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Christian Smith

Who Paid for Secularization?

The agenda—and money—behind a social shift

"The central claim of this book," writes Christian Smith in the preface to The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life, just published by the University of California Press, "is that the historical secularization of the institutions of American public life was not a natural, inevitable, and abstract by-product of modernization; rather it was the outcome of a struggle between contending groups with conflicting interests seeking to control social knowledge and institutions." Edited by Smith, with essays by a number of scholars, the book offers a bracingly revisionist account of secularization that is sure to generate debate. To whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from Smith's introduction.

Revolutions and social movements are not simply the result of interested and aggrieved activists capitalizing on new political opportunities. To mobilize and prevail, activists also need access to material resources sufficient to sustain their cause. In some cases, the difference between successful and failed revolutions and movements can be traced largely to increasing and decreasing supplies of resources. The secular revolution succeeded in part because new sources of material resources outside of the control of Protestant authorities became available for secular activists to deploy in the cause of secularization. This story is long and complex, and varies in different spheres of public life. Given space limitations, I focus here on the core economic transformation that shaped activists' secularizing of American higher education and science: the boom and incorporation of industrial capitalism.

One of the most profound social changes taking place during the crucial decades of the secularization of higher education and science was the incorporation of industrial capitalism. The magnitude of this transformation, Clyde Barrow shows, was astounding.1 Spurred by the "epoch-making innovation" of the national railway system established between 1861 and 1907 and the national markets it opened up, the structure of America's productive capacity, ownership of wealth, and class system was profoundly altered. 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. More than 1,200 mergers took place in the single year of 1899. By 1904, there were 26 different 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 19th century, the vast majority of American workers 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.

This economic transformation had important consequences for the place of religion in American higher education and science. The interests of corporate, industrial capitalism proved in certain ways unfriendly to religion's playing a significant role in science and higher education. It was not that capitalism and Protestantism were in a direct and logical way intellectually and socially irreconcilable—as with Bryan Wilson's suggestion that people simply can't believe in God in an age of conveyor belts.2 But corporate capitalism did significantly influence resources that facilitated activist secularizers who were working to undermine religion's authority in American higher education and science.

Perhaps the most obvious and crucial influence that expanding corporate capitalism exerted on American higher education was its financial patronage of secular research universities, which effectively marginalized religion. Most of America's Christian colleges depended financially on the support of local towns, affiliated denominations, and student tuition. The education they managed to produce with these limited funds was impressive, all in all. But corporate capitalism's centralization of the production and ownership of wealth at the end of the 19th century created vast new pools of financial assets, some of which many industrial philanthropists chose to devote to the cause of reforming higher education.3

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. In effect, the hundreds of millions of dollars that capitalist moguls pumped into their new research universities created the financial basis for autonomy from religious bodies. They also decisively institutionalized a new model of specialized, secular scholarship and learning, which quickly became the national ideal standard for higher education and scholarship.

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 professors' pension fund. Carnegie put Henry Smith Pritchett in charge of the project, the secularized son of a Methodist preacher, of whom it was said that "[h]is 'faith' was science."4 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. Pritchett argued that denominational influences on colleges made for unsound education, encouraged the existence of too many small schools, were institutionally inefficient, and compromised the public good.5 In response, 15 colleges immediately severed their ties with their religious denominations in order to get a share of the Carnegie money—including Wesleyan, Dickinson, Swarthmore, Brown, Bowdoin, Rutgers, Rochester, and Occidental.6

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. They would go into the traditional professions to become leaders and sustainers of the prevailing social order. 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.

Similarly, corporate capitalism needed scholars in higher education whose research agendas differed from those dominating earlier Christian colleges. 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. Not geology focused on harmonizing with the Genesis creation account, but geology intent on locating and excavating minerals and petroleum was what corporate capitalism, by systemic logic, was interested in—regardless of the particular religious beliefs of any individual capitalist magnate. 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.

