This conversation addresses what role corporations should assume in achieving the public good. While discussing matters of trust, control, philanthropy, colonial capitalism, humanitarianism, commodification, artificial personhood, power, and slavery, we identify historical and contemporary locations where religious ethics converge with instances of the corporation behaving like a state. What dilemmas emerge when the marketing of moral concern is absorbed into commercial strategies? Who sets the rules for corporate power? How do concepts like limited liability impact a corporation’s ability to act on behalf of the public good? Ultimately, we are invested in economic equality and justice. We think in an interdisciplinary way about how stories of economic life might be told in religious studies scholarship.


Timothy Rainey: Chad, the moment seems right for healthy conversation on religion and the corporation. With each scandal and instance of malfeasance pouring into the news cycle, communities become increasingly suspicious of whether a thing like corporate responsibility genuinely exists. Central to my concern is how the role of trust is being imagined within the public sphere and often manipulated through corporate marketing campaigns. When Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta published “The Trust Crisis” in the summer of 2019, they focused on companies like Facebook, Boeing, and Volkswagen in their probe of whether such institutions have done enough to maintain the trust of users and customers. Drawing on fifteen years of research, Sucher is informed by her data when stating “[…] people want companies to pursue moral ends, through moral means, for moral motives,” the authors write. But how exactly does trust lead to positive outcomes for companies, stakeholders, and communities? To the degree that answering this question relies on defining what role, if any, companies ought to play in providing public goods, I want to think about how corporate entities, as purveyors of the free market, actually increase experiences of democracy and freedom.

Classical models of the free market centered on Euro-American contexts problematically presupposed fair and democratic exchanges. These neat projections only remained so until people were placed within them. The relentless fact that people are unpredictable, that monopolies persist, and that biases related to gender and race uneven the playing field shows why the utility of models like perfect competition within some neoliberal discourse is misguided and dangerous. The company, as the ultimate commodifying machine of the free market, must also come under scrutiny for the ways legal claims to personhood bear ties to historical capitalism and manners of reducing and recasting human beings as working capital. My point of departure centers on the role companies played in slavery and freedom. The Royal African Company, the Dutch East India Company, and England’s East India Company, as massive underwriters and perpetrators of slave trading in the transatlantic and throughout the world, played direct roles.

When colonial empires began to clamber for African territory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, companies were chartered to plant national and financial interests within the lands and populations they seized. These firms were given royal charters enabling them to operate as independent governments. They could own land, sue, be sued, maintain perpetual existence under a common seal, and when such an entity closed its doors, the “artificial” life required an official declaration of death. In Corporate Spirit, Amanda Porterfield illuminates how the invention of the company allowed groups of entrepreneurs and business partners to buy and sell shares of their adventures, and the awesome power legal language manufactured to protect the owners from liability should misdeeds or losses occur.

The economic creatures Western Europeans made came to control what freedom looked like within foreign lands and affected the freedoms of the agents of intercourse who occupied them. For Africans, the presence of companies meant more than control over the terms of exchange. English, Spanish, Portuguese, and other European conquerors increasingly saw the value of trading racialized human chattel. The very existence of Africans—their bodies, life potential, and work—became existentially bound to the companies that seized them. Perhaps more than companies directly involved in slaving, the birth of what I call the “abolitionist company” demonstrates the problem of commodification. When the Sierra Leone Company (SLC) came to life in 1792, it pledged to bring free Black people from the Americas to Freetown, Sierra Leone and establish a colony that, if lucrative enough, would supplant the trade in slaves with trade in African goods. Even though the commercial firm was marketed as abolitionist, its founding documents show that members of the British Parliament insisted that its primary objective would be to introduce commerce to Africa as a formal charter company principally concerned with raising capital. The ethical dilemma of simultaneously pursuing profits for shareholders while presumably ensuring the dignity of work for free laborers is evident in the horrors born by scores of Black settlers desperate to believe in the idea of “moral commerce” but who were ultimately exploited by company officers.

Presently, initiatives like Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative pumps needed investments into poor and indebted countries, but some question whether the libertarianism embedded within these projects coupled with minimal regulation could lead to dysfunction and too much soft power for Chinese investors or corporations. How do we reconcile a company’s power to do good with the inevitable ethical dilemmas that occur when the particular power a company wields increases? Almost two years after Mark Zuckerberg’s questioning before the US Congress over data privacy, Facebook is back in the news along with Twitter and Amazon Web Services. In these instances of legal inquest and inquiry, the question over the aforementioned tech firms’ power to produce goods within the public sphere is enveloped within the question of how a powerful firm should or should not exert power, in general.

