . . over connecting rails of metaphysical thought” (p. 120). Consider the vagueness of what may be an example of this claim: “The collapsing boundary between heaven and earth in [P]entecostal fire complemented trade in futures and idealism about corporate persons” (p. 136). The actual meaning of such a claim — at least for me — seems elusive.

The last two chapters continue to illustrate various outcroppings of religion in mid-twentieth to early twenty-first century business, often in self-serving advertising, or for political purposes. And, conversely, Porterfield lists the adoption by particular religious actors of business tactics that could well be questionable from a religious perspective.

The end-point of this trend seems, to me, to be summed up in the Enron scandal, in which a business embodied the worst cultural values — rationalized and endorsed by a highly acculturated brand of fundamentalist religion. This is an example of how far corporations had moved from early Christian, counter-cultural corporatism.

One element of Pauline corporatism that Porterfield tries hard to find in such an era is the notion of accountability. In my reading, accountability seems to be presented as an inherent characteristic of early corporatism. By the last chapters of the book, business or churchly corporations act badly, without much internal restraint at all. In recent times, an outside party, government and secular courts, generally must impose accountability and reforms.

At the book’s conclusion we are told that corporate growth in “business and religion has often involved ethical blind spots and moral failure. . . . [But] discovery of these problems has generated considerable complaint, and . . . reform” (p. 185). A much sharper point could be put on this: reform generally seems to be imposed by the laws of states, not from some inherent corporate tendency toward self-correction. How does this development fit Porterfield’s corporate paradigm? This remains unclear.

To sum up, Porterfield leaves a lot implicit, relying on large doses of church and secular history, often illustrating contrary tendencies, from which readers need to infer the possible meanings. This historical goldmine is interesting and significant in its own right; but as a way of making a case, it also invites multiple interpretations. This creates considerable ambiguity — at least for me. As noted, Porterfield’s opening definition of corporatism seems to change significantly (or at least to need much reinterpretation) by the end of the book.

That said, I note that Porterfield is pointing readers to new scholarly territory. As a religion scholar, she brings a fresh perspective to the historical study of economics and religion. Consider the many economists who narrowly (or solely) focus on usury when writing on the intersection of religion and economics. Porterfield points in important new directions to which scholars coming from other disciplines may be blind. This is a refreshing development.

Donald E. Frey is author of America’s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics (SUNY Press, 2009).

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Subject(s):Business History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative