Interview with Daniel Vaca (Warren Center Visiting Scholar)

This interview was conducted over Zoom on April 11 between Professor Daniel Vaca and Ethan Goodnight.
It was transcribed using
Ethan Goodnight  0:03 
Welcome Professor Vaca. Thank you for having this conversation with me on behalf of the Warren Center. It's a timely topic because it's April 9th, so tax season is here. [laugh] And the first question as we get started is about your upcoming project. Your second book project is tentatively entitled, A Religious History of Taxes in America. I'd love to know, what led you to this project? And what are you hoping to shift in our understanding of religious history and of taxes through this work?
Daniel Vaca  0:42 
Well, first Ethan, thanks for talking to me. It's a real pleasure to have a chance to talk about my work in the context of being part of this community, so thanks.
Scholars writing about taxes always start with the same joke: that taxes are boring, nobody likes taxes. That's true enough, I guess, but I think you don't need to listen long to political discussions today or look very hard into the past to see how taxes have been something that Americans have spent a long time and energy fighting over, continually. And then the question is why, right? Virtually every kind of political conversation about individual and collective obligations to society, arguments about how to fix perceived social problems, end up becoming arguments about taxes. Why?
In political discussions, we often treat taxes as a kind of obligation of secular citizenship. We take for granted that taxes are just a thing that we have. And so, part of what I want to do is to is to reveal how every argument about taxes is really an argument over ideas about what society should look like and how to enact that vision of society. You know, I sometimes say that I think taxes are about visions of the common good. That's fine, but I think that doesn't really fully capture the fact that some people's visions of the common good are at other people's expense, or don't fully capture everybody.
In terms of where religious history comes in here, I think about it in at least two ways. First, I think about how religious organizations and individuals have advocated for particular tax policies and practices informed by their own experiences. As a background to an example of what I mean, I will say that religious organizations have been powerful in the US partly because of their special legal and tax status. Several historians have talked about this; Sarah Barringer Gordon, Lila Corwin Berman, and Amanda Porterfield, for example, have shown how religious societies were some of the first to be given the power of incorporation in the 19th century and have been exempted from taxation on the basis of their apparent contribution to the common good.
So, one example of what this means for me: I'm writing a chapter focused largely on the Johnson Amendment, which went into effect in the 50s. And it's this thing which prohibits religious organizations that have a nonprofit status from campaigning or embracing explicit partisanship, which is a good thing in a way because it keeps organizations in the US from acting like funnels for tax free political campaign contributions. But you know, that problem, the reason why the Johnson Amendment is kind of a good thing, is itself a result of the US's peculiar tax policies, which make contributions to religious organizations tax free. So it's a sort of circular problem that also shapes religious life in peculiar ways. In a way, it makes total sense that religious organizations should be able to be partisan. You should be able to talk about the political leaders who you think represent [and] advocate for your communities. But, because of the way everything's structured, in terms of taxes, we have the policies that we do.
So, I'm trying to talk about the genesis of that, and the problems that policy is addressing, [and] the problems it creates. The Trump administration tried to get rid of it, because they wanted churches to be able to function as political action committees essentially.
So that's one example. Another example is the income tax, which is closer to the paper I'm talking about on Wednesday. The modern income tax was created initially in 1890s, and then it was deemed unconstitutional, and then it was brought back in 1913. I'm writing about how figures associated with the social gospel contributed to this and also about opposition to the income tax. I think part of the story is how opponents of the income tax use privately funded religious institutions, and their seemingly benevolent behavior, as evidence for why the state didn't need more power, the state didn't need more money, we're fine with privately funded religious institutions as a vehicle for social change. And so, taxes are arguments for particular ways of changing society. And there are also counter arguments to that. So taxes for me are a way into that.
One last thing I'll say about where religion comes in here. I think the academic study religion is largely a way of studying how humans organize themselves – I’m inspired here largely by my colleague, Kathryn Lofton, who presented to the Warren Center this past week. I think Religious Studies is interested in questions about how groups form, how authority is generated, how certain things become persuasive and powerful, certain ideas or practices. This is why scholars of religion have been interested in things like the corporate form [and] histories of ritual. I'm trying to use the tools of religious studies to illuminate how ideas about taxation, and underlying arguments about institutions and organizations become persuasive and authoritative. This includes different modes of statistical modeling, and how these become resources for making claims about what churches or religion -- Christianity, largely -- can do for America. And then also ideas like self-responsibility, how that kind of idea, which is not explicitly, necessarily, or exclusively a theological idea, becomes persuasive and something that people can appeal to.
