Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton

I have been absent from the blogosphere for quite some time, consumed as I am with reading and writing for my doctoral seminars, preparation and teaching for my undergraduate classes (I'm teaching two section of Intro to Religion: Catholic Option this semester), and the frantic, frazzled life of caring for two toddlers with my ever-loving and long-suffering husband. Still, I thought I would pop in briefly to post this somewhat informal book review of one of my favorite books of the semester, by far: Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. I read it for my American Studies seminar a couple weeks about and lead the class discussion of the work. I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in evangelicalism, particularly evangelicalism and economics, politics, and/or gender.

About the Author
Bethany Moreton is a native of Mississippi and Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Georgia. She received her doctorate in history from Yale University in 2006 and was named the 2009 Emerging Scholar in the Humanities by the University of Michigan. To Serve God and Wal-Mart was her first book and it won the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for best first book in U.S. history and the John Hope Franklin Award for the best book in American Studies.

Even though Moreton weaves a narrative that spans a variety of topics and issues (from populism to gender to free enterprise to Christian service), Moreton’s work is fairly straightforward as a history. She draws from a dizzying number of sources: numerous libraries and special archives, including those of the colleges and universities she discusses, as well as Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) and Food and Allied Services Trades, along with numerous personal interviews with Wal-Mart employees.

To Serve God and Wal-Mart tells the story of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company, and the ideological system that it cultivated. Her narrative shows that conservative evangelicalism fueled the ascendancy of neoliberal (free enterprise) economics in the late twentieth century. Far from an historical inevitability, Moreton’s narrative proves that this turn of events came to pass through the efforts of real historical actors and the implementation of significant corporate resources.

To be more specific, I think Moreton is, in a sense, answering the question that has plagued Leftists for some time: “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Or, why do so many middle class Americans prioritize social issues over government policies that are in their economic best interest? Moreton shows that “family values” voters (“Wal-Mart moms” and dads) forgo (and even denounce) economic gains like unionization out of commitment to a very different notion of moral market priorities. Their deep-rooted ideals about the centrality of the (nuclear) family, the virtue of self-sufficiency, and the faith in free enterprise undergird the willingness of “Kansas” to, in the end, submit the well-being of the individual to that of the multi-national corporation.

Chapter Summaries
Chapters 1-3
Moreton’s story begins in the Ozarks, historically one of the whitest regions of the country (95% white as late as 1996), where Wal-Mart’s success can be traced back to nineteenth-century Populism and the Populist critique of the new industrial economy. Populist activists sought the protection of the federal government against the rise of corporations, which threatened the financial independence of the small family farm (and the enduring myth of the yeoman farmer). Though the Populists ultimately lost, in many ways their broad economic and political legacy remained, allowing for the employment of federal intervention so that the yeoman farmer might come to compete with industrial corporations.

Wal-Mart was one of many corporations that benefited greatly from the federal redistribution of funds into the Sun Belt following World War II. Wal-Mart was able to take root in the Ozarks—a region formerly inhospitable to major corporations—because Sam Walton put to work for him a number of Ozark emphases: the value of “old-stock American whites,” the importance of independent proprietorship, and fierce Ozark localism. Moreover, in terms of business model, he blended the independent, small-scale family business with that of the cooperative-style voluntary chain, and issued stock for public sale to his own employees. In this way, “the white periphery could make its peace with joint-stock companies and banks as long as they were local stockholders, hometown financiers” (29).

Along with the Wal-Mart company’s innovations in finance and organization, they also consciously crafted a populist corporate image from the Ozarks and the person of Sam Walton. As Wal-Mart expanded from the 1970s and 80s, the company located stores in smaller cities, which benefited from heavy public support (i.e., universities, military installations, hospitals), anti-labor laws, and landlocked “small town” life. Wal-Mart nurtured an image as corporate protector of the “imagined homogenous yesterday” (40), adopting the old-stock folk heroes of the farmer, cowboy, pioneer, and hillbilly, while joining them to country-western music and a preference for rural people (over urban). Sam Walton’s personal story underwent a makeover, as well, rendering his tale one of meritorious hard work and thrift, making him into a “billionaire everyone can love” (45).

Chapters 4-7
The service industry that grew up in the Sun Belt in the midst of deindustrialization imperiled the masculine vision of the independent yeoman farmer. To grapple with the shift to more “feminized” work, Wal-Mart drew on rural Protestant family ideals to stabilize the masculinity of its (mostly male) management staff, reinscribing the sexual hierarchy of the family onto the work place. Conflating the family and the store helped to prevent the largely female waged labor force from viewing themselves as “workers” with skills meriting just compensation. With “work” conceived of as a family affair at home (women accepting wage labor as a means to contribute to the household and provide access to insurance, SS, and investment) and work imagined in family terms at the store, Wal-Mart ensured the loyalty and humble (non-unionized) service of both management and service staff.

This reconceived vision of work blended easily with the new popularity of “service leadership” in both evangelical and business publications. Within the ethic of servant leadership, formerly humble, feminine “reproductive” labor is elevated in ideological significance, with men called to serve both in the home (i.e., Promise Keepers) and at work (i.e., Lead Like Jesus). Meanwhile, in exchange for the emphasis on the value of their labor and the loyalty of men to the domestic sphere, women acknowledge “male headship,” even if only in a symbolic way. These “soft patriarchs” were a compromise of sorts, so that service leadership made patriarchy safe for the postindustrial service economy.

