Resources for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

"Buying is Believing: Capitalism and Religion in Modern America"


Daniel Vaca, Robert Gale Noyes Assistant Professor of Humanities at Brown University. Photo: Brown University


Daniel Vaca (William & Mary '02) gave a lecture Thursday, October 27, on the ways in which capitalism and religion intertwine and have intertwined in America, particularly regarding the rise of evangelicalism and the role that market segmentation played in this. Dr. Vaca discussed how markets are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and how consumer behavior does not just reflect or express who we are; it shapes who we are. Markets, in other words, have targets, and the way these targets behave shapes both the markets and the targets themselves. Market segmentation, or niche marketing, as a marketing strategy originated in the mid-twentieth century and is based on the idea that consumers are fundamentally not the same as each other.

This strategy emerged in contrast to mass marketing, which takes consumers to be fundamentally the same, and encourages assimilation. Market segmentation by contrast can create and sharpen the boundaries of identity groups, and can be gendered, raced, aged, or based on another determining factor. Market segmentation thus lead to the sharper definition of an American Evangelical culture in the 1960s and '70's, due to survey 

organizations such as Gallup asking Americans whether they had had a "born-again" experience, or would classify themselves as "evangelical", which led to a self determination, and thus popularization of Evangelicalism. Dr. Vaca also pointed out the explosion of commercially available kosher products in the 1950's and '60's as another key example of market segmentation. As Evangelicalism grew more popular, its slice of the commercial market grew in proportion, which in turn led to a narrower, more homogenous culture (or market segment) among Evangelicals. Dr. Vaca asserted that market segmentation has a lot to do with why most American Evangelicals are White. Books such as Richard Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, which targeted chiefly White suburbanites ("Saddleback Sam"s), contribute to and perpetuate this. 

Market segmentation also functions on the belief that products should be be shaped to the consumer, even, in this case, the Bible. In 1978 a group of Evangelical groups published the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, whose interpretations of text that align with the Evangelical perspective on Biblical literature, which is in turn reshaped and reinforced by the NIV's interpretations themselves.  Furthermore, the interests at play in the Evangelical market are concerned with much bigger enterprises than the Evangelical market segment alone; Dr. Vaca estimated that Newscorp owns about 70% of the Bible market. Consumer markets, he pointed out, monetize social division, and as we are pulled into smaller and smaller segments, those divisions can only become larger in both number and magnitude. All of this contributes to a constant narrowing and reshaping of what it means to be an Evangelical in America, and shows how inextricably that meaning is intertwined with capitalism, the interests of corporations, and the segmented market.  

The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, in which an engaged audience raised several topics, including that of corporations' interest in broadening their consumer base and how that interacts with segmentation, and the ways that the proliferation of specialized products, particularly Bibles or other religious matter, can increase polarization and the same social division that consumer markets thrive on.