Home » Posts tagged 'God and Wal-Mart'

Tag Archives: God and Wal-Mart

Book Review: To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton

The following is a book review of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2009), 392 pp.  In “It’s Religion Stupid: Emerging Historiographies” (PDF Catalogue) I review this book in tandem with Darren Dochuk’s book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2011).

When Bethany Moreton first set out to learn about how the anti-monopolist heartland of America (the Ozarks) managed to eventually cook up the largest economic Leviathan the world has ever seen (Walmart), she was not pursuing a book in the religious genre.[1]  Her investigation, however, led her straight to the backbone of Walmart’s labor force—conservative Christian women who also made up the largest portion of Protestant evangelicals in American Christianity.  Building on Max Weber’s work on the Protestant work ethic, Moreton shows how the faith of these conservative Christian women helped them shape the new service economy by providing the motivation and ideology that made their work meaningful to them.  The faith of Christian women made the trope of Christian service stick for the corporation on the popular level—from the bottom up, not from the top down.  This powerful grassroots ideology eventually transformed the dominating corporate metaphors of ownership and authority into that of the “servant leader,” successfully integrating evangelical and economic trends.[2]

Since the burden of shopping for the family also fell to these same women, consumer demand also drove an increasing number of Christian products in the store, along with a “series of widely reported product purges that spot-cleaned this shopping zone” for Christians that were a part of the “literalist branches” of Protestantism (i.e. members of Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Assemblies of God churches).[3]  Christian consumers new ability at Walmart to think of their consumption in terms of procuring wholesome goods for the family (rather than as splurging on unnecessary and sensual entertainment or fashion for oneself) suddenly fit neatly with the broader emphasis on “family values” in the religious right which came to mean (more or less) anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-pornography and anti-sensually driven or violent entertainment, etc.

Moreton does not think it a mere coincidence that entertainment-oriented megachurches downplaying rigid doctrine in favor of relationships and servant-driven models of ministry were sprouting up all around the Ozarks during the rise of Walmart where the Christian women glorified their “relationships” with customers and viewed it as Christian service.  Walmart exploited the conservative family structure in the region by making the men managers on borrowed prestige and the women the servants of managers and customers.  This made Walmart’s labor structure fit with the prejudices of the Ozark culture.  The men, however, would eventually come to learn and glorify the servant ethos exemplified by the Christian women who became the “face” of Walmart.  Exhortations from pulpits (and other forms of Christian media such as “Focus on the Family” with James Dobson) directed at husbands to lavish their wives with praise for their “role” in the home (the second shift) and to think of their own role as husbands in terms of service-leadership instead of mastery or authority are seen in Moreton as an outgrowth of the “feminized” service-economy.[4]

There is a shift in the latter chapters away from the store setting of Walmart itself to its role in the larger political movement of the conservative right for a pro-capitalist America and for spreading a message to the world that conflated freedom with free enterprise.  Unique historical circumstances that cut funding for Christian Universities and regional schools helped them see the opportunity to create partnerships with Walmart in turn for financial support.  This marriage between education and Walmart meant that University programs would favor free enterprise and brainwash students using the mythical “entrepreneur” pedagogy with a holistic emphasis on “the entrepreneurial function” that emphasized character development and business ethics marketed in the name of practicality.[5]  These “Students in Free Enterprise” would not only become the next workforce of the capitalist system, but would reproduce on other campuses internationally to become a catalyst for the spread of capitalism.  Schools of business thus became schools of politics more than hubs for serious academic research, adding momentum to the broader national movement of creative conservatism.

Some parts of Moreton’s grand narrative are more convincing than others.[6]  Were women treated unfairly in many Walmart stores in more gender conservative regions?  In spite of the failed class-action lawsuit, this seems hard to doubt.  But was drag tradition a conspiracy to reinforce gender bias?  I am not yet convinced.  Did Walmart successfully market an impressive amount of Christian products and keep secular products “safe” for their niche of Christian consumers?  This is irresistibly plausible historiography.  But does this make Walmart a Christian Corporation?  Probably not.  Did Walmart use Christian concerts in stores to draw shoppers?  Surely somebody in the higher management saw the opportunity.  But does this make Walmart a “megachurch” that meets on Saturday night?  Perhaps that is overstated.  The Walton’s were not evangelical, born again, Pentecostal or fundamentalists, “let alone Christian activists outside their mainstream denomination” and the company (for the most part) did not seek a Christian identity.[7]  Nevertheless, the aggregation of so many associations does have the cumulative effect of making her historical narrative an enticing argument and her focus on injustices makes her argument emotionally appealing.  Her own concerns for the exploitation and undervaluing of women as key abuses of capitalism may cause her ambitious narrative to stretch the historical evidence as she paints a restrained but villainizing portrait of the corporation as drunk on the wine of opportunism, raping the livelihood of an entire generation and making them unwittingly cheer on their won decimation,[8] corrupting Christians institutions to brainwash their students to pervert the gospel into one of “Christian free enterprise,” etc.[9]  Still, for all her overplayed associations, her book is fascinating, bold, nuanced, and well researched.

Although with much more subtlety and sympathy than Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, conservative Christianity is portrayed negatively in Moreton’s narrative as the key mechanism for reinforcing injustice.  The gender bias that enabled Walton’s work environment to exploit women without offending cultural sensibilities is linked with evangelical complementarianism—one feature of a large constituency in American Protestantism.  She also portrays evangelicals as naïve and myopic.  The same people being oppressed by capitalism’s Leviathan are its most ardent supporters, spreading free enterprise fundamentalism through their institutional structures and “gleefully voting against their own material interests every time some hollered ‘abortion’ or ‘gay marriage’.”[10]  The corporate homage for the “Christian service” of the lowest rung of undervalued Walmart workers was hypocrisy cloaked in evangelical idiom.

