To Serve God and Wal-Mart

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Bethany Moreton. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. pp. 372., $27.95, Hardcover ISBN 0674033221 Paperback ISBN 9780674057401



To Serve God and Wal–Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is the story of how America’s largest retailer grew a unique culture based on rural and conservative values and became a dominant force in the marketplace. Moreton begins by showing the relationship between Reagan Bush policies and ‘Wal-Mart moms’ who were there supporters. Claiming that the Ozarks were a seat of populism, Moreton explains how a critique of big government and anti-chain movement was situated physically and psychologically in the South. It was Arkansas that gave birth to a religious conservatism that would intimately be embraced by Sam Walton and Wal-Mart. Opening five and dime stores gave Walton a business model, cheap goods in large stores within a days drive from a distribution center. It was this model that became the ‘big box’ retail model. The other significant link in the Wal-Mart model was the wholesaler and retailer as one; it was this that propelled Wal-Mart as a powerful buyer of goods. The history of the Wal-Mart business model is well known, Moreton digs in to cultural roots of the stores management and headquarters.

Country music and a strong sense of rurality defined the company, and urbanity was assigned to elitist models. As one reviewer notes, Wal-Mart removed the notion of waiting on upper class patrons, and as Moreton explains, it was women who were the key to the stores success. Liking it to ‘family’ women were eager to work in a local store that provided them opportunities to interact with neighbors and they willingly entered this sector of the service economy. For many years, these primarily white and native born women set aside harassment and other violations in order to be part of the Wal-Mart small town model. Management was a male dominated profession and was, “notoriously difficult. From the executive level on down, early burnout was endemic.” (p. 81) Managers moved from store to store and faced compensation tied to store sales. Moreton reminds us that if they were management or staff, Wal-Mart employees were self described Christian workers. Christian publishers, especially in the 1970s and 1980’s were eager to expand and Wal-Mart was a perfect fit. Cleverly, Wal-Mart equated caring for the family with Christina service and turned customers from, “citizen consumers’ to “Christian servants.” (p.101)

As a backlash to the perceived liberalization of the country and the ever expanding need for managers, Wal-Mart turned to a new source of management and trainees, recent college graduates from local schools. Using the house organ, Wal-Mart World as a source, Moreton repeats many stories that cemented moral and ethical stances between the company and the employees, such as banning or removing controversial CD’s. There was another important part of the corporate ethos that allowed the company to have its explosive growth and that was the use of technology, including bar code scanning early in the 1980’s and data mining. In places like the University of Arkansas or University of the Ozarks that college students were recruited as future managers and sent back as campus ambassadors, in a model that sounds very similar to mission work. Students were part-time store employees and helped slow or bust union activity as one example. In addition, free enterprise was gaining ascendancy as an economic model in conservative American ad many students were attracted to the Wal-Mart corporate model.

Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) was sponsored by Wal-Mart and became its best recruiting grounds, hiring students who had shown that they were upholding the ‘correct’ political and economic views. Through education outreach and working directly with colleges and professors, SIFE groups and students learned how to mix religion and business. Devoting much of the work to this group, Moreton shows how these students were closely aligned to the Conservative movement and how they helped the company grow from a region to a national and ultimately international brand. By recruiting form places like Guatemala, Wal-Mart was able to provide scholarships to Ozarks colleges and then send its managers back to native countries to continue the cycle. The core message of SIFE was, “not economics as a discipline but economic education as practical trade” (p. 210) a stance that was anti-union, anti-government and pro corporation. Once Wal-Mart became an international conglomerate, the culture became much more political in supporting NAFTA for example. Wal-Mart also became more aggressive or even imperialist in its quest for global expansion.

Moreton reminds that the themes of Christian free enterprise were not always a permanent part of our culture and the success of Wal-Mart was tenuous in the early days. It was only through the ability to recruit new generations of workers and managers holding the same core values as the home office that Wal-Mart grew. Significantly, Wal-Mart helped see service labor as a calling, reinforced a traditional male dominated family home and even helped ease the fall of White Supremacy. None of this would have been possible without the marriage of religious values and economic principles.


Alan S. Brody

Moreton's thesis is that Wal-Mart grew because it was able to ride a wave of conservative economic policy while expanding and by using a concept of “Christian enterprise” recruit a work force that believed economic service was a calling. Wal-Mart is much in the news as the Supreme Court decides if women employees can pursue a sex discrimination lawsuit as a class action against the company. Even if Wal-Mart would be the 30th largest economy in the world, it is still very much the product of a particularly American time and place, in this case the rural Ozarks. It seems noteworthy that Wal-Mart has become synonymous with a conservative and religious fundamentalist form of Americanism, one that promotes free enterprise yet rejects unions and doesn’t believe it has to conform to labor laws. Clearly, Wal-Mart shopping, like NASCAR viewing, has become shorthand for norms, values, beliefs and attitudes of white, rural working class America.

Moreton’s work is extremely balanced and she does an admirable job of relying on facts and evidence to illustrate her points. As the chapters advance, the work is less about Wal-Mart and more about how economic conservatism was advanced through SIFE and small town evangelical colleges and universities. The important history here is how the service sector was transformed to be Christian service and thus valued work, a theme very predominant in Wal-Mart’s early years and responsible for its growth. Moreton is able to link larger social trends and policies, such as NAFTA, to the ideologies of these students and managers making a valuable contribution to the literature.

Readers wishing to make the most of this volume should find at least another work of history of Wal-Mart (Lichtenstein, 2009) that outlines the business history of the company. Moreton has tow distinct works contained within this book, one a corporate history which shows how a regional approach shaped the company culture and the other the story of how missionary techniques or outright proselytizing for free enterprise promoted a conservative world view in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

While Wal-Mart may have invented or one could argue perfected the big box, there is little mention of how other stores, like Target, became successful without these values. There is a very strong rural theme and more attention could have been paid to how urban values were specifically challenged. As one example, Wal-Mart used local employees in advertising, there is more analysis to be done on that point and more to be told about product categories and how Wal-Mart uses its demographic data. Lastly, Wal-Mart, like McDonalds is often involved in contentious or virulent zoning debates, how might that reconcile with Christian values? I believe that several Christian bookstore chains have closed in part due to competition from Wal-Mart, how might those dilemmas be explained? Moreton has a fascinating work and one that is likely to produce more scholarship, I would like to complicate her work by looking at the other end of the spectrum to companies like Whole Foods to explain how a liberal philosophy affected the business model.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Moreton frames conservatism through the regional lens of the South and West and through the Christian free enterprise business philosophy promoted by Wal-Mart patriarch Sam Walton. Moreton makes the argument that Wal-Mart was founded in a time and place that could capitalize on the “legacy of Populism, the social capital of a female labor force, and the Christian tradition of sacred service” to create a “distinct corporate model, a specific work process, and a new definition of skill and power” (p. 125). An important aspect of the Wal-Mart business hierarchy, according to Moreton, relied on reinventing the myth of labor that equated “masculinity, autonomy, and skill” to value (p. 54). The service industry, with fewer opportunities for independent management, relied more on wage laborers, and Walton capitalized on this by creating a family farm model work environment that valued “ ’natural’ adult male authority, mutuality, sociability, (and) subsistence over risk” (p. 72). Recognizing the “people skills” of his largely female hourly wage labor force, Wal-Mart “stressed the personal relationships involved and the high calling of service itself,” but this relationship also relied on the roughly homogenous class and race structure of the surrounding communities where “race and ethnicity rarely had a chance to differentiate the served from the servers” and class did not separate shoppers from staff (p. 77). By valuing service through recognition rather than financial compensation, Wal-Mart highlighted the growing conservative Christian values of the area that advocated servant leadership and an “economy of gratitude” that traded male gratitude for female work (p. 115).

While these values appealed to older generations and advocates of evangelical Christianity, training younger advocates required creative marketing. Again, a key tenet of the conservative movement was education whether through informal study groups as described by McGirr in Suburban Warriors or through think tank seminars like the Mont Pelerin Society as detailed by Phillips-Fein in Invisible Hands. In Moreton’s study, education of Christian free-enterprise ideology took place in the unique regional positioning of Christian colleges and local community colleges in Wal-Mart and Walton’s encouragement of conservative advocate groups like Business Roundtable and Leaders of the Ozarks to advocate conservative probusiness politics through corporate sponsorship of SIFE programs, internship opportunities, and business seminars to students at home and abroad. Moreton shows how the ideas of probusiness and anticommunism common to the conservative movement found a global application through Walton’s international initiatives to sponsor SIFE students from countries threatened by the collapse of communism, especially in Latin America and Asia. By establishing educational networks, Walton hoped that his “human network bridged the transition from the last Cold War proxy battles to the new frontier of hemispheric free trade in the 1990s” by offering an economic ideology of security as well as ties to the United States (p. 224). An interesting longitudinal study would be to see how many SIFE graduates continued in business or remained conservatives following their SIFE experiences.

