The Deep Roots of Religious Business in America

Joseph P. Slaughter

Protest of Burwell decision, American Life League.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) is one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in recent history. Burwell’s narrow 5‒4 majority ruling states that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 applied to closely held, for-profit corporations seeking religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act. The case elevated the profile of the national craft chain, Hobby Lobby, established by the conservative evangelical Green family of Oklahoma City. Oklahoma. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent from Burwell v. Hobby Lobby argues that “history is not on the side” of the Court majority’s hesitancy to draw a clear line between the legitimate religious character of non-profit versus for-profit entities. Ginsburg’s dissent reflects a conventional wisdom that considers for-profit corporations inherently secular, serving a secular purpose, and existing within an inherently secular marketplace. Such a notion would have profoundly befuddled and offended the proprietors I study.[1]

Instead, many of these early republic proprietors formed business enterprises to both make a profit and remake the American market and culture after a theologically conservative Protestant ideal. (Some of these characters would claim the label “evangelical,” but the term is now so confused and contested I hesitate to use it here.) Although few of these firms were incorporated (coming before the era of expansive general incorporation laws), they were businesses formed with religious beliefs at their core, such as dry hotels and inns along the Erie Canal. These firms demonstrate the rich heritage of for-profit businesses founded by intensely religious proprietors who would have scoffed at Ginsburg’s argument that their religious identities were separate from their businesses since they strove for profit. Instead, they formed their enterprises to propagate their religious values, often to the consternation of the rest of their community.

Recently, on June 19, 2019, The Washington Post announced that Chick-fil-A was now the third largest restaurant chain in the United States (based on sales), surpassing Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway, trailing only McDonalds and Starbucks. Together with retailers such as Hobby Lobby, these firms have introduced Americans to something I term Christian Business Enterprise (CBE). Ronald J. Colombo describes such firms as businesses “infused with religion.” Scholars such as Bethany Moreton and Kevin Kruse broke ground by charting the growth of CBEs in the twentieth century, while recent works such as Nicole C. Kirk’s Wanamaker’s Temple identify connections between CBEs and revivalism in the late nineteenth century.[2]

Pioneer Stage Line Advertisement: Rochester Observer, June 11, 1830, Monroe County Public Library, Rochester, New York.

My work pushes this history of CBEs back to the early republic, demonstrating how religious identity shaped economic decisions amid the expanding American marketplace. It has forced me to re-assess the relationship between economic expansion and religious activity in the early Republic, as scholars have traditionally argued the former caused the latter. Instead, the opposite was often true. For example, when the Sabbatarian Pioneer Stage Coach Line did not yield the dramatic cultural change its chief proprietor hoped for, he invited Charles Finney to Rochester, personally hosting him in his home, igniting fervent revivals in the city during the 1830s. I love Paul Johnson’s classic work on the Rochester revivals, Shopkeeper’s Millennium, but here is an example of business-led social reform pre-dating the revivals themselves.

We need an ongoing debate on the place of religion in the public square of an increasingly pluralistic America. Questions of public accommodation are pressing and vitally important. No American should experience discrimination in the marketplace. At the same time, my research reinforces the degree to which American religion has historically been one of passionate belief married to integrative practice. The Puritan theology of vocation, Quaker pacifism, Pietist communalism, and Mennonite non-patriotism are just a few examples of the myriad ways religious Americans have combined belief with public practice of their religion, often causing friction with the larger community. My hope is that understanding the fuller context of this longer, deeper history of Christian business enterprise better equips us to find our way forward amid some of the most acrimonious debates of our age as we strive to fully value and affirm the dignity and worth of all.


[1] Ginsburg quote: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. 682 (2014), 18. Since 2014, the Greens have attracted additional controversy as the principal financial and conceptual engine behind the Washington, DC Museum of the Bible. Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton, NJ, 2017); Andrew W. Henry, “A Dead Sea Scrolls Forgery Casts Doubt on the Museum of the Bible,” Atlantic, Oct. 24, 2018, museum-of-the-bible/573799/.

[2] Laura Reiley, “The Sky Is Falling for Fast Food, But Not for Chick-fil-A. Here’s Why,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2019, 06/19/chick-fil-a-becomes-third-largest-restaurant-chain-us/?utm_term=.e62f490a4143. The terms “religious business enterprise” or “Christian enterprise” are used by other scholars to refer to the same types of firms. Ronald J. Colombo, “Religious Liberty and the Business Corporation”, a paper presented at a business conference at University of Maryland, Nov. 6, 2012, 2‒4. Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA, 2009); Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York, 2015); Nicole C. Kirk, Wanamaker’s Temple: The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store (New York, 2018).

25 November 2019

About the Author

Joseph P. Slaughter is Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Chamberlain Project Fellow in the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life at Wesleyan University

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