Chad, I’m interested in how you view the role of companies engaged in frontier and emerging market nations and what you take their moral responsibility in those nations to be. Is this a fair question? Am I toying with the assumption that corporate stakeholders are not interested in ethical outcomes, too? Do domestic companies have any kind of patriotic role to play that supports public and ethical goods, or are their economic and legal commitments enough?

Chad Seales: Tim, thanks for getting the conversation started. To begin, I’m moved particularly by what you say about the “abolitionist company” as a greater force of commodification than companies involved in slaving. I’ve become more interested lately in the role of biotech companies to expand their control through corporate philanthropy over global agriculture, to dominate and own the base modes of production in the food system that humans depend upon for survival, in the name of humanitarian mission, to care for the poor, to reduce inequity, to support local farmers, to in sum “feed the world” with that mission focused on Africa, and more recently justified with entrepreneurial claims to empower Africans in need.

What you write about the SLC makes me wonder about the ways in which the colonizing mechanisms of enslaving companies are moralized, and made even more powerful, in their reforming counterparts. Is this a process in which slavery incorporated as a business calculus, as an accounting mode of capitalism transformed into freedom commodified as a form of corporate capitalism? I’d be interested to hear if you see that process as a secularizing one, of extending slavery by another name, as Douglas Blackmon described the early-twentieth century corporate development of convict leasing in the United States. Is it a process in which religion, culturally visible in biblical defenses of slavery or theological justification of divinely sanctioned racial order, is diffused into a more secular ethos, with less, if any, biblical reference, and a more self-stated transcendent pursuit of the spirit and not the letter of divine law? A turn perhaps toward concepts of love and freedom, and away from references to God’s law and order?

Reflecting conceptually between our respective time periods of study, I’m curious if the corporate terms of personal freedom that circulate among biotech promoters of agricultural reform in Africa have some precedent in the abolitionist company. If so, do those terms signal the formation of a corporate secularism, or an attempt to transcend the biblical sanction of legal slavery in the nation state? Is their purpose to make a new space, whether in a new nation, or colony, in the case of Sierra Leone, or a transnational corporatist space in the example of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the joint venture of the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations?

I guess what I’m trying to ask in another way is: do you see religion in the formation of the SLC and in the way it imagines freedom? I ask in part, because much of my research has focused on religion in the American South. And one of the figures that has fascinated me is southern white theologian James Henley Thornwell, a South Carolina Presbyterian who defended Calvinism, and by extension slavery, in the nineteenth century United States. What fascinates me, as an occasionally creedal Weberian, is how these two defenses were interconnected, codependent, and interchangeable, operating on a singular logic of scarcity, of spiritual salvation to economic freedom. Theologically, defenders of Calvin, like Thornwell, sought to protect God’s capital “J” Justice, complaining how awful the world was around them, and determining that only a few could be chosen as saved in the afterlife. For if everyone was saved, if everyone went to heaven, then based on the earthly awfulness of human dealings, it wouldn’t be heaven, and there wouldn’t be any divine Justice. Salvation was scarce because redemption of any kind required a sovereign to set the limits. Without a limit, without that protective buffer, then all would be the same, and according to the proprietors in the know, human fallenness and original sin negated any possibility of universalistic utopias on earth as it is in heaven.

That’s a blunt description of what intellectual historians have parsed with more precision, for Thornwell’s Calvinism is a subject unto itself. But I’m less interested in the theological consistency of his thought, and more interested in the economic realism of his logic, how he defended slavery as necessary to maintain freedom for the few who could govern society and protect the whole. For him, slavery was the economic buffer between the elite and an impoverished oblivion, distinguishing those who were granted legal personhood from those who were traded as commodities. Without that buffer, Thornwell feared everyone would be slaves to the free market, that everyone would be commodified, forced to sell their labor at market rate, without protections, which was his argument against industrial capitalism. This need for a social-economic buffer, as the Genoveses wrote of Thornwell’s theology, encapsulated pervasive paternalistic sentiments, justifying the role of elite white males as head of household.

I’m often struck with how defenders of slavery, as a form of elite white paternalistic capitalism, proved prophetic in the ways they described how liberal free-market capitalism would reproduce modes of slavery. They just perhaps underestimated the ways in which corporations could serve as economic buffers for elite whites, protecting them from the very market mechanisms they promote. In the economic history of the United States, the spread of industrial capitalism transformed paternalistic models of property and control that defined slavery into even more pervasive forms: convict leasing, mass incarceration, and de jure segregation in all facets of public life, including housing, education, healthcare, and utilities that produced overwhelming poverty that most directly affected African Americans. In all of these transformations, corporations were the catalyst. Religion, in the form of evangelical Protestantism, provided the moral language for ethical business and millennial markets.

That moral language has been based in religious promises of freedom. At least in the United States, I see it evolving from a nineteenth-century paternalistic view of freedom as scarce, illustrated in the example of Thornwell and his assumption that some must be slaves for others to be free, to a more expansive view of freedom that is, in theory, available to all individuals, and that claims to abolish slavery, or in the case of corporate philanthropy in Africa, end poverty and empower entrepreneurs. I’m interested to hear more about how you see this kind of process in relation to the SLC. With the problem of commodification, do you see any structural continuities between companies directly involved in slaving and abolitionist companies, even as the language of freedom may shift or change? And do you see any precedent in the moral language of abolitionist companies for the later visions of corporate philanthropy in Africa as empowering and salvific?

TR: Chad, I’m loving these correlations and deep reflections! I’ll start with the role of religion in the abolitionist company. I admit that I’m always challenged here because the question “what is religion” further complicates the already thorny proposition of commercialism as a religious mission. While the SLC was chartered as a joint-stock company, the influence of the Anglican Church and eventually the Church Missionary Society (CMS) led to increased missionary presence and power in Sierra Leone accompanied by an increase in conversions. However, even as its civilizing agenda was steeped in Christianity and commerce, the SLC Court of Directors explained that commerce is what would “destroy the principles” nurturing the slave trade. Commerce, not religion or abolitionist morality, might be the cure. Thus, the 1791 report of the SLC clarifies for those “still imperfectly acquainted with the nature and objects of the institution […] The leading object in the formation of the Sierra Leone Company, may be briefly stated to have been, to introduce a just and honorable commerce with the extensive Continent of Africa.”1Sierra Leone Company. Substance of the report delivered by the Court of Directors of the Sierra Leone Company, to the general court of proprietors, on Thursday the 27th of March, 1794 London, 1794. Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Emory University Robert W. Woodruff Library, accessed June 9, 2018, 63-64.

The obsessions of free-market liberalism afflicted even the abolitionist company. In the way that Eric Williams shows that capitalism and slavery in the New World grew up together, I am attentive to the ways certain conceptions of freedom also grew up with capitalism. Beneath the corporate veil, African descended people especially had to grapple with new orientations, ways of imagining their existence, their relation to land, culture, the past and the memory of ancestors, and powers. The persons that slaving companies encountered were more than chattel, but embodied beings, too. Companies that were involved in the trade abstracted human beings along with their histories and cultures, filling ledger books with people as commodities. They were signified as nothing more than products, laborers, reproducers, and fungible being indelibly binding their market values to ways of reshaping ontological worth.

So, one of the ways I think about the relationship of moral thought and capital takes shape through my analysis of the legal language that empowers corporate bodies. As the rise of the modern company slowly destroyed sole proprietorship—meaning a company could operate independently of any particular location or individual—the implementation of limited liability (first in England) designed for investors a legal identity that shielded them from responsibility for debts, insolvency, and misdeeds perpetrated by the explorers (or conqueror entrepreneurs) whom they financed. Modern companies signaled the emergence of a new brand of statecraft committed by companies on behalf of ambitious oligarchs and rising global regimes.

The Sierra Leone Company was uniquely constructed to bridge commerce and Christian abolitionism. Unlike the Royal African Company, the Dutch or English East India Company, the SLC’s liberalism included abolitionism, which, presumably, sets it apart in principle. Yet, the abolitionist company fits within the general idea of the modern company in the sense that they all might be associated with conceptions of progress in classical liberal thought. Formulated this way, the idea of such an entity forces the question, do companies make people more or less free? Afro-descendants from North America who repatriated the Freetown colony following the American Revolution responded to the transactional abolitionism of the SLC by developing an independent cooperative trading society. The Friendly Society of Sierra Leone was shaped through moral discourse focused on democratic outcomes, and it resisted the monopolistic culture of the SLC, which had kept them patently unfree. The Freetown project provides one way to talk about the intersection of moral discourse around race, liberalism, and corporatism because it shows how Black people from North America attempted to combat inequality and anti-Black oppression with economic activism.

What especially interests me about the Freetown experiment is how the innovative notion of “commercial abolitionism” relied on markets to perform moral work. Not unlike the free-produce movement, introduced by Quakers in the eighteenth century and Fair Trade centuries later, the question of whether such passive protests can produce palpable democratic outputs remains unresolved. Freedom seemed to be set within a business calculus that measured democratic success according to the accumulation of profit. However, such instances of transactional morality leaves the tedious work of ensuring human dignity up to impartial markets. Moral economic policy that reflects an honest interest in protecting the most vulnerable in society should look less like predatory aid and promote investing practices that encourage fair profit opportunity if dominant nations are to resist enslaving some “for others to be free.” Recent efforts on the part of corporations such as stakeholder capitalism approximate the kind of consciousness that might improve the trust crisis we face. But companies must “repair the breach,” as Reverend William Barber says. They must revolutionize market cultures by facing their publics.

