To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
By Bethany Moreton
(Harvard University Press, 2009)

People like us don’t do Wal-Mart. The very name conjures retrograde rednecks, and the company’s M.O.—its sexism, anti-unionism, low wages, insufficient health care, foreign product sourcing, adverse environmental practices, and toxic impact on local businesses—has made the moniker synonymous with free-market blight. But people like us sometimes miss the obvious, which is why we’ve been on the losing side of American politics for 40-plus years. Snookered by the Southern strategy, reamed by the Reagan revolution, cowed by the Christian Right and whacked by WMDs, we hope that Barack Obama is the change we can believe in. But we’re still missing an analysis we can understand. Sadly, without that piece, no change is secure since progressives need to understand what went wrong; as well as how and why we’ve been ignorant of and alienated from the main currents in American life.

Bethany Moreton’s pathbreaking study, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is an invaluable asset for apprehending how we got here. Her new book chronicles Wal-Mart’s role in mainstreaming evangelical and free market values even as it became the world’s largest public corporation and the nation’s biggest private employer. A critical appraisal of how religion, politics, and economics were interwoven in post-Vietnam American culture and society, To Serve God and Wal-Mart is also a bracing reminder that we, among the most materialistic people in the world, have turned a blind eye to the impact of material conditions on our actions, attitudes, and beliefs. Simply put, the 2008 election’s voting bloc du jour, “Wal-Mart Moms,” are more than a pundit’s wet dream or Rodeo Drive’s worst nightmare. They are a significant segment of the American public, a key constituency in shaping national values, and a harbinger of a global economic order organized around “Christian service” and “family values.”

Shop Local, Shop Wal-Mart?

But long before there were Wal-Mart moms, there was a confluence of people, place, and possibility that would become Wal-Mart Country. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, white Christian farmers in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Southwest Missouri mounted populist protests against the encroachment of industrial capitalism. Aligning with the Populist Party, many of these hardworking rural and small-town folks felt menaced by big East-coast banks and creeping national corporations. They weren’t opposed to money, business or success per se; rather, they wanted to ensure that some of it came their way. Accordingly, they supported federal legislation that protected the region and its farmers, setting a precedent for using government funds to aid a “favored segment” of the nation.

By the twentieth century, these yeomen-farmers had a new enemy: national chains. Viewed as foreign interlopers, the chains threatened to take local resources and local capital out of the Ozarks and put them into the pockets of Northern fat cats. In response, farmers and small businessmen began experimenting with new retail models: stores that were locally owned and financed, free of unions, and structured as cooperatives. It was in this hothouse of native chauvinism and economic localism that Wal-Mart was nurtured. Sam Walton, the company’s founder, was able to build on regional economic models, populist sensibilities, and social realities when, in 1962, he opened his first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas.

Walton was smart, but he also was lucky. He had a business plan that worked for its time and place. His stripped-down stores offered heavily discounted goods, but didn’t stint on hospitality and manners. In fact, Wal-Mart was the retail reflection of its consumer base: frugal, courteous, and reliable. The fact that clerks and customers were neighbors and family members only enhanced the down-home feel. Most of the clerks were local women, happy to augment the family income with a little extra pay. Bringing their Christian values into the workplace, they sought to serve others selflessly and cheerfully. Moreover, as many were already familiar with the religious concept of male headship, they had no problem taking orders from a male manager who might be new to the company or many years their junior. (Managers, for most of Wal-Mart’s history, were not just male, they were white males.)

Moreton argues that Wal-Mart’s female workers essentially re-envisioned the relationship between management and labor, substituting the competitive “male” model that predominated in Northern factories with a family-oriented female template that was less costly, more malleable, and ultimately able to safeguard the traditional gender relations (including male authority) so essential in a period of economic transition. Most important, says Moreton, it pioneered

“the patriarchal organization of work [that] ranks as a hallmark of the global economy, from the maquiladoras of young Honduran women embroidering swooshes on shoes to the immigrant-owned family motels and convenience stores that dot the United States.”

Their World Looks to Them the Same Way We Would See Ours

For many shoppers, Wal-Mart also embodied the best aspects of church: a community of friendly, generous, caring men and women. Some customers, comparing the store to their congregation, even found the latter wanting. Wal-Mart epitomized Christian service and, thanks to its homely displays and low prices, did not hallow the kind of conspicuous consumption common to many malls, gallerias, and shopping districts across the country. If anything, Wal-Mart sanctified a sort of stylized frugality, bringing the religious values of thrift and neighborliness to the fore. In time, the religious model even caught male managers in its net. The church’s notion of servant-leadership—which preserved male authority even as wives took jobs outside the home—also aided Wal-Mart as managers learned to lead through their commitment to service.

Wal-Mart’s success—both in reframing traditional gender relationships for a new corporate environment and in sanctifying working-class consumer capitalism—help explain the connections between conservative politics, the market economy and family values. But Sam Walton also had a major role in spreading the gospel of Christian free enterprise, an amalgam that linked religious principles, government support, and entrepreneurship. Even as business was becoming the default major on campuses, Walton and his friends sought to bend the curricula; first toward vocational training, which became a source for unpaid interns, and then to entrepreneurship, which lionized the visionary leadership provided by individuals exercising their God-given autonomy.

The focus on the individual as entrepreneur echoed religious themes that valorized individuality; particularly the importance of each person’s unique access to God and responsibility for his own salvation. Not surprisingly, alongside the teaching of (Christian) service and free enterprise, college business programs also taught students to be wary of government encroachments in the form of taxes, regulations, or oversight. But these same programs gladly took government aid and encouraged students to use federal funds to further their own professional goals. Government was a one-way street: the expectation was that it should support entrepreneurship without expecting anything in return. It was the old Populist notions reinterpreted by Christian capitalists on steroids.

Walton’s collegiate programs eventually led to foreign exchanges that paved the way for setting up shop globally. Adding a new dimension to American evangelism, Christian universities would offer scholarships to co-religionists from developing nations to attend business programs steeped in the Wal-Mart philosophy. Graduates would return home to spread the religious and economic gospel, often rising to become indigenous leaders in their local Wal-Mart stores.

The program’s political aspects were woven into its religious tenets and economic policies, both of which supported Christian free enterprise, traditional values and a gendered workforce. Writes Moreton:

“They [Walton Scholars] perceived their own careers and free-market policies generally as a form of public service, on the pattern of the Christian business departments they attended. For its part, Wal-Mart and its suppliers reaped tangible rewards from this network of skilled graduates. In 2005, the Bentonville company entered the Central American market, drawing together existing chains in Costa Rica and Guatemala that had employed Walton graduates.”

What amazes me is that even as we dreamed of a progressive, cosmopolitan, egalitarian, and cooperative counterculture, the Waltons of the world created one that now spans the globe. Equally striking is that their world looks to them the same way we would see ours: grassroots, anti-establishment, humane, and compassionate. Moreton’s scholarship and accessible style make this revelation all the more chilling. Wal-Mart won the hearts and minds of a generation while we, focused on our own battles, missed the war. The religious right was a sideshow and the political right a diversion. Buying and selling was for them, as it has been for us, key to our hopes, desires, and animating values. That’s the secret of the Wal-Mart Moms—and perhaps the starting point of our own movement.