Andrew Fulford Archive Civic Polity Economics Philosophy Sacred Doctrine

Industrial Capitalism and the Subversion of Religion

At various points in the life of The Calvinist International, contributors have posed questions about the compatibility of Reformed social and political philosophy with modern capitalism. More of the story needs telling, however. In 2003, Dr. Christian Smith edited The Secular Revolution, which argues:

…that the declining authority of religion was not the by-product of modernization, but rather the intentional achievement of cultural and intellectual elites, including scientists, academics, and literary intellectuals, seeking to gain control of social institutions and increase their own cultural authority.

One part of this new narrative in particular may surprise some evangelicals, who in recent decades have tied their political wagons to the laissez-faire right. For what Dr. Smith recounts is a story of Mammon driving out God. An instance of this process is in the secularization of higher education in the United States. While I do not currently have the time to review this book as it deserves, I cannot resist sharing a few selections regarding this underreported aspect of North American history.

The Great Transformation

Dr. Smith begins his story by noting the profound changes in the American economy after the Civil War:

Before the Civil War, only about 7 percent of U.S. manufacturing took place in corporations; by 1900, that figure had grown to nearly 66 percent. Economic centralization merged industries into massive corporate trusts. Between 1897 and 1905, more than 5,300 industrial firms were merged into only 318 corporations. … By 1904, there were 26 major trusts that controlled at least 80 percent of the production in their particular fields. In the process, the structure of the labor market was also revolutionized. At the start of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of American works were self-employed entrepreneurs; but by century’s end, two-thirds of workers had become wage and salaried employees. The ownership of wealth was centralized dramatically as well. During the 1840s, there were fewer than twenty millionaires in what was still a primarily agricultural United States. By 1893, a mere 9 percent of the most prosperous Americans had come to own 71 percent of the nation’s wealth… . In sum, in a relatively short time of historically unprecedented growth and centralization of wealth, American capitalism had incorporated under the control of the Morgans, Rockefellers, Mellons, Carnegies, and Du Ponts of the country. (74)

Economized Education

This economic shift brought changes in higher education in tow. The monied founded many of the great research universities, and funded others, but in none were they concerned with the preservation of religion:

[C]orporate capitalism’s centralization of the production and ownership of wealth at the end of the nineteenth century created vast new pools of assets, some of which many industrial philanthropists chose to devote to the cause of reforming higher education… . As it turns out, the most important American research universities that self-consciously pioneered functionally secular education and scholarship were either created ex nihilo or were significantly endowed by affluent capitalist benefactors: Johns Hopkins University by Johns Hopkins, Cornell University by Ezra Cornell, the University of Chicago by John D. Rockefeller, Stanford University by Leland Stanford, Clark University by Jonas Gilman Clark, and so on. Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Duke, and many other wealthy industrialists also had a hand in endowing what became major research universities. Industrial money also flowed into secular universities through Rockefeller’s General Education Board, founded in 1902 with assets of $46 million; through the Carnegie Corporation with assets of $151 million in 1911; and through the Commonwealth Fund established by Mrs. Stephen V. Harkness in 1918 through a $43 million endowment.  This massive supply of new financial resources for universities came with few mandates seeking to preserve substantial religious interests in higher education. Rather, the concern of these capitalist patrons was to rationalize American higher education through uniform national standards and to promote advanced scientific research modeled on the German university system. This they viewed as serving the interests of the nation and its economy.(75)

The purpose of education shifted from the old goal of producing liberally educated, flourishing human beings, to producing “productive members of society”, who would serve the interests of the national economy.

The Suppression of Religious Institutions

Not only did these corporate barons indirectly reduce the influence of religion, in some situations they actively opposed it:

In some cases, big corporate money actually came with explicitly anti-religious mandates. In 1905, for example, Andrew Carnegie gave $10 million to establish a professor’s pension fund. Carnegie put Henry Smith Pritchett in charge of the project, the secularized son of a Methodist preacher… Pritchett’s rules governing access to funds stated that all denominational colleges and universities were categorically excluded from the plan; only schools with no formal ties to religious denominations could participate… . In response, fifteen colleges immediately severed their ties with their religious denominations in order to get a share of the Carnegie money—including Wesleyan, Dickinson, Swathmore, Brown, Bowodin, Rutgers, Rochester, and Occidental… (75-76)

From the Old Guard to the New

One other consequence of these processes in higher education was a concrete shift in the makeup of governing boards. Before the great transformation, clergy would compose high percentage of boards; after, they were replaced by businessmen.

