In September 2020, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR) published our article, “Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form.” Our cooperative piece was a manifesto-style appeal to fellow scholars of religion to expand beyond “and”-style binary approaches by considering the institutions, materials, actions, motivations, and dispositions of corporate entities that may or may not take formal or legal designation as “religions.” We urged the field to consider investigating “the corporate form” as a means of taking into account the administrative make-up, training mechanisms, and recruitment methods of various kinds of organizations, including for-profit corporations and nonprofit religions. Building on work by scholars such as Kathryn Lofton, Craig Martin, Bethany Moreton, Amanda Porterfield, Andrew Ventimiglia, and Isaac Weiner, we advocated moving beyond problematic pairings, such as religion and economy or religion and politics, which perpetuate the erroneous implication that “religion” exists as a discrete entity that can be disaggregated from its putative others.
Even as we addressed activities (e.g., consumption) and concepts (e.g., property) that other scholars have also analyzed, we aimed to avoid hypostatizing moves that reduce religion to economic factors or collapse commercial activity into religion. We also questioned widely used metaphors, such as “the religious marketplace,” which are grounded in the notion that religion and economy are ontologically different categories. Because we sought to avoid metaphor and allegory in favor of focusing on the concrete corporate form, we necessarily understood our project as different from elucidating an animating “spirit” of the corporation, as Porterfield would have it. We also resisted Lofton’s homologizing impulse (“corporation as sect”). Although his book was not yet published when we wrote our article, we agree with Daniel Vaca’s assertion that attention to markets and publics is crucial to apprehending the collective activity and subject formation commonly associated with religion. We understand Vaca to be arguing for the coconstitutive nature of commercial activity and religion, but we nevertheless think our conception of the corporate form differs productively from Vaca’s notion of “commercial religion” because we do not assume from the outset the existence of a “religion” that takes on a commercial cast. Rather, we contend that groups of people adopt the corporate form for a variety of reasons, with myriad social effects. Attending to these rationales and results tells us something about religion.
Relying on our backgrounds researching different aspects of Japanese religion and society, our article proposed Japan as a launching point for theorizing in the broadest possible terms. We looked to Japan not simply to provide a non-Euro-American comparative case that would flesh out the religions and/as corporations literature. Rather, we used our expertise in Japan studies to offer a genealogy in which modes of social organization such as the extended household (ie) preceded and gave birth to religion (shūkyō). Our account therefore both complements and diverges from Porterfield’s Pauline “Body of Christ” concept and her US-based account of “corporate spirit.” Our analysis looks different not only because we start from a country where Christianity is nondominant, but also because we do not assume that the corporation harbors a tacit theology to be uncovered. Rather, we contend that the generation and maintenance of the corporate form sometimes serves as a process of religion-making.
Even as we think our approach lends a novel angle to the existing literature on religions and/as corporations, we understand it as dependent on the pioneering work of the authors mentioned above. In the time since the initial submission of our article in October 2018, a number of important new works on religion and the corporation have also appeared, including books by Darren Dochuk, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Daniel Vaca, and Andrew Ventimiglia. We are thrilled at this opportunity to converse with others and learn about their forthcoming projects.
In the remainder of this essay we briefly elaborate upon the topics we covered in our article to outline promising areas for further research on the corporate form. Here, we consider three topics that call out for more work: 1) How mutualistic relationships between religions, companies, educational institutions, governments, and other hierarchical organizations engender structural similarities and create shared objectives. 2) How techniques of persuasion transform people into corporate contributors, a process encapsulated by the Japanese term hitozukuri, or “making persons.” 3) How collective and personal sacrifice, ostensibly for the “public good,” justifies exploitative structures within corporate entities as it delays systemic change necessary to address the planetary crisis in the present. These avenues of inquiry indicate how the framework of the corporate form enables analyses of managerial and legal politics that produce collective entities that manifest as religious, economic, political, and historical.
What isomorphism engenders: Heterarchies
Our article discusses the ubiquitous corporate form rather than focusing exclusively on for-profit corporations. But it is true that the for-profit corporation often serves as a paradigmatic model for corporate forms that take on a nonprofit cast. This prototype effect helps to foster isomorphism between corporate entities bearing varying legal designations and associated tax burdens. It also deepens connections between organizations with different legal registrations that share concerns for education and training, childrearing, career development, housing, territorial security, and a host of other areas. The isomorphism thus engendered enables a type of relationship called the heterarchy.
Briefly, heterarchies are arrangements in which discrete hierarchically organized entities pass administrative command, money, and personnel between one another. Heterarchies appear in corporate practices such as subcontracting and seconding, but they are also pervasive in other arenas. In his current research on religion and education in Japan and the United States, one of us (Thomas) finds that for-profit corporations, nonprofit religions, and schools frequently solve each other’s staffing issues, influence each other’s missions, and launder money for one another. For example, many US municipalities relied on for-profit “segregation academies” to educate white children after the 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions forced public school integration. When the Internal Revenue Service began cracking down on these discriminatory institutions in the late 1960s, religious denominations used tax exemption and freedom of conscience protections to keep the segregation academies in operation. This brief example highlights how isomorphic relationships between different corporate forms (religious, educational, non- and for-profit) facilitate the exchange of money, personnel, and command. They also reveal why the artificial distinctions between private and public that characterize secularist law fail to account for the political-economic relationships that frequently undermine those very dichotomies.
