Review of "To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise"

Bethany Moreton’s book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise historicizes the Ozarks region, showing how the growth of Wal-Mart was related to the yeoman ideal and a feeling of resentment towards Northern bankers. Legal mobilizations occurred in these regions against northern owned chains coming in during the 1920’s as a means of “preserving competition by denying the combinations their unfair advantages” (Moreton 17). During a period of economic hardships mandating thrift and with the development of a “home-grown” chain that is able to produce a quasi-Christian image reflecting the values of the community – Wal-Mart is able to become successful. These two developments are intimately related. As U.S. manufacturing jobs moved abroad (a process dealt with in more detail in Judith Stein’s A Pivotal Decade) it created shifts in economic subjectivity, largely by creating the need for households to have multiple income earners. This occupational/economic context was addressed by Wal-Mart’s low prices and employment opportunities. Management positions are prioritized for men emerging from Christian colleges while service labor positions were offered to unskilled women, not as a means of obtaining economic self-reliance but as a means for supplementing the primary income of their husband. With the both adult members of the family working, childcare was now often delegated (externalized) to immediate family and community members, a situation that was celebrated as it encouraged the values of the hearth rather than the market. Moreton’s focus on description rather than valuation can lead the reader to believe either that those believing the servant-leadership model proselytized by Wal-Mart aren’t dupes operating within the confines of false consciousness but adherents to a new “Christian” system, or that they are. It is this ambiguity, I believe, that made the book so popular by readers that weren’t strictly speaking academic (it’s the only academic book that I’ve ever seen at an airport book store).

That ambiguity of the text laid out, I think it’s important to note that Moreton’s description of servant-leadership seeks to supplant previously existing populist ideologies that were antagonistic to “the feminization of labor”. Lower wages are here naturalized, supplemented with notions of personal benevolence on the behalf of the employer and social conservatism. The concept of the servant leader is an alibi within a structurally static hierarchy that reinforces gender norms of men as leaders and women as subservient. Moreton also shows how such an operational ideology helps create the strange alliance between evangelicals and military hawks, due to the valorization of obedience and the conflation of capitalism with Christian values.

Moreton doesn’t just rely upon the oral histories and available literature but also shows how as Wal-Mart expanded they sought to recreate the practices that originated in the Ozark region in their competitive quest to be the dominant chain retailer. Specifically, through their associations with groups such as the Business Round Table and financial donations to school’s M.B.A. programs, Wal-Mart sought to counter-act the anti-capitalist sentiments created by a higher level of education. Through a result of their combined efforts: “By 1981, graduating business majors already outnumbered their classmates in all languages and literatures, the arts, philosophy, religion, the social sciences and history combined” (Moreton 151). The emphasis of this education was of an explicit anti-leftist orientation and these courses promoted mythologies rather than material realities.

In a final note, I want to argue against claims that “Christian free enterprise” is not defined by Moreton. As I’ve tried to show in the above exegesis of the text, it seems to me that the word is a positively conceived code phrase for “neo-liberalism”. Whereas Liar’s Poker is an account of the pursuit of money as a religion, here we see an ideology in which it is more important to pursue religion and money is secondary to the social relationship in which it is made. In this way those that would say the phrase is an oxymoronic trope are correct – for it elides the sites of Wal-Mart’s production and numerous of Christianity’s generally accepted values – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t operative in the manner in which Moreton outlined.