I recently received an email from a woman who had read my Boston Review column on how the political left and churches in the U.S. have drifted apart in the last few decades. There had been a vibrant religious left in the 1960s, but now the phrase, “religious progressive” seems (as one liberal commenter to the column insisted) “an oxymoron.” The conservative e-mailer also insisted that a reconciliation of the left and religion was impossible, because “either you understand the Bible or you don’t. Left-liberals don’t ….”
Our exchange did not go very far. But it made me want to revisit more explicitly the point that the contemporary alliance between laissez faire, free market ideology and conservative Christians is, if not an unholy alliance, certainly an historically unusual one. The two were, for most of our history, in conflict.
Even a quick overview shows how often church leaders struggled against commercial interests, as they urged the state to rein in the free market.
Alcohol. Fierce, even violent, struggles over regulating alcohol sales dominated much of American history until the end of Prohibition. Protestant churches insisted on shutting down saloons and banning booze. (The Catholic church, home to Irish and continental immigrants, was more tolerant.) On the other side were, of course, those who said that what people wanted to buy and sell was not the government’s concern; it should be a free market.
Sundays. Repeatedly, leading Protestant churchmen tried to preserve the sacred Sabbath by demanding that the government stop business activities on Sundays. (The Catholic church, again, was a bit more accepting. Also, some evangelicals distrusted the eastern churchmen.) I discussed the struggle over Sunday entertainment, particularly Sunday baseball, in one previous post and the struggle over Sunday mail delivery in another one. The churches largely lost their campaign against Sunday commercial entertainment, but they eventually helped end the Sunday post. In both cases, businessmen and the ideology of the unfettered market were on the other side, against organized religion.
Other political struggles also tended to pit churchmen and, especially, churchwomen against “the market”: slavery, child labor, prostitution, care for the poor, and so on. A subtle argument can be made that, at some deep level, capitalism and the “Protestant ethic” were mutually supporting , but in American political struggles, church leaders often fought against the interests of commerce.
Regulating the Market
In the early days before, during, and briefly after the Revolution, many American communities, particularly in Puritan New England, regulated prices, especially of bread, and wages. Such controls were justified on moral grounds, protecting the poor and discouraging gouging in emergencies. As a practical matter, such controls could not last, as commerce multiplied and sped up among American communities. In addition, the new ideology of laissez faire economics spread to justify the elimination of such regulations and, indeed, the elimination of all sorts of restrictions on buying, selling, and investment that had been common. Whether for better or worse (it did help spur America’s economic take-off), the change exposed tensions between church and market.
A stark example is described by historian Michael Shirley: the town of Salem, North Carolina, a Moravian (German evangelical) community. Church elders regulated residents’ business activities, including overseeing what businesses could make and sell and whom they could employ. (The church forbade slavery.) In the 1830s and ’40s, local businessmen faced growing competition from outside the community, but also growing economic opportunities. Both fear and ambition led them to challenge the church’s restrictions and eventually the church leaders loosened the constraints and finally dissolved their authority in 1856. (Slavery, as well as market pricing, arrived in Salem.) Henry Leinbach, a local shoemaker, church elder, and loser in these struggles, commented during the 1830s: “Rough times, these. It appears there is little love among us any more . . . . Times are hard, and many people do not do as they wish others to do unto them.” One of the winners in this transformation, on the other hand, spoke in a different language: “I relied on myself, I depended upon myself, I took care of myself”—the language of the ascending laissez-faire ideology. 
And so, I would reiterate that what seems to be taken for granted today — that leaders of evangelical and fundamentalist movements line up with the Chamber of Commerce against taxes, against regulation, for a depend-on-myself economy– is of this peculiar historical moment. Warning against Mammon is the more common stance of the church.
1. I allude here to Weber’s classic book. Some scholars describe the rise of evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th century as a boon to business , because the faith brought self-discipline to American workers (e.g., Johnson, Shopkeepers’ Millennium; Sellers, The Market Revolution; Wilentz, Chants Democratic, although see also Sutton, “Tied to the Whipping Post,” Labor History, 1995).
2. A sample of readings: Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy; Nash, “The Social Evolution,” J. Urban History, 1987; Horowitz, The Transformation of American Law; Bruchey, Enterprise; Watson, “‘The Common Rights of Mankind,’” J. of American History, 1996; Tangires, Public Markets and Civic Culture.
3. Shirley, “The Market and Community Culture,” J. of the Early Republic, 1991.