While the original mission of SIFE students were to prepare them to be judged on “their effectiveness at shaping public opinion to the industries’ chosen legislative priorities rather than opening up debate or providing context,” by expanding the SIFE education initiative to reach a global audience, the conservative movement motives of the Wal-Mart Foundation moved beyond just political reasons or Christian motives to financial motives to secure a base of support for Wal-Mart stores and a ready-made bilingual management team grateful for the chance at an American education (p. 208). While Moreton describes how the influence of conservative values extended to a global market and calls it a form of “missionary internationalism” and “the free-trade faith” that had seen “American consumer goods as an opening wedge for Christian conversion and free-market democracy around the world,” is there not another side to explore – the pecuniary gains for creating the global market possibilities that go beyond Christian stewardship (p. 262).

In one respect the book is not about moral judgments of Wal-Mart business practices, yet by making the assertion that Wal-Mart utilized family values and Christian ethos of stewardship and service and an economy of gratitude to justify feelings of empowerment in a service economy, then morality does come into question. Moreton’s contributions to this discussion are how value systems were incorporated to showcase the positive aspects of a cause like promoting education, family values, or Christian-based beliefs and how region, business, gender roles, and religion rather than class or race played a role in the conservative movement in Wal-Mart country.

Alex Bradshaw, Fall 2012

In To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Moreton argues that Wal-Mart culture, which includes shopping, employment, ownership, operations, as well as the initial establishment of the stores, is both an element of and predictor of modern American conservative politics and that Wal-Mart has directly and indirectly helped determine the character of conservative political actors. She asserts that, since its inception, Wal-Mart has combined with Christiantiy, free-market capitalism, Republican politics, and concern for what have been referred to as traditional family values to constitute the broadest of bases for modern conservatism. The book begins by explaining the immense size of the Wal-Mart empire as it currently exists and that frequency of Wal-Mart shopping is directly correlated to voting for the Republican party.

The decades of conservative reign over American politics and culture saw overwhelming support for unchecked capitalism, which included deregulation of financial markets, unprecedented measures encouraging foreign free trade and the exportation of American industries, tremendous military spending, reductions in financing and overall support for education, healthcare, and social services, and the decimation of welfare in the name of reform. Moreton explores the reasons that American citizens, especially members of the working class, continuously and faithfully worked to undermine their own material interests by enabling the anti-government, pro-business policies and leadership that clearly threatened their well-being while making success and dominance easier for members of the upper class. She points to the Wal-Mart constituency, particularly white, working, Christian mothers, as inheritors of the tradition of populism. The members of this constituency, who conflated faith in God and faith in the market and made sure that family values were an important component of business and political structures and practices, formed the American modern post-industrial society.

Moreton’s account of Wal-Mart’s tremendous role in shaping modern American life includes the background of self-service, chain, and discount stores, biographic information about Sam Walton, the geographic, economic, and cultural natures of the region in which Wal-Mart began, the relationships between Wal-Mart shopping and employment and family life, Wal-Mart’s particular model of employee culture, relationships between Christianity, free enterprise, and Wal-Mart, the efforts made by Wal-Mart owners to influence the world outside of their stores, their economies, and their nation, and the many forms that relationships of reciprocity between Wal-Mart and government entities assumed and their purposes. Through all of these accounts and explanations, Moreton makes the goals and actions of the world’s largest corporation appear to be far more sinister and less benign than many people, even the most avid of Wal-Mart resisters, had probably ever imagined them to be.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

In order to explain the rise of conservatism and the success of Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton’s study is focused on a very precise intersection of two fundamental elements in most societies: religion and money. Her evidence demonstrates that Wal-Mart could not have succeeded in any environment except the tumultuous mix of Christian ideals and conservative economics that swirled in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s (although Moreton does not explicitly say this). She does point out, however, that the influences of the market and the church are not alone adequate to explain such overwhelming success. Free enterprise met needs, she argues, for consumers and the economy. During years of faltering liberalism, people’s hopes and values were linked to free enterprise.

Moreton’s evidence supports her argument, and she delved deeply into the culture of Wal-Mart to understand its workings and workers. If anything, the book lacks a more thorough explanation of the context of conservatism on a national scale (especially themes not related to economy).

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