Making the person
Approaching religion as a corporate form reinvigorates understandings of persuasion and conversion. As we argued in the article, Japanese corporations call on their members to put aside individual interests and become jinzai (“human materials”) for the good of the larger enterprise. Attention to influential exponents of “making persons” advances inquiry into a perpetually frustrating area of religious studies categorization: the so-called “religious nones,” or the “spiritual but not religious” who “believe without belonging.” By focusing on ways corporate leaders exhort trainees to transform into human materials by internalizing priorities derived from traditions that typically bear the label “religion,” we can better explain how moral suasion and dedication to ritual protocols are fostered even as church attendance and other markers of enthusiasm for religious institutions may indicate decline.
There is also exciting potential for transnational comparative studies of publications by corporate founders. The Japanese paragon in this regard is Matsushita Kōnosuke. The Panasonic-affiliated publisher PHP has produced hundreds of titles that bear his name. These books, along with many hundreds more published by PHP and other corporations, tend to repackage the mores of “popular morality” (tsūzoku dōtoku) that solidified in Japan by the mid-eighteenth century as the primary means of schooling the populace. Today, readers can find popular morality’s core teachings recapitulated in more recent corporate teachings, including instruction on “The Toyota Way” and even in books by Tsuji Shintarō, who founded Sanrio, the producer of Hello Kitty. A series by Tsuji that presents sayings drawn from the Confucian canon and Japanese literary classics encourages children to foster frugality, filial piety, national pride, and other conservative virtues. Young readers can collect stickers included in his books that depict children playing below four-character phrases emblazoned on scrolls of a type designed to hang in a scholar’s alcove. Although a large majority of Japanese people today self-identify as nonreligious, major business figures regularly use their platforms to make persons by sharing moral lessons drawn from Japanese traditions typically understood as religions.
Persuasion involves more than immersion in texts. It also requires making persons through on-the-ground engagement. One of us (Watanabe) studied a Japanese development NGO with roots in Ananaikyō, a “new religion” with connections to Shinto. The NGO staff members, many of whom are Ananaikyō followers, describe their development work as hitozukuri. They run training programs that teach rural youth around the Asia-Pacific techniques in organic and sustainable agriculture. “Making persons” (hitozukuri) here resonates with the goals of Japanese new religions to mobilize a global “world renewal” (yonaoshi) through practices of self-cultivation. Such projects of transformation require persuasion, which works not only on the level of rational thought but also on emotions and sensations. In this, the corporate form provides the structural framework within which feelings can emerge repeatedly and systematically. In the NGO that Watanabe studied, aid workers “led by example” (sossen suihan) in agricultural fields. The imperative to inspire as well as transform meant that both parties had to change in intimate and collective physical labor. It was this organizational pedagogy of mutual transformation that moved aid recipients to accept the “development” and “world renewal” that this NGO offered.
The “public good” and the creation of a better world
World-renewal is an interventionist project that relies on willing personal sacrifice. One major similarity between business enterprises and religious institutions is that both claim to relinquish personal and collective interests for the “public good.” The notion of a public good that transcends individual needs and interests can justify the exploitation of individual bodies, framed in terms of “sacrifice.” This sacrifice can take various shapes: unpaid, underpaid, or hazardous labor; the use of nonhuman animal bodies for experiments or consumption; and ritual offerings. Framing an organization’s practices and products as a contribution to an imagined “public good” can also be a strategy for concealing the fact that some stakeholders, such as company leaders, shareholders, or ritual specialists, may personally benefit (acquiring financial or political capital) while others have to suffer or even die.
The notion that this-worldly suffering is a noble act, leading to the establishment of a utopian better world, is a core aspect of many religious and revolutionary ideologies, past and present. It is also central to many company ideologies, which likewise promise a better—a more inclusive and intelligent, more convenient, or happier—world to their consumers. World-renewal comes at a price, such as human and nonhuman labor, the extraction of natural resources, or the burning of fossil fuels. But the price, ultimately, is worth it. Or so we are made to believe.
The ideology of the “public good” and the promise of a “better world” can justify exploitative practices in the here and now. This is visible in the environmental actions, or telling absence thereof, of multinationals and religious organizations. Most major enterprises today profess a concern for environmental issues and promise to become more sustainable in the future. Similarly, religious institutions worldwide have started reinterpreting sacred texts and ritual practices in light of the environmental crisis and as a means of promoting their “green” credentials. Meanwhile, however, few companies or religions actively challenge the status quo and push for the systemic change that is necessary for keeping the earth habitable, such as rapidly dismantling the fossil fuel industry, global factory farming, and extractivist capitalism. There are several reasons for this discrepancy, including the vested interests of powerful stakeholders, but it is not simply a matter of hypocrisy or deliberate greenwashing. Fundamentally, the issue is one of delayed gratification versus immediate action.
The essence of corporate mythmaking is this: if individuals make a sacrifice in the present, such as by purchasing expensive organic products, a better world will eventually emerge for all. The ideology of delayed gratification thus prevents systemic change. It also enables corporate actors, including religions, to perpetuate their institutions and ensure stability in the present while convincing their participants that they are contributing to a meaningful project that promises future glories.
Conclusion: Thinking with the corporate form
The dialogues in this forum demonstrate that our manifesto is timely and that other religious studies scholars share many of our concerns. Their contributions confirm that the corporate form has potential relevance for the study of religion in different historical periods and geographical locations. Building upon their insights, we are committed to further developing our theoretical framework, and to expanding beyond it. We will need nuanced elaborations to better account for isomorphism between the contrasting organizations we study and the practices cultivated therein. We also need to consider how the corporate form may comprise a component of larger frameworks, such as nationalism and transnational global flows. These are all important, complicated issues, and we look forward to continuing the conversation in years to come.