Review of Religion and the Marketplace in the United States

[This post was originally published at Religion in American History.]

As Heath Carter has noted, we are due for a bumper crop of books on religion and capitalism in the United States. I want to briefly take note of a new collection of essays on the subject which came out of a conference held at Heidelberg University in 2011: Jan Stievermann, Philip Goff, Detlef Junker, Anthony Santoro, and Daniel Silliman, eds., Religion and the Marketplace in the United States New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Religion in the Marketplace cover
Religion in the Marketplace cover

I came to this collection looking for a critique of the persistent metaphor of a “market of religion.” (To be more precise, I’ve been sketching ideas for an essay on this topic. When I saw in the Amazon preview that the title of Brooks Holifield’s essay was similar to mine, I figured I needed to read it.) In the introduction the editors begin by critiquing “two metanarratives” about religion and the marketplace. The first of these “compartmentalizes religion and economics as more or less distinct spheres of human life that causally explain each other” (9). Most of the essays in this volume complicate this metanarrative. Mark Valeri on eighteenth-century New England merchants, Grant Wacker on Billy Graham, and Hilde Løvdal Stephens on James Dobson all describe small, daily interactions between religious belief and practice and the economy. Likewise a trio of essays on markets for religious books by Matthew Hedstrom, Günter Leypoldt, and Daniel Silliman show how groups from liberal Protestants to pretribulationist evangelicals navigated and created markets in religious commodities.

The second metanarrative that the editors critique is the idea that “the relationship of religion and markets … explains ‘the American difference,’ why America seems so religious in comparison with other Western countries” (15). The bookend essays to this collection by Brooks Holifield and Kathryn Lofton take on this idea. In a tightly argued essay on “The Limitations of Market Explanations,” Holifield makes short work of the idea, not so much refuting it as showing its implausibility. He argues instead that there is a “contingent, not necessary” connection between markets in religion and religiosity. Lofton makes the critique more general with a meditative essay on neoliberalism. She offers two observations: that historians are currently writing in an era of neoliberalism, and that most of the essays in the volume argue for a close connection between religious actors and the marketplace. From these observations she asks, “Is all American religion now neoliberal? Or is it merely the case that our scholarship has been so determined?” (285). Lofton doesn’t give a definitive answer to this question, but the asking is what makes her essay the highlight of the collection. My suspicion is that the idea of “a [metaphorical] market of religion” has become an crutch we reach for too often to describe American religious interactions without explaining them.

So there are two reasons you might want to pick up this edited collection. The body of the book offers a number of thoughtful, nuanced expositions of the daily interactions between religious actors and the economy. But Holifield and Lofton call into question the terms on which we write about religions and markets.