Chapters 8-11
In the 1970s and 80s, increasing numbers of Americans abandoned Keynesian economics and transferred their loyalty to privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and proliferating financial speculation. Wal-Mart rode this wave of conversion to “free-market fundamentalism,” actively helping to shape both corporate and public opinion in such a way that it has become, in many parts of the country, simply “common sense.” First, they created symbiotic relationships with Christian colleges to recruit management from new business programs grounded in (faith) commitment to free enterprise. Then, they used independent student organizations (with sizeable corporate sponsors) to promote capitalism, the most important of which was Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE).

SIFE started at a Christian college in the Ozarks and spread to 1,500 campuses in 40 countries. They travelled the country and won converts to free-market capitalism through education, from the oldest to the youngest (including economics lessons for kindergarteners). The following banner sums up their message: “FREE ENTERPRISE WORKS, ALL IT TAKES IS GUTS” (173). Moreton argues that the Christian roots of SIFE allowed for a wedding of self-interest with the “loving” notion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Today, Wal-Mart management and its suppliers are filled with the former students of this major investment in free-market education.

Chapters 12-13
In the Reagan era, the spread of free enterprise went global, powered by Sun Belt Christian organizations like Wal-Mart and pre-existing conditions established by post-WWII Christian missionaries. Central America was of early concern to Reagan and Walton, but Walton met the threat of communism with four-year scholarships for Central American college students to study business and marketing at Christian colleges in Arkansas. The ideological training received in the Ozarks equipped these students with free market, free trade visions for the entire hemisphere. The result was very good for Wal-Mart: grateful graduates of their program working in Christian ministries, multinational corporations, government, and technology industries, providing a grass-roots network for the progress of globalization (one that runs parallel to the work of nation-states in globalization). In the pursuit of U.S.-led free trade worldwide, Wal-Mart capitalized on Christian missionary zeal and faith in free markets: “figuring free trade as service to humble Third World consumers,” with the Mexico City Wal-Mart serving as the most powerful symbol in the ideological fight (251). The biggest victory in Wal-Mart’s expansionist mission was the turnaround in public opinion on NAFTA, allowing for its passage in November of 1993.

Interesting Issues Raised by the Book
“Family Values” and Free Market Capitalism
I find very compelling the way Moreton draws together the rise of “family values,” focused on sexuality and reproduction, and the rise of the service economy, with a shift from production industries to “reproductive” ones. More specifically, I find intuitively valid the connection she makes between family-centered movements within evangelicalism, like Promise Keepers and “soft patriarchy,” and the intentional utilization of the family ethos in Wal-Mart culture. At the same time that Wal-Mart was capitalizing (literally) on the consensus that women’s work (=serving others) isn’t really work and women aren’t really workers, they were also utilizing the Christian service ideology of wives and mothers to cultivate employee loyalty and a family-friendly image.

I can’t help but see an ideological parallel between the “soft patriarchy” family ideals described above and those of free enterprise economics, both of which grow up together in Moreton’s narrative. Both “soft patriarchy” and free market capitalism entail a faith commitment of sorts. In the first, women and men accept on faith that their particular version of submission or service will result in honor and exaltation (whether in the home, the workplace, or even in the afterlife). In the second, women and men accept on faith that self-interested, deregulated business practices will result in prosperity and justice for all (or, at least most). The logic of both ideologies seems to require a “leap of faith” for adherents.

Frugality as a Common Sense Christian Virtue
Moreton’s narrative reveals how frugality became an unquestioned Christian virtue in “Wal-Mart Country” and beyond. Although conspicuous consumption is frowned upon by most evangelicals, penny-pinching consumption for the sake of serving the good of the family is encouraged. Wal-Mart is infinitely appealing, therefore, because their unpretentious, unornamented stores, with an emphasis on “rolled back” prices, welcome shoppers as sites of family-focused frugality. There is even a sense of gratitude to Wal-Mart among customers (featured in a number of their more recent TV commercials), that their low prices allow money to be spent on other things for the family. In this way, Wal-Mart has helped to solidify finding the “best deal” at the cheapest price as a Christian virtue: evidence of wisdom, self-control, and even love. Moreover, Moreton shows that it is no coincidence that the champions of frugality are champions of free enterprise capitalism--both of which put the good of the individual and his/her nuclear family at the center of concern.

It’s Religion, Stupid
Moreton’s book also raises for me a larger point about historical and cultural studies. Many historians and cultural scholars are wont to say of the human situation in any age that, in the end, “It’s the economy, stupid”--it is the ongoing battle between proletariats and capitalists that occupy the central narrative of history. But, in light of Moreton’s book (along with a number of others we have read), it seems that ground needs to be ceded to religion. Perhaps, we can say, “It’s religion, stupid.” This is a good sign for historians and theologians in training, for whom religion is central. There seems a great opportunity in the historical and cultural fields, and in American studies in particular, to highlight, explain, contest, and debate the role of religion in the outworking of history. Moreover, the reverse is also the case. In the work of the theologian, attention must be paid to the ways in which cultural institutions, even one as apparently banal as Wal-Mart, serve to shape and inform theology. Indeed, theology must always be engaged with the "lived" aspect of the Christian religion and it doesn't get more "lived" than the places where Christian families shop.


fishformen said...

good review, thank you

Anonymous said...

awesome!!! I love this review!