Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

7 things you may not know about conservative Christian businesses

Corporations have become places for evangelical activity and expression, and businessmen—sometimes working individually, sometimes collaboratively—have shaped what we think of today as conservative “Christian” culture and politics. Here are 7 facts you may not know about the culture and history of Christian business.

  1. Camaraderie between corporate executives and conservative evangelicals is not a new thing but stretches back to the first days of the fundamentalist movement in the early twentieth century. For instance, one of the foundational publications of the movement – The Fundamentals of the Faith, published from 1910 to 1915 – depended on the financial and administrative help of Lyman Stewart, a wealthy oil tycoon. Fundamentalist businessmen organized in greater numbers in the 1930s and 1940s via the Christian Business Men’s Committee, International (CBMCI), which at times provided organizational and financial support for upstart conservative evangelical efforts, such as Young for Christ, The Navigators, and evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades. 
  1. Evangelical businessmen were not relegated to an evangelical “subculture” or off-the-beaten path niche of businesses in corporate America. They have founded or at one time headed well-known, large-scale companies like ServiceMaster, H.E.B., Pilgrim’s Pride, Eckerd’s, Walmart, Tyson Foods, and Genesco, among many others.  Thousands of small businesses continue to operate in accordance with evangelical-inflected “Christian” business practices and cater to customers who may or may not be aware of their evangelical business identity or histories.
  1. One of the most popular versions of the Bible, the New International Version or NIV, is published by Zondervan, which is owned by HarperCollins and a subsidiary of NewsCorp, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch was hardly the first non-evangelical big businessman to take an interest in evangelical assets and aspirations.  In the mid-1950s, J. Howard Pew, an oilman from Pennsylvania, joined with Billy Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell, to underwrite Christianity Today, an upstart evangelical magazine. By the mid-1960s, it was the most-read evangelical publication in the country, surpassing in circulation other conservative periodicals like National Review and its main liberal competitor, The Christian Century.  Though more of a public forum for debating the place of evangelicalism in modern life than a political outlet (much to Pew’s chagrin), Christianity Today nevertheless embodied the corporate-evangelical nexus at mid-century and promoted new “norms” regarding what it meant to think and act as a “conservative” evangelical in modern America.
  1. At times, evangelical activists can actually see losing business as the mark of doing “Christian” business. Though certainly not as common as the pursuit of profit, the sacrificial thread in evangelical thought – of sacrificing one’s wealth, time, or well-being, inspired by the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ – has led certain businessmen to equate not selling certain services or goods with a sense of Christian mission.  This is contingent on a business’s particular market.  Restauranteurs like Chick-fil-A’s S. Truett Cathy (whose restaurants close on Sundays) have often taken such Christian considerations of sacrifice to heart more often than, say, hoteliers like Cecil B. Day, who could not kick out patrons to Days Inn on a Saturday night and, instead, chose to eschew  profits derived from in-room alcohol sales or in-lobby bars.
  2. There is a business directory of Christian businesses called The Christian Yellow Pages. It started in 1972 as an effort to establish a parallel consumer market for conservative evangelicals who wanted to buy goods and services from like-minded small business owners. The Anti-Defamation League sued it in the early 1980s for not advertising Jewish sellers, which it did in future issues (although it remained primarily a venue for advertising to “Christian” – largely meaning “evangelical” – customers). 
  1. Legal changes played a notable role in shaping the contours of the Christian business landscape. Though fair employment laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 focused primarily on racial discrimination, such laws also shaped Christian businesses and their approach to employee relations. With less legal room to shape their corporate cultures in favor of a specific religion, many evangelical businesses lauded other “religious” principles and practices, from voluntary in-office prayer services to an emphasis on seemingly broad “biblical values” or “Judeo-Christian values” in administrative decision-making.  Such linguistic, rhetorical, legal, and cultural negotiations nevertheless cornered the market on the meaning of the word “Christian” in business, with conservative evangelicals largely in charge of what it meant to do “Christian” business in an increasingly pluralistic
  1. The office cubicle was invented by a Christian company. The De Pree family, which headed the furniture company Herman Miller, interpreted their Dutch Reformed evangelicalism to mean the valuing of “high design” and better employer-employee relations through modular office furniture. Hence, they developed the “Action Office II,” a predecessor to the contemporary office cubicle, in the mid-1960s as a means to free employees from fixed-in-place desks.  (At the time, the Office Space-like, “cubicle drone” hellscape of the future was not their intent.)

Featured image credit: CC0 via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Rick Bennett

    One might opine that the onset of New England colonization was due to Christian corporations using the ill-defined terminology herein. The author clearly wishes to illuminate the role of a specific thread of human thought in the broader socioeconomic context; while he ties the thought and the outcomes, there is nothing suggesting that the structure taken as each business grew was particular to making that happen.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *