World War I stuck a dagger in the heart of Christian triumphalism and capped the rise of postmillennialism. The war over, America was ready to party for any and all reasons, yet it was the intellect that took the fore.
Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Sanger, Huxley, Russell and Darwin were in vogue. It was all the rage to talk “high and mighty,” and name-dropping of this theorist or that philosopher was commonplace. By now, German higher criticism of the Bible was catching on in the “enlightened” theology departments at the oldest Christian colleges in the nation—Harvard, Yale, and others founded before 1800—and was crushing the life out of true biblical thought there. (Today, it’s hard to believe that schools such as these were founded to produce godly pastors. We’ve learned the lesson of our lack of vigilance the hard way.) Science and philosophy provided every answer and there wasn’t a major city that didn’t feature some form of “World of Tomorrow” exhibit for the residents to explore. Old ideas died or foundered and new ones took their place. It was an age of rationalism in the midst of dance marathons.
Again, the Church had a response to the rationalism, but it was not the measured response of earlier days founded on solid biblical principles. The post-WWI Church found itself in the grip of a Jesus never before considered.
By the 1920s, it was possible to carry a business card and have it say nothing more than “Businessman” and no one would think twice about such a title. Investing in the stock market was a rich man’s habit and a lesser man’s gamble. More than a hundred years of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of corporate America had so benumbed the Church that when President Calvin Coolidge remarked, “The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there,” it wasn’t given much fuss.
Part of the reason for this lack of condemnation from the Church (apart from the fact that most conservative theologians were busy fighting the battle against higher criticism) was the runaway success of a peculiar little book written by one of the age’s most noted advertising experts, Bruce Barton. His 1925 title The Man Nobody Knows: A Biography of Jesus portrayed the Lord as the “founder of modern business.” And if Jesus Himself had been co-opted, neither would the apostles escape the grasp of the syncretism of business and Christianity, for Barton called them “the greatest sales force in history.”
Looking at Jesus more as CEO than Lord reflected an age when the front pages of newspapers were dedicated to the lifestyles of families such as the Rockefellers, Mellons, Carnegies, and Gettys. Heirs and heiresses to these fortunes commanded center stage. The captains of industry were the role models for the little man. After all, the history of America was the history of pioneers and men who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Each of those wealthy families was headed by a self-made man who had cornered a market by going against the flow. They had a destiny to fulfill, power to grasp, and a dominant will that could take them anywhere. Some of them even went to church on Sundays, and churches were often the beneficiaries of their trusts and philanthropy. In many ways, they were portrayed as the saviors of their times.
Barton’s book was a phenomenon. The fourth bestselling book of 1925, it climbed to number one the following year. Ultimately, The Man Nobody Knows spent more than two years in the top ten. So popular was it that it’s still available for sale today—a rare feat for a non-fiction title from the 1920s. In the end, millions of men and women were intrigued by the “Business Jesus.” Their fears that Corporate America might just be rolling over them were allayed by the fact that Jesus Himself was a businessman. And so the faithful partnership the modern Church in America extended to business was set in stone, a permanence we still feel today.
1925 was a watershed year for another reason, except this one took place far from the reaches of the big city. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, violated the Volunteer state’s constitutional ban against teaching Darwinism in public schools. His trial garnered massive media attention when William Jennings Bryan, failed three-time Democratic candidate for President, signed on as the prosecutor in the case. Bryan became the champion of Christian fundamentalism when pitted against the defendant’s legal counsel, the avowed atheist Clarence Darrow. The trial was broadcast live and radio audiences ate up every second of legal chicanery and posing wrought by both sides.
We all know how the trial ended, but the battle had been lost years before. Darwinism had come to flower in Britain more than fifty years previous, so America was just another step in the long parade. In fact, Social Darwinism, the idea that evolutionary theory explains sociological constructs, had found its perch long ago in business practices. Some people had and some didn’t; prosperity was a function of superior breeding, intellect, and other less classifiable “genetic predispositions.” Natural selection supposedly explained this fact. The witness of the newspapers and their constant trailing after the Rockefellers, Mellons, Carnegies, and Gettys cemented this in the minds of average Americans.
There were other depths reached by Social Darwinism during this time. The growing eugenics movement championed by noted psychologist Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger (the founder of what became Planned Parenthood), and a large swath of Catholic and Protestant leaders (either frustrated postmillennialists or those who had succumbed to the liberal theology that had formed from higher criticism), openly worked to separate the genetically pure from the corrupted. The “corrupted” in this case were the usual suspects: immigrants, blacks, and the “lower classes,” in general. Those lower classes were usually determined by one thing: their business status. The vile classism that Social Darwinism fostered had started all the way back in the factories of Britain and had now come to signify the vile racism behind a “Master Race.”
It would be hard to imagine that eugenics and the Social Darwinism that had cultivated it would have been possible without the drastic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. If the United States had remained a home-based economy (and free of slavery uniformly), proponents of Social Darwinism would have found it harder to draw the distinctions they promoted simply because any imagined underclass would not have existed.
Instead, the disconnect between what the Bible said about God’s view of Man and what Social Darwinism proclaimed began to tear at the fringes of the Church. A typical churchgoer would mouth the words of hymns, recite Bible verses, and read the Scriptures, but when Monday rolled around it was off to work and the Darwinian dynamic that had subsumed most business practices took over. Some climbed the corporate ladder and some didn’t—to those with a conflicted worldview, the supremacy of Darwin over Christ seemed clear. Better to be a wealthy Darwinian than a poor Christian.
Even today, the fallout of this mentality reigns in Corporate America. People work eight or more hours a day in an environment controlled by a worldview that is, quite simply, anti-Christian, yet few understand the pernicious nature of the worldview governing most of our work. Most of today’s business buzzwords have a distinctly Darwinian source when examined closely. In Christian circles, particularly in men’s groups, the business mantra is to be a “leader.” However, more often than not, “leader” does not mean “servant,” but rather “the one who made it to the top of the food chain.” Jesus is looking for disciples and it is the nature of disciples to be followers. But the average Christian bookstore would quickly fold if it sold Christian business books that claimed to teach people (men especially) how to be good followers.
And so we come to 2005. The troika of the Industrial Revolution, Social Darwinism, and a Church crippled by biblical higher criticism, rationalism, and a dulled reaction time to the sociological changes occurring around it, have spawned the business environment we work in every day. Most folks are oblivious to the insidious nature of Darwinism at work and its stranglehold on most company cultures and practices. That stranglehold extends to the Church, too, as “Jesus, CEO” continues to be the predominant thinking among Christian business leaders and authors who write business books for the Christian market, their failure being the inability to question if the foundation upon which today’s work world exists is actually the wrong foundation. Worse still, if they’ve supported the wrong foundation for business, why are they co-opting that foundation for the Church itself?
In the next installment of The Christian & the Business World, we’ll examine modern business assumptions and what they mean for all of us who work. Look for Binding the Business Strongman in the next day or so.
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