The Ties That Bind: Religion, Capitalism, and Identity in the Modern United States

AHA Session 124
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Nassau West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, describing the changes wrought by capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air, [and] all that is holy is profaned.” This image of capitalism, as a relentless force sweeping away all traditions, continues to exert a powerful influence on historical scholarship.

A powerful influence—but occasionally a distorting one. Our panel, “The Ties That Bind: Religion, Capitalism, and Identity in the Modern United States,” suggests that the triumph of capitalism does not necessarily mean “all that is holy is profaned.” The history of the modern United States provides ample proof that that the ties of family, ethnicity, and (especially) religion can persist within—and sometimes even sustain—the marketplace. Our papers will explore the intersections between religion and capitalism across a variety of faith traditions in the modern United States.

These papers pay special attention to religious identities. We will show how the identities created and nurtured by religious communities can serve as the foundation for economic exchanges. The sense of trust and connection which comes with a shared identity can often facilitate such exchanges. Yet there are also darker elements to the story: religious identities can be used to defraud; stereotypes concerning certain identities can shape public policy for the worse; and the solidarity created by shared identities can sometimes elide or even reinforce inequality.

Our panel will contribute to an emerging literature on religion and capitalism in the modern United States. Much of this literature focuses on the relationship between corporations and conservative evangelical Christianity, showing how one reinforces the other: how, for instance, oil tycoon J. Howard Pew poured millions of dollars into evangelical endeavors like the magazine Christianity Today. Our papers will discuss evangelical Christianity, but they will also examine other faith traditions: Judaism, Pentecostalism, and the Mennonite Church. Our goal is to provide a broader perspective on how identities and communities have mediated between religion and capitalism in the modern United States.

Rebecca Kobrin of Columbia University will discuss the role that anti-Semitism played in the decision to allow the Bank of the United States to fail in 1930. Lucia Hulsether of Yale University will explore how Mennonite missionaries contributed to the creation of “socially responsible capitalism.” Gabriel Raeburn of the University of Pennsylvania will examine how the prosperity gospel was experienced across the color line. And William Schultz of Princeton University will discuss evangelical Christian efforts to police financial fraud within their own community. Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania will provide the comment.

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