To what extent, in and through all of this, corporate magnates—some of whom were personally devout—actually perceived a threat to their capitalist interests from the public authority of particularistic religious traditions is unclear. 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. Groups such as the Evangelical Ministers Union, for example, mobilized for decades to close down all businesses on Sundays in observance of the biblical Sabbath.7 The American labor movement after the Civil War also drew extensively on Christian languages of morality to justify their struggles over working conditions, pay, and shorter work hours.8 And many Social Gospel reformers agitated to restructure industrial capitalism to conform to the will of Jesus, as they saw it.9 Had they been either theoretically reflective or intuitively perceptive, late-19th-century capitalist industrialists would have recognized the economic advantages of privatizing religious authority. To what extent they actually did so, however, is beyond the scope of this essay to ascertain.

What we do know, however, is that in many spheres of public life capitalism created the material conditions necessary to develop new systems for producing and distributing socially legitimate knowledge no longer under the supervision of dominant religious interests. In the case of higher education, capitalism supplied the resources to establish new secular universities whose intellectual labor was placed beyond the control of the Protestant establishment.

Capitalism's growing interest in shaping higher education, in ways that proved detrimental to religious influences, is evident in the changing vocational makeup of the boards of trustees of colleges and universities during this era—the governing bodies that formally owned and guided the schools. In one sample of fifteen private institutions of higher education, the 39 percent of trustees that in 1860 were clergymen had by 1900 dropped to 23 percent, and by 1930 dropped again to only 7 percent. By contrast, the percentage of those schools' trustees who were businessmen, bankers, and lawyers grew from 48 percent in 1860 to 64 percent in 1900, and again to 74 percent in 1930. Since the proportion of trustees from the other represented vocations remained fairly stable over this period, the 26 percent gain for businessmen, lawyers, and bankers came directly out of the 32 percent decline in the clergy's representation. In the end, more than ten times more business than religious leaders served on these boards of trustees.10

A separate analysis of the boards of trustees of twelve other private colleges, universities, and technical institutes confirms these results. During the years 1861-80, clergymen constituted 41 percent of the trustees of these schools, but by 1881-1900 that figure had dropped to 18 percent, and by the 1920s again to 9 percent. Over that same time period, the percentage of businessmen and lawyers grew from 32 to 66 percent.11 A similar displacement of religious by business leaders also occurred in a sample of private denominational and liberal arts colleges, whose trustees showed a 32-point decline in clergy between 1861-80 and 1920-29, in contrast to a 39-point increase in businessmen and lawyers over the same years.12 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 on 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.13

With sufficient space, we might more thoroughly examine the influence of other shifts in material resources—particularly through the expansion of mass-consumer capitalism—that facilitated the secular revolution. We might, for example, investigate how the emergence of a new mass market for magazines and books generated new publishing houses managed by non-Protestant entrepreneurs who were more interested in the profits that could be earned by promoting avant garde literature than in sustaining Protestant establishment cultural sensibilities and standards. We might explore the financial underwriting by wealthy sponsors of people and programs promoting a secular modernist worldview and culture.14 In these and other ways, shifts in the availability and allocation of material resources exerted significant direct and indirect influences in the secularization of American public life.

Christian Smith is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the editor of the just-published volume from which this essay is taken, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Life. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press. Copyright 2003 by the Regents of the University of California.

1. Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

2. Bryan Wilson, Contemporary Transformations of Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 6-7.

3. Ernest Hollis, Philanthropic Foundations and Higher Education (Columbia Univ. Press. 1938).

4. Ellen Lagemann, Private Power for Public Good (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1983), p. 35.

5. George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 281-83.

6. Dorothy Bass, "Ministry on the Margin: Protestants and Education," in Between the Times, edited by William R. Hutchinson (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).

7. William R. Mirola, "Shorter Hours and the Protestant Sabbath," Social Science History, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1999), pp. 395-433.

8. William R. Mirola, "Asking for Bread, Receiving a Stone: The Rise and Fall of Religious Identity in Chicago's Eight-Hour Movement" (1998). Unpublished ms.

9. Ronald White and C. Howard Hopkins, The Social Gospel (Temple Univ. Press, 1976).

10. Earl McGrath, "The Control of Higher Education in America," Educational Record, Vol. 17 (1936), pp. 259-72.

11. Barrow, p. 36.

12. Ibid, p. 47.

13. Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America (1918; reprint, Academic Reprints, 1954), pp. 62-64.

14. See, for example, Joyce Wexler, Who Paid for Modernism? (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1997).

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