Save More, Think Less

I doubt there are many books that combine economics, theology, politics, and cultural studies as seamlessly and deeply as Bethany Moreton‘s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. In her book, Moreton reveals how Sam Walton and his peers shrewdly exploited economic and cultural conditions, while relying on a keen awareness of the justifying power of religion and theology, to make Wal-Mart one of the largest businesses in the world. Along the way, she also reveals what economic and theological sacrifices consumers and producers have made to allow business to boom.

There is great depth to To Serve God and Wal-Mart, and much of Moreton’s economic discussions venture, admittedly, out of my area of expertise. However, the heart of her book, literally the middle five chapters or so, unpacks the theology behind the creation of Wal-Mart and its founders use of it to spread their gospel message of free enterprise. Needless to say, this portion of the books is nothing short of fascinating. Moreton bookends these chapters with a focus on the “birth” of free enterprise in America, particularly in the rural setting from whence Wal-Mart came and the spread (or evangelism) of it as Wal-Mart grew to prominence. Moreton raises key questions at the beginning of her text: “Why did working Americans engage the very antigovernment, probusiness policies that undermined their own tenuous place in the middle class? Why did the citizens of Red America keep falling for the same trick, gleefully voting against their material interests every time someone hollered ‘abortion’ or ‘gay marriage’? Couldn’t they see that what really mattered was the economy” (4). At the same time, however, she reveals the the South and Southerners are not, or at least have not always been, as backwards as some outsiders might observe, citing their shrewd technological and communications savvy to advance economic, political, and religious/spiritual agendas. Throughout, Moreton also emphasizes the “rags-to-riches” lie that the Waltons and their followers have propagated to help the business further appeal to those economically perilous, small-town shoppers, even as the spread of Wal-Mart signaled the destruction of countless other family-owned, small businesses. As Moreton later asks, “[…Who] would have thought poor rural people could make such good shoppers” (261).

Moreton’s discussion of the theological and religious underpinnings of Wal-Mart’s growth is especially interesting, and I want to highlight a few points, even as I am aware that doing so will not do them justice. Moreton recognizes how influential it is to consider Wal-Mart’s origins, particularly farmer cooperatives and farm country. These settings carried with them particular views of family and gender roles both within the family and society at large. Yet the growth of Wal-Mart came at a time when these notions were being publicly and privately challenged and shifting in response, not the least of which was the increase of women in the workplace and the overall transition of the American work force from more to less physically demanding jobs. As a result, the founders of Wal-Mart had to legitimize the increasing presence of men in service work…work traditionally delegated to women. In response, they adopted the notion of servant leader, epitomized by Jesus Christ, and kept prominent executive and managerial positions, largely, filled by men. Through her interviews with former employees and research into Wal-Mart World, their in-house news magazine, Moreton finds fascinating, funny, and disturbing examples of these negotiations of gender differences and the maintenance of male superiority in the workplace.

Moreton also uncovers the powerful hold that these ideologies had on both Wal-Mart’s employees and customers. Reflecting on one customer’s testimony of a positive shopping experience at Wal-Mart, she writes, “Reversing the traditional relationship between Christianity and commerce, this shopper measured the church against the standard of the store, and found the former wanting in true religion” (86). That Wal-Mart could have been so successful in the first place also demanded a theological negotiation on the part of its Christian consumers, many of whom have been told to avoid gluttony and over-consumption. In fact, Christian or not, Wal-Mart emerged at a time when consumers were looking to replace a sense of meaning and value that increasingly routinized labor had robbed from them. Moreton continues, “Prudence could not power an economic order built on the multiplication of desires. With the industrial degradation of labor and the growth of routine desk jobs, people increasingly sought meaning in leisure when they found none in work. […] Salvation gave way to self-realization” (87). This self-realization came through, not surprisingly, consumption. Moreton adds, “Ideologically, the challenge was to find a form of purchasing that did not suggest sensual self-indulgence. […The] entire dime-store tradition marketed frugality, not opulence” (88). By (over?)shopping at Wal-Mart, consumers weren’t being greedy, they were simply providing for their families…and saving money in the process. If there was any doubt that this consumption was evil, those fears were quickly allayed by the presence of Christian merchandise in Wal-Marts across the country. By the turn of the century, Moreton points out, “Wal-Mart had become the country’s largest merchandiser of Christian items, with over a billion dollars in annual sales” (91).

Yet Wal-Mart’s success depended on more than a certain type of in-store employee or customer, it also needed managers and executives that bought into the company line too. To find these willing upper-level employees, they turned to the bevy of  Christian colleges and universities throughout Arkansas, particularly University of the Ozarks, John Brown University, and Harding University. Having been trained in the ways of free enterprise, once employed at Wal-Mart, they would often participate in speaking engagements in schools (from elementary on up) and towns across the Sun Belt, stumping for free enterprise. Moreton sees this relationship as Wal-Mart’s effort to wed “Christian vocational education to corporate concerns” (163). These efforts were so dramatic that in the mid-’80s, the Waltons even set up a series of scholarships for Central American students to study at these colleges. While there, they would, more often than not, major in business and return to prominent business, political, or journalism positions in their country as both advocates for free enterprise and opponents of communism.

Earlier in her book, Moreton writes, “[…A] global economy is a relationship, not a thing. Human knowledge and beliefs are built into its mechanisms, though not necessarily as their original owners intended” (66). Unfortunately, this knowledge and these beliefs corrupt this relationship, and, in the case of Wal-Mart, it has rarely, if ever, been part of an egalitarian relationship. Towards the end of her book, Moreton reveals the ways in which the political and economic scales have often  tipped in favor of Wal-Mart and, by extension, the United States. This uneven relationship is no more evident than in Wal-Mart’s dealings with its lower-level employees and the manufacturers of the products they sell at bargain prices. Moreton writes, “The ideal of an independent, self-sustaining, full-time wage, in other words, was not a prominent feature of their economic landscape” (71).

Moreton’s book is a dense read, but one that is simultaneously alleviated and bolstered by a host of interviews with former employees from executives to cashiers and shoppers. This is a much more engaging experience than watching, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005), although the two might make a good discussion pairing. Moreton could have exploited Wal-Mart’s reliance on sweat shops (which she does discuss), unfair wages, and the like, but she resists, focusing instead on the bigger picture and the movements that have allowed Wal-Mart to grow and flourish. Anyone remotely interested in the intersections of politics, economics, and theology will want to add this to their library. (Un)fortunately, I doubt you can purchase it at Wal-Mart.