Rightly, then, did Thorstein Veblen observe in 1918 that:

[w]ithin the memory of men still living it was a nearly unbroken rule that the governing boards of … higher American schools were drawn largely from the clergy and were also guided mainly by ecclesiastical … notions of what was right and needful in matters of learning … That phase of academic policy is past. … Academic authorities now proceed on grounds of businesslike expediency rather than on religious conviction… . For a generation past … there has gone a wide-reaching substitution of laymen in the place of clergymen on the governing boards. The substitution is a substitution of businessmen and politicians; which amounts to saying that it is a substitution of businessmen. So that the discretionary control in matters of university policy now rests finally in the hands of businessmen.(78)

The Logic of Capitalism

It’s one thing to note these shifts; it’s another to inquire about their possible significance. Is there any necessity to this process of capitalist secularizing? Dr. Smith argues that there is a logical connection between the two:

All of this reflected in part the fact that corporate capitalist interests required a different kind of graduate than those earlier Christian colleges had been educating. In the previous economic era, American colleges specialized in training and graduating gentlemen broadly educated in the classics and intellectually socialized into a coherent Protestant moral universe… . But corporate capitalism did not need classically educated gentlemen. It needed technically and professionally trained employees in management, finance, law, advertising, engineering, and other material sciences… . Traditional faculty scholarship in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin languages, moral philosophy, theology, literature, science as inductive Baconian specimen-gathering, and the like contributed little to the industrial corporation’s production of material wealth and accumulation of capital. Rather, corporate capitalist interests were better served by technical knowledge generated by basic and applied scientific research producing scholarship useful for boosting material production and economic growth… . Capitalism thus undercut the justification for the scholarly task of a college system that privileged religious knowledge in its education, bolstering instead a rationale for a kind of technical, instrumental scholarship that was at the very least indifferent to religious concerns and interests. The moral order of Christian higher education simply did not much aid the interests of an expanding corporate capitalist system, and the material rewards for academic achievement shifted to a different version of success in higher education. (76)

We know theoretically that historical religious faiths foster “substantive rationalities” with definite moral and social imperatives rooted in their specific traditions. Capitalist interests, on the other hand, are theoretically best served by systems of “procedural rationality” which foster universality, “neutrality,” interchangeability, and a public/private partitioning of life. Together, these allow the “invisible hand” of the market to do its work, unencumbered by moral critiques inefficient lifestyle particularities, or other potential obstructions grounded in substantively rational moral and religious traditions. Labor is then mobile as needed, consumers purchase what is promoted, workers perform as demanded, managers execute as expected—and profits flow. And what the Torah, or the Pope, or Jesus may say in opposition is not relevant, because those are private matters. Historically, in fact, we do know that more than a few religiously driven social activists struggled during this era against capitalist interests. (76-77)

Christian higher education had certain ends in view. Most basically, the glorification of God through the full flourishing of a human being, in all their social, familial, economic, political, and spiritual facets. But industrial capitalism had other ends in view, for as a system it aims not comprehensive flourishing, but the maximization of material profit. A society restructured toward the service of Mammon in this way cannot help but distance itself from the goal of serving God.

Quo Vadis?

What does all this mean for Christians today? I have just highlighted Dr. Smith’s narrative of secularization in education; there is of course a much larger story about secularization in society in general. But if we take his story as representative of the whole process, we might be able to draw a few conclusions. Christians may rightly wish for a day when education will once again aim at the full flourishing of human beings, but realistically this will not happen tomorrow. If we hope to contribute to some kind of future change, surely the first step we must take is to realize how we got to where we are.