In recent decades it has become common knowledge that Grand Rapids is home to businesses and organizations that promote the idea that capitalism and christianity are good bedfellows.
The poster-child for such a belief would have to be the founders of Amway, Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel. For the better part of the last 50 years, the DeVos and Van Andel families have been major champions of the idea that capitalism and christianity are quite compatible. The Amway founders believe this so fervently that their company conventions are often referred to as a religious revival. (See Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise, by Stephen Butterfield)
The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is another Grand Rapids-based entity that believes in the marriage between capitalism and christianity.
However, the idea of the compatibility of capitalism and christianity has an older tradition in Grand Rapids. Indeed, one could certainly argue that with the sizable Christian Reformed Church (CRC) presence in West Michigan, the notion that christian principles injected into the economy makes for a sound formula. They believed this so much so that during the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike in Grand Rapids, the CRC encouraged their congregants who worked in the furniture industry to not participate in the strike.
There is a long tradition of businessmen and industrialists in Grand Rapids to invoke christianity when promoting their own brand of economics, particularly entrepreneurship. One name that stands out with his zealous promotion of capitalism and christianity was Charles Sligh Jr.
Charles Sligh Jr. was the son of Charles Sligh Sr., the founder of the Sligh Furniture Company in 1880. Sligh Sr. not only founded the company, he was also a member of the Grand Rapids Charter Commission which drafted the city’s charter in 1915 as a reaction to the threat that the capitalist community faced during the 1911 furniture workers strike. (see Jeffrey Kleiman’s, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids)
However, for a variety of reasons, including the 1929 Depression, the Sligh Furniture Company decided to liquidate. Charles Sligh Jr. then opened a new furniture company in Holland in 1933, an additional company in Zeeland in 1940 and then a third company back in Grand Rapids in 1945.
Charles Sligh Jr. was involved in the Kent County Republican Party and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. Sligh Jr’s passion for business caught the attention of capitalists at the national level and by the early 1950s he had been recruited to be part of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
It is at this point in the 1950s that Sligh Jr. gave a speech entitled, Christianity in Business. The speech is not terrible impressive, but it does illuminate some aspects of how capitalists use christianity to justify their wealth.
In the opening of the speech the owner of the Sligh Furniture Company states, “Now it seems self-evident to me that government control is incompatible with Christian philosophy.” Sligh Jr. goes on to say, with some alarm, in the same paragraph of this speech, “Now in some circles this word profit has come to have a rather evil connotation – like stealing pennies from the poor box. Some people have come to think of making a profit as being unfair. I’ve even heard it said in church gatherings in recent months that making a profit was un-Christian-like.”
Sligh Jr. is clearly wanting to respond to what he believes is heresy, when people of faith challenge the near-divine status of capitalism. In fact, the whole speech is devoted to the defense of the necessity of christianity and capitalism.
Towards the end of the speech, Sligh Jr. states, “In our Grand Rapids plant we have put through a program. Every employee in our entire plant has taken a short course in ‘How Our Business System Operates.’ They have done it in groups of not more than 20 and it has been a very beneficial thing.”
Although Sligh never states it as such, this course he is referring to is no doubt part of the massive propaganda campaign to counter a labor-focused or union narrative. The main entity behind the pro-business propaganda campaign was none other than the National Association of Manufacturers, the very same entity that Sligh had become president of in 1952. This campaign included not only courses used in factories, but curriculum that found its way into the K-12 education system along with a massive branding campaign. NAM even created a comic book (shown here) that advised students to be skeptical of union promises of cradle to grave security. (see Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism)
The anti-union sentiments reflected in the comments of Sligh’s speech are affirmed in several interviews that have been done with the furniture baron over the years.
In an interview conducted in 1982 through a project of Hope College, Sligh demonstrates his somewhat contemptuous attitude about workers. Speaking of workers he hired after starting the company in Holland, Michigan in 1933, Sligh states, “The people in the plant were getting only 35 cents an hour. But, they hadn’t worked for three years, so they were glad to get a job.”
In a 1988 interview with former Grand Rapids City Historian Gordon Olsen, Sligh openly shows his feelings about organized labor. In that interview, which is rather long, Sligh talks about how his workers voted to be a union in the late 1930s after “what happened with that strike in Flint (the 1936-37 wildcat strike).” He also said, “in 1937 when Governor Murphy and President Roosevelt were doing everything they could to get everybody to join a union.” Such a statement isn’t based in fact. The federal and state governments weren’t really in favor of labor organizing, but there was so much militant union organizing in those days that Roosevelt and other politicians conceded to some of the demands of organized labor for fear that the country would erupt into a revolution if there wasn’t some form of compromise. (The CIO was aggressively organizing across the country, using militant strikes as the main tactic. See Jeremy Brecher’s book, Strike!)
In many ways, the arguments that Charles Sligh Jr. was using as the head of a furniture company or the President of NAM are not much different that the arguments that the capitalist class makes today about the need for Right to Work laws. One can see a clear lineage between the christian driven capitalism of Charles Sligh Jr. and the compassionate capitalism of Richard DeVos and realize that Grand Rapids has a long history of business people using religion to justify an economic system that has made them wealthy off the sweat of workers.