“If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit. If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.”
—Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition, 1995
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
—Margaret Thatcher, Sunday Times, 1981
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” narrative of the Republican ascendancy, this slippage represents the greatest con in recent history: while you rush to defend marriage or protect the unborn, please pay no attention to the financier behind the curtain.In the “culture wars” narrative of the Republican ascendancy, this slippage represents the greatest con in recent history: while you rush to defend marriage or protect the unborn, please pay no attention to the financier behind the curtain. He could shift the tax burden ever further down the food chain, offshore jobs, shred the social safety net, reward rising productivity with stagnant wages, and create an international economy on the pattern of Caesar’s Palace, as long as he periodically hollered, “Abortion!” or “Gay agenda!”
“What’s the matter with Kansas?,” asked the Left in frustration; why do those people in the pews keep enabling a political order that eats them for lunch? Couldn’t they figure out that “family values” were a skimpy fig-leaf for an economic vision that would make Darwin blush? Weren’t Jerry Falwell and Milton Friedman really rather strange bedfellows, at the end of the day?
But Christian hostility to abortion and homosexuality was not a soft distraction from hard issues; it was itself part of an economic vision, one that gave reproduction its due. The rise of “family values” — of intense religious concern with physical and social reproduction — corresponded to the rise of the service economy in America, or the replacement of productive industries with reproductive ones. As Wal-Mart surpassed Exxon-Mobil and General Motors to become the largest corporation on earth and factories fled for the border, work 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 weekly Bible study groups, Christian colleges, megachurches, and Promise Keepers of the Sun Belt offered a new way to find meaning and morality in the market. The free-enterprise faithful represented by Wal-Mart drew much of their strength from faith itself. The same retail workers that progressive unions sought to organize more often turned to God for help. Many Americans who worked or shopped at Wal-Mart understood it to be a Christian company, its success a sign of God’s blessing. Frequent Wal-Mart shopping has been an even better predictor of conservative voting than frequent church attendance. As the Left sought to champion low-wage America, then, it often ran up against low-wage America’s embrace of Wal-Mart valuesAs the Left sought to champion low-wage America, then, it often ran up against low-wage America’s embrace of Wal-Mart values: in 2007, reported Fortune magazine, the company backed off its support of a GLBT organization when criticized by its own employees and threatened with a faith-based boycott. Even the lead plaintiff in the class-action gender discrimination case Dukes v. Wal-Mart is a Baptist minister.
During the 1970s and ’80s, then, as evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians demonized nonreproductive sex, Wal-Mart learned from its female employees how to value motherly service and transformed that knowledge into managerial gospel. Drawing in a new workforce — white rural mothers, accustomed to the family as an economic unit — the Arkansas-based retailer took advantage of the broad national consensus that the work of serving others was not really work, that women were not really workers. The second stage in transferring this Sun Belt business culture to the international economic order involved blending Christian service ideals with free market theories, and winning some unlikely constituencies to this novel alloy. The countercultural revolts of the late 1960s produced a crisis of confidence among Sun Belt businessmen like Wal-Mart’s. Their need for technologically competent middle managers pushed them to recruit increasingly from colleges, but the campus revolts and countercultural values made for unpromising hunting grounds. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Christian colleges helped meet the need with new undergraduate business degrees for a population more suited to Sun Belt corporate life than the urban and coastal radicals making headlines. Another solution lay in promoting capitalism through independent student organizations and competitions. Under the patronage of Wal-Mart and many of its largest suppliers, one such non-profit, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), outgrew its home at a Christian college in the Ozarks and spread to 1500 campuses in 40 countries, including the former Soviet bloc. In essence a free-trade counterpart to the better known Young Americans for Freedom, SIFE paradoxically won young hearts and minds to extreme capitalism through the education of the sentiments. The ghost of its Christian origins haunted this market-based organization, reconciling the ferocity of self-interest with the loving kindness of the greatest good for the greatest number.The ghost of its Christian origins haunted this market-based organization, reconciling the ferocity of self-interest with the loving kindness of the greatest good for the greatest number. Today its alumni stock the ranks of Wal-Mart management and the supplier companies that have become increasingly intertwined with the marketing monolith.
This story moved in the 1980s to the international arena. During the Reagan era, Sun Belt Christian free enterprise ideology met the challenge of globalization through pre-existing missionary structures. To fight Communist influence in Central America, the founding family of Wal-Mart established full four-year scholarships for young Central Americans to study business and marketing at Christian colleges in Arkansas, bringing almost two hundred students per year from the region. The fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of labor-Left movements in the isthmus transformed the program’s explicit anti-Communism into a neoliberal free-trade vision for the hemisphere. Many graduates wound up working in government, in Christian ministries, and in major transnational corporations, offering a grass-roots counterpart to state-led histories of neoliberal globalization.
To Serve God and Wal-Mart is one account of the anointing of free enterprise, the unlikely legitimation of neoliberal economics through evangelical religion. It tells this story through the twinned biographies of the world’s largest company and the ideological apparatus it nurtured. It is not intended to blur the harsh picture of 21st-century political economy offered by a Naomi Klein or a David Harvey; their facts speak for themselves. Rather, it is meant to populate that picture with three-dimensional historical actors who support a purportedly irrational worldview. This move reveals the triumph of that vision as even more clearly the outcome of human effort and corporate resources, not of historical inevitability.
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Bethany Moreton is Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia.