Amanda Porterfield is Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University. This interview is based on her new book, Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Corporate Spirit?
AP: This book began with a question. How did corporations become such a prominent feature of American life? As I listened to complaints about corporations and their legal rights, the prevalence of these institutions in American society seemed to require some explanation. The search for answers took hold of me once I realized that corporate forms of organization dominated American religious as well as commercial life. Where did corporate approaches to social order originate? How did corporate forms of religious and commercial organization develop in relation to one another? How did events in one sphere affect events in the other?
JF: What is the argument of Corporate Spirit?
AP: The book argues that corporate organizations have shaped American economic and religious life, and that a long history of corporate organization precedes American innovations in both business and religion. The book argues that a key element in this checkered history is the management of corporations as if they were persons, with real people belonging to them as members of a body, or corpus.
JF: Why do we need to read Corporate Spirit?
AP: The book explains how corporations organize people into groups that transcend kinship, and how they have often succeeded as effective, though not always salutary, forms of social organization. Building on this organizational focus, the book shows how developments in corporate organization from ancient Rome and medieval Christendom led to corporate institutions in British America that, in turn, laid important groundwork for American political independence. The book goes on to show how rapid growth in commercial and religious organization in the early United States contributed to the development of modern corporations later in the 19th century, and how the Christian idea of corporate personhood took on new, secular life when the 14th Amendment was interpreted to protect the rights of corporations as legal persons. Perhaps most important, the book offers a way to understand recent problems of corporate accountability in light of a long history of complaint about corporate behavior.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AP: I decided to become a historian at the height of the Vietnam War when I was profoundly confused about America, and could not think of a better idea of what to do with myself. The book is the latest result of my effort to understand how the world we live in came to be. This effort led me to become a historian, and brought me to study religion as a revealing window into people and historical change.
JF: What is your next project?
AP: I have begun to explore the role of religion in modern dance and American jazz, and to consider the historical relationship between the emergence of these arts and religious practice. Music and dance have long been avocations for me, and I am eager to better understand their historical development in modern America.
JF: Thanks, Amanda!