So, Is Wal-Mart A Religion? A Review of Bethany Moreton’s, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
By Kenny Smith
When we think of our neighborhood Wal-Mart store, a range of images (wholesome and otherwise), likely come to mind: a vast array of inexpensive merchandise, preoccupation with traditional evangelical family values, billion-dollar class-action lawsuits for gender discrimination, economic might greater than that of most nations, and, of course “the people of Wal-Mart,” that is, the peculiar folk said to frequent Wal-Marts with special devotion, even taking to camping overnight in store parking lots and having their weddings in the lawn and garden section. They come, it is said, in all manner of unfortunate outfits…
behave in ways that inspire the creation of websites and the posting of daily videos to You-Tube…
and all (apparently) without a shred of self-consciousness.
In her recent book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard University Press, 2009), Bethany Moreton, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia, works to explain the emergence of the Wal-Mart retail empire, as well as the culture of dedicated shoppers and employees that has developed around it. Departing from the popular satire the above photographs suggest, Moreton offers a portrait of “the people of Wal-Mart” that many participants would likely recognize as accurate. More, she locates the entanglements of Wal-Mart, evangelical Christianity, and free market consumerism, within the broader social, economic, and political conditions of late 20th century American culture.
Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart Discount City in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas, soon followed by others Wal-Marts in small towns throughout the Ozarks region of Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. From the beginning, Wal-Mart encompassed profound historical tensions: corporate success in a region long known for hostility to (and downright revolt against) the abuses of corporate power; a regard for rugged individualism, and a corresponding disdain for the federal government, alongside financial success made possible by way of generous federal and state government subsidies, tax exemptions, and support for private industry. “One common denominator,” Moreton writes,
was the heavy public supports that attracted Wal-Marts to town. Private colleges, public universities, military installations, federally funded artificial lakes, and state institutions… and public hospitals appeared over and over in the publicity provided by the towns of Wal-Mart country. (38)
Indeed, Moreton reminds us, after World War II the establishment of federal infrastructure (e.g., NASA and numerous defense contractors) throughout the Sun Belt states played a vital role in their economic growth.
But Wal-Mart also offered its customers “full fledged identity politics,” a sense that it was “preserving a version of America that its constituents felt was endangered.” (41) Through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Wal-Mart stores increasingly instantiated mainstays of rural, white, evangelical culture, such as country music, a patriarchal family structure, the “purging” of morally objectionable cultural media (e.g., music and magazines with sexually explicit content), and the “blending” and “intermingling” of evangelical worship and retail sales, for instance, hosting live in-store performances of Christmas devotional music to promote increased holiday sales. (94) By the late 1990s, Wal-Mart was a well-known source of specifically Christian products, including books, music, movies, magazines, and many other products deemed family-safe. Ironically, given its capacity to purchase in vast quantities and thus at the lowest possible prices, “hundreds of independent Christian stores failed,” unable to compete with Wal-Mart’s bottom-priced Christian merchandise. (90-1)
Attention to precisely these dynamics allows Moreton to explain a great deal about Wal-Mart’s success. It is not simply about the products, or the prices, she argues, but about the family-friendly, Christian-centered environment Wal-Mart is perceived to provide. Why do those who work there commonly express great loyalty to, and even love for, Wal-Mart, despite very low wages, a lack of benefits, and high demands? How did rural, formerly frugal-minded white evangelicals come to re-think consumerism as a Christian virtue?
Moreton attributes these economic victories to Wal-Mart’s brilliant recasting of both employment in retail service and shopping along distinctly evangelical lines, as selfless service to others. Wal-Mart shoppers are not about self-indulgence and luxury, this narrative has it, but rather “procuring humble products for the family.” (89) Wal-Mart sales associates, in turn, see themselves not as grinding out long hours for meager pay, but providing selfless Christian service to those seeking to help their own families “save money and live better.” In Wal-Mart country, shopping and service became associated with the duties and identities of good, hard-working, Christian folk.
Importantly, Moreton locates Wal-Mart’s narrative within the broader context of late 20th century America. In the decades following World War II, she explains, the American economy shifted from one steeped in industrial production to one characterized by service: whereas mid-20th century Americans made things for a living (e.g., steel, automobiles, televisions, radios, etc.), by the end of century they mostly sold and serviced things made elsewhere. With de-industrialization came significantly lower incomes, the gradual elimination of benefits such as health insurance and pensions, and the “feminization of labor”: while service work had in past decades been associated largely with women, increasingly everyone’s work was service-oriented.
Evangelical culture, Moreton points out, found its own creative solution to these challenges. It elevated the domestic realm, requiring that men acknowledge, appreciate, and more fully participate in the duties of home life, while also emphasizing biblical doctrines of wifely submission and male leadership. Wal-Mart’s emergence in the later decades of the 20th century, in a region thoroughly steeped in evangelical culture, thus provided access to a workforce well accustomed to “long hours… low cash flow… communal work… and male authority,” (84) and also one that reconciled their unfavorable economic prospects as an opportunity to further develop Christian virtue.
So, is Wal-Mart a religion? Moreton does not tackle this question directly. Given her training as historian, and the complexity involved in theorizing religion, we cannot much fault her for not doing so. Perhaps the better question is, “does Wal-Mart function religiously, at least for some persons?” Wal-Mart certainly offers resources that create and sustain certain kinds of identities, most prominently conservative Christian identities. So, if Wal-Mart functions religiously, it would seem to do so in a rather non-denominational manner, as a kind of “after hours mega-church” offering a religious and economic hybrid of evangelism and consumerism: an evangelical consumerism, or consumer evangelicalism. (90)
One wonders, though, about other sorts of folk and other identities that might likewise be shaped and nourished at Wal-Mart. From this perspective, perhaps the most significant weakness of Moreton’s otherwise superb book is that it provides an abridged narrative of “the people of Wal-Mart.” What about the folks who camp overnight in store parking lots, recite their wedding vows amidst their favorite merchandise, or behave in ways that inspire You-Tube videos? Moreton’s fascinating book has left me wanting to know more, rather than less, about these expressions of Wal-Mart-ism.