- Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America by Daniel Vaca
Daniel Vaca's Evangelicals Incorporated is an in-depth exploration of the history of evangelical publishing and bookselling. To the uninitiated, this may seem like a niche topic, but Vaca compellingly argues that this industry has been a driving force in shaping commerce, politics, and religion in the United States since at least the nineteenth century. His book should be required reading for any scholar of these subjects. [End Page 595]
Over the past century, Protestant fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have come to play an outsized role in American culture and politics. Nevertheless, it is remarkably difficult to define these communities. This is because neither "evangelical" nor "fundamentalist" is a label that believers consistently use to describe themselves, and neither term is bound to a single denomination or even set of denominations. Every book on American Protestantism wrestles with these issues in its own way.
Vaca makes a significant contribution to this scholarship by examining the ways in which these imagined religious communities have been structured not only by loose theological affiliations—or by scholars applying their own taxonomies—but also by Christian booksellers seeking a market unbound by denominational identity or minor dogmatic disagreements. The complex relationship between religious identity and market strategies is a major theme of the book, and Vaca demonstrates how modern American evangelicalism was produced at least in part through negotiations between believers and Christian booksellers. Indeed, he argues that as evangelicalism became a kind of media buzzword in the mid-1970s, it was the "evangelical market's success [that] allowed evangelicalism to appear socially coherent and limitless in its potential for growth" (123).
Vaca's richly researched account encompasses the perspectives of publishing executives, bookstore owners, booksellers' associations, interdenominational ministries, authors, pastors, readers, and congregants. In a manner that is both nuanced and accessible, Vaca explores how each of these stakeholders contributed to the complex and ongoing process of constructing American evangelical communities and identities.
The book begins in the late nineteenth century, tracing the convergence of evangelical celebrity and new evangelistic enterprises that helped to produce the first generation of Protestant publishing houses. The first two chapters focus on the founding of three early companies that continue to be significant players: Fleming H. Revell, W. B. Eerdmans, and Zondervan. In a pattern that continues throughout the book, Vaca expertly balances detailed accounts of specific case studies with rich contextualization. In these chapters, Vaca explores how Christian publishers sought broad, interdenominational markets even as they wrestled with concerns about the compatibility of piety and profit. He also analyzes the social assumptions embedded in publishers' ideas about the "distinctiveness" of their audiences, which he argues under-girded their efforts to use Christian books to inculcate "correct" theologies as well as white, middle-class norms.
Chapter 3 focuses on the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), founded in 1950, and its efforts to influence American presidents and popular culture. Here, Vaca offers a nuanced interrogation of the notion [End Page 596] that American evangelicals constitute a unique "subculture," pointing out that, although this designation captures certain elements of evangelical culture (including the proliferation of Christian books and booksellers), it does not adequately contend with their desire for mass influence.
Chapter 4 traces the central role that women have played in the evangelical book market, as consumers, authors, and salespeople. Weaving together histories of missionary work, the development of the supermarket, and the rise and fall of niche bookstores, Vaca offers a complex portrait of women's real and imagined work in the Christian book industry. He also offers a rich account of the role that Christian books have played in shaping conservative Christian ideas about gender and family roles.
Chapters 5 and 6 focus on twentieth- and twenty-first-century histories of marketing and mergers. In Chapter 5, Vaca examines the late twentieth-century mergers of Christian booksellers and buyouts by secular publishing houses. He argues that these buyouts signaled Christian booksellers...