Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business

The Neoliberal Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capital

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James Dennis LoRusso
Editor(s): 
Craig Martin
Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2017.
     216 pages.
     $102.60.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350006270.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With few exceptions, academic studies of workplace spirituality range in interpretive approach from apologetic to celebratory. These studies have described the recent phenomenon of corporate-promoted spirituality as both good for business, and good for the soul; a win-win for employers and employees alike. James Dennis LoRusso’s Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business, however, is one of the exceptions in that it offers a sustained, and frankly well-needed, historicized critique of the expanding enterprise of workplace spirituality and its self-justifying business-minded tautologies.

In seven chapters, LoRusso shows the reader how the language and practice of spirituality in the corporate workplace is complicit with neoliberalism. LoRusso begins with his visit to a 2011 International Faith and Spirit at Work conference that was sponsored by the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace, an affiliate of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. This point of entry into the conversation is significant in that it directly connects LoRusso’s account of a workplace spirituality movement that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to the evangelical religious promotions of “Christian free enterprise” that historian Bethany Moreton describes in To Serve God and Wal-Mart (Harvard University Press, 2009). As LoRusso notes, for example, Tyson Foods—for which the Center is named—promotes its corporate chaplaincy program as a way to create a “faith-friendly” workplace of all religious believers, including its Muslim employees. But underneath this accommodating tone for the spiritual needs of all employees, regardless of their religious tradition, is a particular sectarian belief that, more often than not, is libertarian, free-market, self-conscious, and business friendly. In short, this book is about the spiritual psychology of “Christian free enterprise,” as professed and prescribed by its corporate promoters.

The bulk of the book works through the ideas of business leaders, revealing their ontological assumptions about workers, management, and capital. LoRusso argues that “spirituality” became “entangled with business during the latter half of the twentieth century precisely because it has, at least in part, proved to be a useful strategy for bolstering the power of business elites” (11). He shows, for example, how the work of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow undergirded the new management approaches of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that envisioned the workplace as not just for work, but also for self-actualization. With a reference to Max Weber, LoRusso makes it clear that these business elites offered their workers the feeling of vocation, the feeling that they were working out their salvation and creating spiritual meaning in their jobs. And without exactly saying that such an offer was mere bluster, and without using the Marxian language of masking, LoRusso does let it be known—in the final chapter on the Café Gratitude coffee chain—that such offers “preserve the interests of the business owners” and “undercut the authority of employees” (145).

In clear and concise prose, LoRusso takes the reader through the key ideas of the major players that directly contributed to the emergence of workplace spirituality in the twenty-first century. He examines the language of spirituality in figures such as Apple icon Steve Jobs, who considered his spiritually-enlightened individualism transcendent of society, and beyond governmental constraints; and Whole Foods’ founder John Mackey, who championed a libertarian spirituality that viewed any governmental interference an impediment to the individual freedom of business entrepreneurship—whether this was organized labor as morally threatening, or “Obama Care” as a “form of Fascism” (97).

While this book does include a few interviews, it is not an ethnography of the workplace, and as such, it does not describe in rich detail the practice of spirituality within it. The reader is left wondering how workers, as well as managers, respond to such promotions. Are they skeptical? Do they find ways to reshape or resist managerial efforts? What this book does well, and why it should be read by anyone interested in religion and capitalism—or American religious history—is that it offers a historical narrative with which to critically interpret workplace spirituality. Focusing on what LoRusso describes as “the voice of religious liberals, so-called New Agers, and generic spiritual eclectics,” the book expands the conversation on workplace spirituality to include others beyond the evangelical believers in ‘Christian free enterprise’” (167). And it ends with an important suggestion which is that all of these business actors, from the Christian companies of Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A to the “spiritual eclectics” of Apple and Whole Foods, may indeed be connected by something transcendent: the spiritual pursuit of free-market capitalism. What then is American religion, but another name for neoliberalism?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chad Seales is associate professor of religion at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Dennis LoRusso is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University.

 

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