Ethan Goodnight  9:46 
It seems to me a great methodology for getting at these issues and bringing in religious studies. I wanted to pick up on this last point you made about self-responsibility. In your faculty profile for the Warren Center, you have this phrase, "the fetishization of self-responsibility" in the US. Can you talk a little bit more about this concept of self-responsibility and how you're engaging it in your work?
Daniel Vaca  10:53 
I think the ideal of self-responsibility is a perpetual theme in American history, which scholars have focused on in a variety of ways. In a way, the idea of self-responsibility is a core tenet of liberalism. So the notion that people should be free to act in self-interested ways goes back to classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and [John] Locke, the idea that people should be responsible for making their own decisions in their own self-interest. Some of the apparent triumphs of liberalism over time have been moments where people seemingly have been given the apparent privileges of self-responsibility. I'm thinking about freedom for enslaved people, sovereignty for Native peoples, suffrage for women. With liberation comes a sort of self-responsibility. But I say "apparent" triumphs because the thing about freedom and self-responsibility is that it's not equality, and it doesn't produce equity on its own. Especially when you hear people demanding that other people practice more self-responsibility, it's usually a way of trying to justify or excuse inequality, especially racialized inequality.
You see this today with debates over pandemic relief, which has been on my mind a lot. During the pandemic, it's been a time of sort of exploding inequalities, or I should say, exacerbating inequalities that already were existing. [In] all these debates about pandemic relief for the past year, people, people on the Right especially, have been arguing to limit unemployment relief, limit pandemic relief checks. Behind that a lot of times is the ideal of self-responsibility, this idea that, "people should be responsible for getting their own jobs or kind of taking care of themselves, we don't need to take care of them." It's a call for people who are suffering to be more self-responsible. These calls for other people to practice more self-responsibility often obscures peoples' suffering.
The same sort of call to self-responsibility runs through debates over welfare, opposition to welfare, and then straight back to some of the stuff I'm writing about now, which is about income tax, about efforts to combat pauperism in the 19th century. When you hear discussions about self-responsibility, I think the question is: who's demanding it? And what are the theories of change that are being presumed by the people who are making those demands? What sources of support are either being offered along with that call for self-responsibility, or being denied? What you get a lot of time, especially with calls from white privileged people for people of color, lower income people of color especially, to be more self-responsible, often those calls don't come along with economic resources, right? Which then makes those demands for self-responsibility sort of perverse.
Ethan Goodnight  21:20 
It's a fantastic point. And it pushes us back into the point of this discussion, which is to prime people for your presentation this coming Wednesday. You're going to be sharing a talk with the Warren Center called Help Yourself, or there's an exclamation mark, so I have to be a little more emphatic [laughs] Help Yourself!: Social Christianity and the Problem of Pauperization. I'm sure that we've already covered some of what you're going to be sharing on Wednesday, but is there anything else you want to share to prime people for this talk?
Daniel Vaca  22:00 
This paper really grew out of my desire to make sense for myself of a tension you see in the Gilded Age, where you see extremely wealthy people, like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and JP Morgan, becoming philanthropists and investing in charity, even though they are in a way the cause of some of the industrial activity that's causing the inequality that they're seemingly addressing. Other historians have of course looked at this, talking about Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth," for example, and how he talks about charity in a way that's serving to justify and demonstrate his own individual virtue, through giving. Carnegie talks about putting "rich and poor in harmonious relationship," which is clearly an effort to speak to what he sees as unrest on the part of working people and something that he thinks he can heal just through charitable giving.
So in this paper, I'm kind of drilling down into that, and into the practice of charity. The way that I ended up doing that, largely in response to what I heard in my primary sources, is by focusing on the concept of the pauper and pauperization. I'm looking especially at a famous church financed by JP Morgan in New York, that became a prototype for a form of church life known as "institutional churches," which were socially oriented churches that had a lot of subsidiary institutions to seemingly help the poor in their communities. But I argue that a lot of these things that they did were based on the idea of the pauper and pauperization. So, what is that?
