Bethany Moreton

 

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

Cover Interview of November 04, 2009

In a nutshell

For more than a generation, the conservative counterrevolution in America blurred the distinction between the invisible hand of the market and the all-powerful hand of God. In the “culture wars” explanation of the Republican ascendancy, gullible voters allowed themselves to be distracted from hard economic issues by cultural sideshows like abortion and homosexuality. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” asked the Left in frustration. Why did those people in the pews keep enabling a political order that demonstrably undermined their security? Weren’t Jerry Falwell and Milton Friedman rather unlikely bedfellows, after all?

To Serve God and Wal-Mart traces this paradoxical pairing of evangelical religion and free-market economics through the specific history of the world’s largest company. “If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit,” said the head of the Christian Coalition in 1995. “If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.”

Beginning in the Ozark Mountains in the 1920s, the book traces the people, ideas, institutions, and resources that built Wal-Mart and then in turn supported its international success. Based on years of research in the Ozarks and Central America, To Serve God and Wal-Mart approaches the paradigmatic service corporation on its own terms rather than as a factory manqué. I argue that the rise of “family values”—of intense religious concern with physical and social reproduction—depended on the rise of the service economy in America, or the replacement of productive industries with reproductive ones.

As factories fled for the border and Wal-Mart surpassed Exxon-Mobil and General Motors to become the largest corporation on earth, work in the United States came increasingly to look like home. The feminization of work—that is, the demand for traditionally female “people skills” like patience, communicativeness, and nurturance—threw the old heroic narrative of masculine productivity into a crisis. A new Christian emphasis on service offered both a pattern for organizing the service workplace and an ethos for valuing that work, now performed by men as well as women.

The part-time service jobs, Bible study groups, marriage retreats, Christian colleges, megachurches, and mission trips of the Sun Belt offered a new way to find meaning in work. From its check-out lines to its stripped-down headquarters to its wide-reaching ideological philanthropies, Wal-Mart shows how the old home-turf of Populism came to consider markets only a little lower than the angels.