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.
“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.”
Histories of the long, prosperous liberal consensus in the middle of the twentieth century looked back to the specific experience of the industrial North. The people and institutions of the New Deal order were urban, modern, radical, immigrant, internationalist. But rural Southerners made up influential segments of labor, management, and consumers for the economy that displaced Detroit after World War II. They drew on quite different experiences to build Fordism’s successor in the rising Sun Belt.
In Wal-Mart’s home territory, the company was largely staffed with people who left farms for service jobs without ever passing through factories. They brought different ideologies with them—not the dynamo but the dime store, not the union but the Pentecostal church, not the heroic myths of industry but the parables of Christian service. When the American economy grew to its post-war dominance, then, it carried these traditions to an international stage. The economic vision we call neoliberalism, Thatcherism, Reaganomics, or free-market fundamentalism could also claim the title of Wal-Martism.
For the New Deal’s redistributive policies ironically pulled capital out of the industrial Northeast and down Route 66. Then as now, the robust defenders of capitalism saw no contradiction in building private enterprise on public subsidy. So long as the state relinquished any right to oversight, the Sun Belt’s champions of free enterprise would deign to cash the checks—as would the burgeoning faith-based sector.
With its infrastructure in part underwritten by the public, Christian free enterprise grew up through the new service industries of the South and West. Just as the shock of factory discipline had reverberated through the culture of an earlier century, the new experience of mass service employment demanded a new ethos of service to dignify it. On the job, at church, and in many evangelical homes, this elevation of service work—reproductive labor—evolved into the Biblically-inflected management philosophy of “servant leadership.”
Caught up in a regional revival, the white working mothers who staffed the stores changed the nature of their work as surely as the Flint sit-down strikers had a generation earlier. But the labor victories at the early Wal-Mart addressed different priorities, and so didn’t register within the terms set by the old industrial narrative. To Serve God and Wal-Mart uncovers these hidden struggles, without whitewashing the fundamental moral violence of a Wal-Mart economy.
For me, the most fascinating parts of this story took place outside the stores: in a stadium of college students cheering for capitalism, a theme park about free enterprise with singing dollar bills, a grade-school classroom that hosted a giant dancing pencil promoting monetarist economics.
When we try to explain the rise of free-market fundamentalism, we usually wind up talking about electoral politics—how the Young Americans for Freedom mobilized for Barry Goldwater’s campaign, for example, or how the Moral Majority used direct-mail technology to empower white evangelicals as a voting block. But these explanations can’t get at how a particular economic vision, hatched in rarefied preserves like the Mont Pelerin Society or the University of Chicago’s economics department, became common sense for most of the country even while it failed to deliver prosperity and security. To understand how deregulation, privatization, and globalization displaced the mid-century vision of industrial democracy, we need to give some credit to the dancing pencil.
And the giant free-enterprise pencil in the grade-school classroom was a Wal-Mart project. In the mid-eighties, the company’s philanthropic foundations adopted a struggling project called Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), headquartered in Wal-Mart’s backyard and connected, like Wal-Mart, to many of the region’s small Christian colleges. SIFE attracted donations from corporations like Dow Chemical and Coors to establish teams of pro-capitalist college students competing to spread the good news of free enterprise. In practice, the young people often wound up fronting industry propaganda—Dow’s fight against liability, for example—to children, church groups, and their host communities. Wal-Mart’s support turned it into an international network for recruiting future managers and extending free trade around the globe.
When we look for alternative “grassroots globalization” movements and find Seattle’s turtles and Teamsters, we’re missing the biggest transnational success story of the last half-century—Christian missionaries, often linked directly to the free-market gospel.
“For many people in the old agricultural periphery, the gospel of free enterprise answered some of their most pressing needs. It compensated for the loss of the yeoman dream of self-sufficiency; it sanctified mass consumption; it raised degraded service labor to the status of a calling; it offered a new basis for family stability and masculine authority even as neoliberalism undermined both; for some whites it eased the dismantling of official white supremacy.”
To Serve God and Wal-Mart shows how a Christian pro-capitalist social movement grew from the bottom up as well as the top down.
For many people in the old agricultural periphery, the book argues, the gospel of free enterprise answered some of their most pressing needs. It compensated for the loss of the yeoman dream of self-sufficiency; it sanctified mass consumption; it raised degraded service labor to the status of a calling; it offered a new basis for family stability and masculine authority even as neoliberalism undermined both; for some whites it eased the dismantling of official white supremacy. The generation that moved from the farm to the store, and their children who filled the marketing classes at Christian colleges, crafted an ideology of Christian free enterprise from their experience of a particular historical moment, a particular geography, and a particular religious heritage. To Serve God and Wal-Mart tells this story, often in the words of the people who experienced it.
Their unlikely blending of free market economics and evangelical religion resolved a contradiction at the core of neoliberalism. Since its only unit of analysis is an autonomous individual seeking his own maximum utility, capitalism cannot provide for the regeneration of the very virtues it depends upon. Market logic renders merely irrational the very concerns we put at the center of our existence—art, justice, love, friendship, democracy, even worship itself. The ideal of Christian service washed commerce in the blood of the lamb.
As much as my own economic ideals differ from the ones Wal-Mart promotes, I came out of this work very hopeful about the potential for common ground. The historical actors imbued with Christian free enterprise were willing to claim economics as a moral issue rather than a technical one. The left has been brow-beaten into timidity about its own tradition of economic justice, trying to deflect the spittle of a Glenn Beck by making small, neutral, technocratic claims where the issues merit real moral courage. The much broader public that pollsters call the “Wal-Mart Moms” agrees with the American majority on key issues–that the minimum wage must be raised, for example, or that health care should be universally available. If we quit dismissing the areas of disagreement as cultural distractions, we might find much to respect in their underlying motives.
A native of Mississippi, Bethany Moreton completed her Ph.D. in history at Yale in 2006. She spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences before taking up her current position as Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia. In addition to To Serve God and Wal-Mart, she has published articles on globalization, service labor, and conservative Christianity in the U.S. and Latin America. The Center for the Humanities at the University of Michigan named her the 2009 Emerging Scholar. She has assigned her share of the proceeds from To Serve God and Wal-Mart to the Economic Justice Coalition of Athens, Georgia and Interfaith Worker Justice of Chicago.