by Cory Kinnan
Cory resides in Columbus, OH with his wife Hannah and the world’s cutest puppy. With both a B.A. from Anderson University (IN) and a M.A. from the University of Dayton in Theological Studies, Cory uses his research and writing tools in writing about sports. He is a writer for Dawg Pound Daily and an editor for The Pewter Plank, websites featuring content on the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. While Cory does not intend to further his theological education, he continues to identify the place of religion in pop culture and politics.
The year is 1901, and the setting is Ravenna, Ohio. This is the exact moment that Henry Parsons Crowell founded Quaker Oats company by purchasing an oat mill and merging his business with four other mills. Whether he realized it at the time or not, Crowell would go on to not only change the way businesses market and advertise, but also – as Timothy Gloege explains in Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of American Evangelicalism – the landscape of American Christianity as well.
Crowell, a Christian man who was greatly impacted by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody, took it upon himself to use his business ventures as a way to be a man who was, in Moody’s words, “fully and wholly consecrated to Him.”
In 1886 Moody would found in Chicago one of the beacons of evangelical education, Moody Bible Institute. But after Moody’s death in 1899, the Bible Institute that he founded found itself at a crossroads, both financially and directionally. Crowell stepped in at the eleventh hour with a substantial financial donation, and was awarded with a set on the MBI board of trustees. Soon he was president of MBI, a position he held for 40 years.
Merging his business and religious convictions, Crowell helped preside over the Bible Institute Colportage Association (eventually to be named Moody Press). He and other Moody officials also published a twelve-volume publication called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). Crowell’s goal was to flood the nation with the evangelical message. In other words, Crowell revolutionized the way in which the Christian message was marketed. Capitalism and Jesus Christ were now working hand-in-hand; the gospel, and not cereal, could be seen as Crowell’s best-selling product.
MBI named a dorm and their library for Crowell, for both his generous donations and his service as the institution’s president. Unsurprisingly, Quaker Oats’ corporate headquarters can also be found in the Windy City of Chicago.
Fast forward nearly a century, and a man who grew up just 20 miles from MBI released his first rap album. The year was 2004, and Kanye West had become the face of Chicago for his album The College Dropout; West went on to win a Grammy in 2005 for the best rap album, and The College Dropout was later named as BET’s best rap album of the 2000s.
West went on to release five albums after his debut album. All of them earned platinum status in sales. Seemingly on top of the hip hop world, the Chicago rapper’s career then took a weird turn.
In the late winter of 2016, Kanye released his seventh album, the highly anticipated The Life of Pablo. However just one day after its release, West took to Twitter in a series of posts claiming that he was $53 million in debt, and that he was reaching out to the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg in hopes of forming a business partnership.
Fast forward to October of 2018, and Kanye found himself in the most unlikely of places: the Oval Office and in a meeting with President Donald Trump. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, West discussed issues like police brutality and Chicago gang violence with Trump.
At one point in this interaction, Kanye even suggested that black people are Democrats because they like getting welfare funds. This was just the beginning of West’s alignment with the Republican party and conservative ideology. The man who once stated on national television that George W. Bush did not care about the lives of black people was now aligning with a man in favor of stop-and-frisk policies in black neighborhoods, and who had the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” removed from the Housing and Urban Development website.
And just last month, Kanye West made the announcement that he had converted to Christianity and had been born again. While still sporting the red hat with white letters. calling his choice in apparel “God’s practical joke on all liberals,” he dropped his ninth album, Jesus is King.
In response to the release of Jesus is King, West has been embraced by the evangelical community as an example of God’s mysterious wonders; the prodigal son has returned, Saul has been reborn as Paul, and so forth.
While evangelicals are quick to rebuke anyone who dares question the motives of Kanye’s conversion, there is reason to remain skeptical. In less than three years, West had publicly announced that he was millions of dollars in debt, aligned himself with a man whose net worth is allegedly upwards of $4 billion and who is supported by 80 percent of white evangelicals, announced that he had been born again and was a follower of Christ, and then dropped his first gospel album.
Crowell helped to create the tight relationship between capitalism and evangelicalism. Now, over 100 years later, Kanye West is benefiting from the ingenious marketing tactic of merging his product with the ideology of evangelicalism. With Jesus is King, Kanye has spread his product to a demographic who had little-to-no interest in him previously: the white evangelical Christian.
Capitalism, conservatism, and evangelicalism in America remain undeniably intertwined. From Quaker Oats to Kanye West, it is not a surprise to see rich men using religion to dupe people into buying what they have to sell. The gospel may just become Kanye West’s best-selling product yet.