We don't really use that word now, it really went out of fashion at the turn of the century. But in the 19th century, "pauper" was a way of describing someone who's poor and receiving external support. So it's a status of dependence. A lot of advocates of "scientific charity" were focused on the idea of freeing people from pauperism by not giving them too much. "Don't give people so much aid that you're going to pauperize them." So it was this sort of patronizing posture where the idea was that we, people who are offering charity, can make someone a pauper, can pauperize? There's a direct object to it -- "through our aid." And so they invented all kinds of ways of helping people without pauperizing them (or seemingly helping them). And one of those ways is through innovations in churches, and I argue that basically everything that took shape in Morgan's church was this sort of effort to address pauperization.
There are two things about this that I talk about in the paper. One, not everybody could be saved from pauperization. In the case I'm looking at, which has to do largely with the community that this church was in, efforts are focused mainly on white immigrants, especially from Germany, as opposed to Irish immigrants, Jews, [or] African Americans. Pauperization was something that mainly white people in particular could be rescued from. So it was racialized from the start. This is in, right after, the era of Reconstruction. They spend virtually no time talking about the pauperization of black people in the south. It's all about fears about pauperizing white immigrants and rescuing them from that fate.
The second thing to note about this -- and this gets back to my income tax interests -- I see arguments about efforts to remedy pauperization as an argument for the power of private wealth, as opposed to state-funded charity through taxes. So, Morgan was an opponent of the income tax. He invested so much money in this church, and I see it for him as a sort of argument for private philanthropy, the power of private philanthropy, and churches as a sort of laboratory for philanthropy and evidence of his claim. [Churches were] also a vehicle for finding new ways to secure the power of private wealth. So he's the churchwarden of this church, but also its treasurer. And so he is behind this campaign to expand its endowment. An endowment, the way that they talk about it in the church, is as this seemingly sort of democratic object. They have all these financing campaigns amongst poor people in the community, where they're saying, "Look, you can help yourself, and you can help other people in your community by paying money into the endowment." It's like, help yourself by paying into this. It's good for the church, but it's also good for you. The practice of paying as a way of aiding yourself and your community." But JP Morgan is also the person in charge of this endowment, right [laughs], making all the decisions about what securities the church invests in and pulling the levers. So it's really not a sort of democratic instrument. It's ultimately just a new way of underlining private power. So that's really what [the talk] is about. It's about innovations in the Gilded Age around wealth and charity.
Ethan Goodnight  28:37 
This is so fascinating. And as someone raised in church circles, these arguments are still so alive today.
Daniel Vaca  28:46 
Ethan Goodnight  33:24 
Excellent, thank you for the preview! I'm excited for the conversation Wednesday. I'd like to move back in your academic career to your first book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. This is just a fantastic book that I read with my general exams, and it helped explain parts of my own childhood so well, growing up as an evangelical. I am interested in this concept that you interrogate throughout the book of "the business of religion." Can you talk a bit about this concept of the "Business of religion," how it played out in Evangelicals Incorporated, and to what extent you're tackling it in this new project on taxes?
Daniel Vaca  35:10 
Thanks. For people who don't know anything about my book, I'll briefly say that it's a history of the evangelical media industry, mainly in the 20th century, and mainly focused on the book industry. This maybe sounds esoteric, but as I argue in the book, the book industry is really key to creating a cultural infrastructure for evangelical life, which is why books are the focus.
In terms of the business of religion, a main argument I make in the book is that commercial activity and corporate attempts to produce and engage consumer markets, is really important to think about if we want to understand how religious groups form in the US and in the wider world. My argument is that if religious cultures take shape through consumerism, then the making of markets has a lot to do with the making of religious life. So the "business of religion" is really the way that commercial organizations treat religions as markets and treat markets as ways of making religions, making religious groups. And in terms of what that draws our attention to, it means that strategies of business become religious strategies. So my book is organized around areas of business from commercialism, to retail, to trade associations, to finance, and market segmentation. All of these areas are areas of commercial concern. But they're also areas of thinking, areas of practice, that shape how evangelicalism has developed in America.
The book focuses a lot on this company, Zondervan, and a major theme is to ask why News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's company, which owns Fox News and all kinds of other subsidiaries, would want to acquire an evangelical publishing company in the 80s. And why major media conglomerates remain interested in evangelical media today. So that's the main drama of the book.
Evangelicalism is this term that's famously ambiguous; scholars always argue about the definition, but I argue that this ambiguity is actually key to its social scale, to its power. The ambiguity gives it a kind of capaciousness, which has been cultivated and capitalized on through commercial activity.