The reader is supposed to walk away from this book feeling outraged at the injustices done under the pretext of religion, as if we had just read a book about the Spanish conquest of the Americas with its brutal exploitations of slave labor.  My own personal response is more ambivalent.[11]  Her book offers a corrective to the axiom “It’s the economy, stupid” by showing the power of religion to shape economics, yet her depiction of religion’s power is disturbing.[12]  Her argument seems to make American Christianity (or at least fundamentalist and evangelical Protestantism) out to be a worse than useless religion, except perhaps when making oppression bearable or even satisfying.  Religion helps widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Her argument might be internalized as “a case study in the dangers of co-opting Christian principles for our own agendas—whatever they may be.”[13]  There is a ready-made religious ideology waiting to be harnessed for justifying greed, sexism, Jihad, and probably just about anything.


 ::::: FOOTNOTES :::::

[1] Bethany Moreton, “The Real Paradox of Wal-Mart,” The Writing on the Wal (http://thewritingonthewal.net/?p=8022), accessed 11.15.11.  Moreton summarizes for us the common theme highlighted in the business press at the time she began her research: “Wow, who would’ve believed a bunch of dumb hillbillies would have cooked up this economic Leviathan?”

[2] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2009), 107.

[3] For example, it was only after the larger conservative resurgence in American life and politics that it become impossible to get CDs by Snoop Doggy Dog or Tupac Shakur at your local Walmart (or if by chance you could find some explicit rap CDs that had slipped through the cracks, they were too inundated with the ubiquitous bleep censer for enjoyable listening).  Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, 92.

[4] Ibid., 100-124.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] Alexis McCrossen, for example, thinks Moreton has a tendency to “paint with too broad a brush stroke” and “marshals little direct evidence … yet draws conclusions about them and their motivations in confident tones.”  Alexis McCrossen, Review of To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton,” Business History Review 85, no. 2, 2011: 421-423.  Rob Horning thinks her evidence seems “suspiciously apt sometimes, considering the mass of corporate events, executive interviews, and incidents among the company’s many stores Moreton had available to work with.  There’s no clear way to tell whether some of her anecdotes are typical or cherry-picked.  And more generally, to focus strictly on ideological factors without acknowledging the hard numerical economies of scale that Wal-Mart could bring to bear against its competitors presents a picture of its rise that eventually starts to feel a bit myopic.”  Rob Horning, “To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton,” PopMatters (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/107658-to-serve-god-and-wal-mart-by-bethany-moreton, 2009), accessed 11.02.11.

[7] Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, 89-90.

[8] In her interview with Nancy MacLean for CSPAN2 she says emphatically that Walmart does not create jobs; it “cannibalizes” them.  After Words, CSPAN2: BookTV (http://www.booktv.org/Program/10548/After+Words+Bethany+Moreton+To+Serve+God+and+WalMart+The+Making+of+Christian+Free+Enterprise+interviewed+by+Nancy+MacLean.aspx), accessed 11.24.11.

[9] As Moreton points out, in spreading this gospel, they do not say “this is how you become wealthy” or “this is how you take over the world through monopolizing” but rather “this is how you can change the world and make it a better place.” Ibid.

[10] Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, 4.  Darren Dochuk criticizes historiographies that depict evangelicals as being “duped” into voting against their economic interests.  “First of all, the ‘duped’ motif has its limitations.  Some of the Wall Street types I include in my story could be classified as evangelical populist themselves whose own politics covered a range of issues beyond their pocketbooks; economic interests wasn’t their sole interest. … to say they were snookered into doing something against their wellbeing shortchanges their own capacity as rational political actors. … And ultimately, I’m hesitant to say someone is voting or acting against their best interests, as if I have some deep wisdom they don’t; I can’t even figure out what my own best interests are, let alone someone else’s, so I’m not that eager to pass judgment.” Darren Dochuk, “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: An Interview with Darren Dochuk,” interview by Paul Harvey, Religion In American History: A Group Blog on American Religious History and Culture (http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2011/05/from-bible-belt-to-sunbelt-interview.html), accessed 11.18.11.

[11] The author’s response to the findings and interpretations of her research are also more ambivalent than the book reveals.  In her interview for Nancy MacLean her incredible sympathy with all of the characters in the story is more pronounced.  She takes a more positive tone about what was “accomplished” in Walmart’s service economy by women. After Words, CSPAN2: BookTV.

[12] The potency of religion to shape culture, politics, and the economy could be taken as the “larger” point of the book, offering a powerful critique of the axiom “It’s the economy, stupid.”  McGowin, after reading Moreton’s book, concludes this “ground needs to be ceded to religion.” Emily Hunter McGowin, “Book Review: To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton,” Think. Laugh. Weep. Worship. (http://thinklaughweepworship.blogspot.com/2011/11/book-review-to-serve-god-and-wal-mart.html) accessed 11.27.11.

[13] Chris Smith, “A Brief Review of To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise,” Englewood Review of Books (http://erb.kingdomnow.org/brief-review-to-serve-god-and-wal-mart-by-bethany-moreton-vol-2-32/), accessed 11.24.11.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers

%d bloggers like this: