The Boardroom Christ

A curious corollary to the anti-politics of the 1980s and 1990s — to the pervasive desire to throw the bums out — has been the wish to replace them with “businessmen” who will make things right again. First it was Lee Iacocca who would save the nation as he had saved Chrysler, thereby revising the legendary claim by Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense (and ex-GM executive) Charles Wilson that what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.

Soon candidates across the nation were touting themselves as businessmen (and occasionally businesswomen) who would bring efficiency and fiscal responsibility to government, the more corporate credentials and the less political experience the better. In Massachusetts Mitt Romney, scion of a political family, ran as a CEO against the scion of a more famous political family, declaring on the stump that “Ted Kennedy has never held a job in the real world.”

Most celebrated of all, of course, was Ross Perot — a man so rich he evidently couldn’t be bought off. With his infomercials, his charts and graphs, his carefully cultivated no-nonsense “let’s fix it” persona, Perot epitomized the cult of the capitalist as redeemer. Only during his second run for the presidency did many of his supporters come to see what skeptics had known all along: that beneath his distaste for politics lay a deeper hostility toward democracy.

An ad man imagined harmony between wealth and commonwealth.
Perot dedicated his 1992 manifesto, United We Stand, “to the millions of volunteers” who had worked to get his name on the ballot. “You made it clear,” he said, “that the people, not the special interests, own this country.” Perot could toss off a cliche with the best of them, but this one is fascinating from a historical perspective. A hundred years earlier, in the 1892 campaign, the original Populists — members of the agrarian People’s Party — had used similar rhetoric; they too were engaged in an epochal struggle against the interests. But there was a crucial difference. For these 19th-century Populists, the “interests” were the corporations and the banks, and the idea that an industrial or financial baron could stand for the “people” was patently absurd.

What happened in those hundred years? How have we reached the point where a billionaire populist is leading the people against the interests, now defined as liberal politicians and government bureaucrats, and often as organized labor, feminists, and African Americans? Why is the “businessman,” once thought of as the most interested of political actors, now seen as disinterested, above politics, a truer representative of the people than their elected officials?

At least part of the answer lies back in the 1920s, in the vigorous efforts of businessmen themselves to replace the Populist-Progressive stereotype of the plutocrat, the tycoon, the fat cat with a kinder, gentler New Era image of the corporate public servant, the apostle of universal prosperity. Nobody worked harder to put corporate America on the side of the angels than the advertising executive Bruce Barton, whose inspirational blockbuster The Man Nobody Knows topped the 1925 nonfiction bestseller list. Barton’s homily, aimed at America’s emerging business elite, transformed Jesus Christ into the consummate modern businessman — and, more importantly, vice versa.

Barton, founder of the Madison Avenue firm of Batton, Barton, Durstine & Osborne, was the most famous advertising executive of his day. Born in Tennessee in 1886, the son of a Congregationalist minister, he was eulogized in 1967 as a 20th-century Horatio Alger: an embodiment of the Protestant work ethic who had started with a paper route, sold maple syrup, written for a community newspaper, worked his way through college by selling pots and pans, and eventually risen up through the ranks of journalists and copywriters to start his own agency. Later in life he was a Republican congressman from Connecticut, a candidate for the Senate, and an informal advisor to President Eisenhower.

According to the third-person autobiographical parable that opened Barton’s book, nobody knew Jesus because they had been brought up with a false picture of him. They had been taught in Sunday School that he was the “lamb of God,” “meek and lowly,” a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Barton confessed that when he was a boy, he thought that Jesus was “Something for girls–sissified.”

As he grew up and became a successful businessman, he began to wonder how such a weakling could have accomplished so much. “Only strong magnetic men inspire great enthusiasm and build great organizations,” he reasoned. “Yet Jesus built the greatest organization of all. It is extraordinary.” The only way to settle the matter was to “wipe his mind clean of books and sermons,” to cast aside the false impressions accumulated through years of churchgoing and to discover the true Jesus as his contemporaries knew him.

What Barton found “amazed” him. Jesus, it turned out, was a man’s man, the life of the party, a brilliant motivator, an organizational genius. “A physical weakling! Where did they get that idea? Jesus pushed a plane and swung an adze; he was a successful carpenter. He slept outdoors and spent his days walking around his favorite lake. His muscles were so strong that when he drove the money-changers out, nobody dared to oppose him! A kill-joy! He was the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem!… A failure! He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.”

The time had come to reclaim Jesus from the Christians who had consigned him to effeminacy and otherworldliness. Barton ended his parable by recalling his vow to write The Man Nobody Knows so that the real man and his real message might finally be known. “Every business man will read it and send it to his partners and his salesmen,” he immodestly predicted. “For it will tell the story of the founder of modern business.”

And so Barton transformed Jesus’s life into the biography of the archetypal CEO, the Greatest Success Story Ever Told. Jesus’s inspiration lay in his intuitive knowledge that providing good service — meeting people’s needs and wants economically and efficiently — made smart business sense. A man of decisive action rather than idle talk, Jesus let the product speak for itself. “His preaching was almost incidental,” explained Barton; what really got the “Idea” across was healing the sick and lame, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the hungry. When he did preach, he spoke in parables that established the basic principles of good advertising: “Always a picture in the very first sentence; crisp, graphic language and a message so clear that even the dullest can not escape it.” No theological mumbo-jumbo for “the great advertiser of his own day.” Just a series of “unforgettable” ads that got the “Idea” across and made it the “most powerful influence on human action and thought” of all time.

Even so, “the founder of modern business” did not have an easy time of it. “Be a good servant and you will be great,” Jesus taught; “be the best servant and you will occupy the highest possible place.” For years, other businessmen had dismissed his Word as “utterly impractical.” Lately, however, they had come to see the light, and the Gospel that first-rate service will make you the industry leader was now being “proclaimed in every sales convention” and “emblazoned in the advertising pages of every magazine.” Modern business, at last true to the teachings of its founder, embodied the providential harmony between self-interest and the public good, between wealth and commonwealth.

Barton was no cynic. He earnestly believed in both Christianity and the religion of business, and the mission of The Man Nobody Knows was as much to sell modern America on Christ as to confer legitimacy on corporate capitalism. (He was, after all, a minister’s son.) But since service was both the means of getting across the “Idea” and the “Idea” itself, the book proved as evasive as it was high minded. Barton’s Christianity came across as little more than a brilliantly marketed consumer good — the finest quality good, he insisted, and available to almost everyone, like a Pierce-Arrow at a Model T price. He simply took for granted the substance of Jesus’s teachings. Jesus was, Barton wrote, “determined that there should be no doubt through the ages as to what he stood for, and why he had to die.” Yet The Man Nobody Knows never explained the what and why, nor did it venture into the burdens of sin, the miracles of grace, or the mysteries of faith. Nothing about Christianity “counted” but its indisputably impressive sales record, its enviable performance in the marketplace.

In 1925, Barton’s book gave business — and especially advertising, the key industry in the consumer revolution — a gloriously righteous myth of origin. America’s corporate executives could claim their place as the direct heirs of the most disinterested, self-sacrificing, apolitical man in history — and the Son of God, too! Modern business, it turned out, was the spirit made flesh.

The Man Nobody Knows, in fact, was only the most audacious effort in a much broader cultural enterprise. Starting early in the 20th century and led by merchants like the department store king John Wanamaker, businessmen launched a massive public relations effort to combat the anti-corporate impulses within the labor movement and progressive politics. “Businessmen revamped their public image to try to prove that they were operating in the best interests of all. . .” writes the historian William Leach. “It was in their interest to give the impression that they, not their employees and other workers, were the true populists and that consumption, not production, was the new domain of democracy.” According to the new gospel of service, they were “distributors of Happiness,” devoted above all “to the well-being of the ‘community.'”

To read The Man Nobody Knows 73 years after its publication is to visit a world that is simultaneously familiar and remote — a hearty realm where the sacred and the profane exchange firm grips and slap each other on the back. It is the precursor to all the current attempts to elevate the bottom line by spiritualizing the pursuit of profit. Barton’s Jesus is resurrected in The 25 Most Common Problems in Business (And How Jesus Solved Them); The Management Method of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business; Business Basics from the Bible: More Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business; The Leadership Lessons of Jesus: A Timeless Model for Today’s Leaders; and Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. (“I recommend keeping it in your desk and reading a chapter a day or so to develop more insight into the leadership technique that worked for God,” a present-day CEO said in praise of Jesus CEO.)

Less directly, The Man Nobody Knows prefigures infomercial inspirationalist Anthony Robbins, the various cults of management (“Total Quality,” “Liberation,” etc.), and those “Successories” advertised in airline magazines: Posters, lapel pins, message pads, pens, rock paperweights — all inscribed with inspirational slogans like “Commitment to Excellence,” “Winning With Teamwork,” “Attitude Is Everything,” “Whatever It Takes,” “Focus,” “Priorities,” “Sometimes You Just Have to Play Hard Ball,” and, of course, “Winners Never Quit/Quitters Never Win.”

This stuff makes Barton’s book seem old-fashioned, almost staid, in retrospect. If his Christianity placed style over substance, the new religion of business is even less substantial; he is Reinhold Niebuhr compared to his mushy successors, whether Christian or New Age.

Will campaign finance scandals, last year’s UPS strike, the growing anxieties about globalization and downsizing create a kind of cognitive dissonance, an awareness of what most Americans actually knew all along — that businessmen are in rather than above politics? The 1920s cult of the businessman took a beating during the Great Depression. Corporate leaders who played a decisive role in the New Deal may have tried to cultivate an image of themselves as disinterested public servants, but a disenchanted public was much less inclined to buy it. FDR himself revived the old Progressive rhetoric by condemning America’s “economic royalists.”

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The apolitical businessman as 20th-century American culture hero is a figure whose fortunes have risen and fallen over the years, and with the discrediting of Perot, perhaps we have entered a period of debunking. But the continuing popularity of Barton’s successors suggests another possibility. “Businessman” is such a murky term that it encompasses everybody from Bill Gates to my barber Bill, and the managerial gospel plays on this murkiness by telling us that we are all managers, we are all entrepreneurs, we are all workers, and we are all in search of excellence. Our doubts about the disinterestedness of particular businessmen notwithstanding, we embrace business techniques as if they transcend politics, as if management has nothing to do with power, as if the values that inform corporate decisions should be our sole measure of the quality of public life. The religion of business will not save us from politics. It will only constrict our sense of what is politically desirable and imaginable.

Steven Biel teaches American Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.