Ethan Goodnight  39:06 
Thank you. Another thing I'm very interested in is your role with the American Academy of Religion as one of the co-chairs of the unit on Religion and the Economy, which would obviously encompass both of your book projects. And I'd love to hear what kind of work you do with this unit and the pedagogical and intellectual issues that you try to address through its activities.
Daniel Vaca  39:57 
My co-chair Elayne Oliphant from NYU and I proposed and established this unit about six years ago as a space for scholars to convene around the relationship between religious and economic life. Because the AAR is a large, diverse guild, we've tried to keep it inclusive and open to scholars who focus on diverse traditions, time periods, and through varied methodologies. Our organizing questions are broadly about how economic systems and practices shape religious life, and how religious thought and practice has shaped economic life. My project on taxation is focused partly on recognizing taxation as one set of frameworks for thinking about how to address inequality [but remaining] always aware that there are other competing models for changing society: mutual aid, maybe through churches, and private philanthropy on the other side.
Pedagogically, we’re also really interested in creating conversations that share resources for helping scholars of religion think about how to bring this into the classroom. We’re always sharing resources and thinking about how to help really tear down the false distinction between religious and economic life. Part of what we’re doing is saying these things are not separate. We’re trying to figure out how to help our students see this too.
Ethan Goodnight 44:55
Speaking of pedagogical resources, I was intrigued by your work with the digital project A Universe of Terms. Can you share about this project, your role, and what you’re hoping to accomplish through it?
Daniel Vaca 45:34
For several years, I was on the board of The Immanent Frame, the Social Science Research Council's digital publication devoted to the study of religion and secularism in the public sphere. And within that role this project grew out of conversations with colleagues about teaching, especially around struggles to find engaging and relatively short readings to introduce students to key concepts in the study of religion while also showing them the variety of ways that scholars interpret and apply theoretical terms to the things that they study. How do you introduce students to a concept like “belief” while also showing them the different ways of thinking about that concept? Edited volumes on keywords and critical terms are almost always really long essays by one author with a particular angle. So, we decided to build on those conversations. Especially through the work of our editor, Mona Oraby, what began as an essay project became something much more creative and generative, with an archive of related material previously published on the site, playlists from Spotify to amplify what the essays conjure for readers, and original art. My role revolved around the essays: helping select the terms, soliciting authors, co-editing all the contributions.

As for the contributions, we have around 50 brilliant scholars writing 1000 word pieces, with several essays on each term in order to show how different scholars think about what terms like “economy” and "memory" mean while also revealing the variety of what those terms can bring into view when applied to social life. My hope is that this is really helpful and illuminating for students. We asked the contributors to gear all their essays toward undergraduates. And I see the format of the contributions as something that even works well as an exercise that undergrads can try out for themselves, writing on their own terms or terms we offer. I’m really proud of what it became. The “Universe of Terms” name, the spirit of that is that the universe is continually expanding, so we’ll see where it goes.
Ethan Goodnight 49:38
This is one of the many ways that you and the other faculty fellows have been engaging with pedagogy and public life. The last question I want to ask about your experience at the Warren Center. Is there anything you want to share about this atmosphere or the conversations you’ve had around religion and public life?
Daniel Vaca 50:18
It’s been a wonderful experience. I’m very aware of what a privilege it’s been to be part of the Center during the pandemic. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, both intellectually but also as humans. We’ve shared our work as well as our own experiences, as we've all made our way through the pandemic. I think because the pandemic has been such a totalizing experience this past year, we sometimes overlook how many other things have happened this year! Amid all of the momentous things that have happened during the pandemic, I’ve been really inspired by all of my colleagues and how they’ve responded to it. I’ve been inspired especially by Melissa Borja, who was a leader not just in get-out-the-vote efforts, but also in raising awareness about anti-Asian racism. A lot of her recent public-facing work has focused on that, and I’ve found my colleagues inspiring in terms of how to think about connections between our scholarship and the world we are all making our way through. So I’ve been grateful to be part of this community even if it’s been over zoom. Being connected over zoom is not the same as by a hallway!
I’ve also been inspired by the graduate students. It’s been a privilege to learn from them in the seminar. Hearing about their work, their directions, the things they are thinking about, and issues they want to address has been really generative for my own work and also made me excited about the future of the field.
Ethan Goodnight 53:10
Thank you Professor Vaca for that reflection and taking the time to sit down “with me” – hundreds of miles apart – and reflect on your career. I’m excited for our conversation this Wednesday!
Daniel Vaca 53:35
Thanks so much for talking with me.