CS: I live in Texas, and since we began this conversation, we had a record week of low temperatures, with snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Other parts of the country routinely experience more severe conditions. But in a state that thinks of itself as a nation, Texas as a whole was unable to maintain utilities amidst the storm, as millions of residents lost power and water for several days and more. Many of those residents anticipated a power outage at some point, at least we did, given we’d lost it during lesser weather events. A fallen tree, a blown transformer, the usual. And some of that did happen. But no one that I know of expected the power companies to choose to shut off power to so many people for as long as they did. And then say it was beyond their control, that they had no other choice. Either it was rolling blackouts or the entire grid would collapse in darkness and take months to restart. The rolling blackouts were a last resort to avoid minutes from now total collapse. Intended to last 40 minutes—at least that was the text message I received—they continued for us and many others over several days.

Tim, your description of the corporate mission of the Sierra Leone Company has given me a more historical perspective on what I would have otherwise seen as a Texas-sized microcosm of neoliberal policies and deregulated corporatism. The neoliberalism of this recent event had been illustrated previously in utilities markets around the globe, like in South Africa, where grid failures and power loss was not a random accident, but the result of years of market deregulation. Such was the case for the only state in the union with its own national beer and its own power grid. Private corporations motivated by profit margins over public good created conditions where the state as a whole did not invest in and update its infrastructure. But such conditions would not have been possible to begin with if the state did not concede to the corporation. As with other aspects of public life, sovereignty, in terms of who decides what happens to citizens, in this case halting their utility service, was taken away from public institutions and conceded to private corporations. This kind of economic disestablishment is to consumer choice what church-state disestablishment has been to religious freedom. It is a myth of secularism, a story of emancipation from external control that creates frontier spaces for entrepreneurial innovation.

This was the corporate myth of Texas energy. The state’s power grid was officially deregulated in 1999, under the leadership of Governor George W. Bush and the influence of Enron, which wanted to open markets for wholesale electricity exchange. Such privatization was connected to an overall global deregulation of energy markets. Deregulated energy markets were promoted with the promise of lowering overall costs and creating incentives for corporations to develop cleaner energy, like wind and solar, which was supposed to create more overall access to energy for more consumers. The outcomes were the opposite. In Texas, as elsewhere, deregulation led to higher overall costs to consumers. And while the state has seen an increase in alternative energy, the Texas Governor just blamed this most recent collapse on God and wind turbines. God made it cold. Wind turbines can’t run when they freeze. Wind turbines provide a small percentage of energy in Texas otherwise reliant on fossil fuels. Therefore, green energy is to blame.

The relevance of this narrative for the study of religion is that once corporations displace the state, then corporatism begets corporatism. As classic ideology, corporations operating in a deregulated market produce problems that other corporations must solve. Such solutions are usually of a moral nature. “It’s like H-E-B [the Texas-based grocery chain guided by evangelical values] is the moral center of Texas,” said one Austinite to the New York Times. As previously seen in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, evangelical corporations were more adept than the governments they gutted in responding to a social crisis. And in that comparative response, as Bethany Moreton observes in the Epilogue of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, was the moral solution that justified corporate sovereignty.

Which brings me to the sentence you wrote about how the SLC framed the solution in terms of commerce. That, “Commerce, not religion or abolitionist morality, might be the cure.” I love this sentence for many reasons, and I’ve reflected on it often over the last few weeks. One of those reasons is that it is such a portent of our times. We are still tracing out the turn into the nineteenth century. It also signals how commerce connects corporate empire to global markets, in the name of the good. “A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce,” confessed Bono in 2012, as he reimagined economic intervention in Africa, along with Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, as entrepreneurial innovation, with commerce itself the emancipatory force of human rights and individual freedom.

The results of those interventions, whether in Africa or Texas, have been, perhaps, similar to the outcomes of the SLC: less freedom for citizens and more power for corporations. Your call for corporations to face the public is extremely important and I fully support it. As I do efforts to forge cooperatives and collectives. The most recent crisis in Texas once again shows the need for public ownership of the basic modes of production without which society could not function. These begin with energy, food, water, shelter, medical care, and education. For collective freedom, for all to have access to public goods and services, requires rethinking and remaking economic organization a shared enterprise.