Review of <em>To Serve God and Wal-Mart</em>

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

In To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton looks at a series of big questions using the world’s biggest corporation as a lens. Her book is a cultural, not a business, history of Wal-Mart. Rather than chart Wal-Mart’s rise through its innovations in technology, logistics, and business practices, Moreton explains how Wal-Mart adopted and modified the culture in which it was founded. This approach permits analysis of a range of subjects, including gender in the workplace, the rise of a service economy, Christianity and free enterprise, business training in colleges and universities, and business promotion of free enterprise in the United States and abroad. This broad inquiry is motivated by two central questions: How did a discount retailer from the Ozarks become the world’s largest corporation, and what motivates the workers employed by Wal-Mart?

The answer to these questions, according to Moreton, lies in the distinctive culture of the Ozarks. Both Wal-Mart’s customers and its employees went from a subsistence-based agrarian economy to a consumer-oriented service economy while skipping a production-oriented industrial economy. Wal-Mart thus incorporated elements of an agrarian economy into its business and labor practices. The retailer had to convince customers who had long valued frugality to become consumers. Wal-Mart reconciled the competing ideas of consumption and thrift by selling consumer goods at the lowest prices in sparsely decorated stores that let the customers serve themselves, in contrast to the ornateness of full-service city department stores. Wal-Mart also overcame the prejudice of its Ozarks constituents, not many generations removed from the Populists, against corporations. It did so by adopting the corporate structure, which the Populists had themselves adopted, while avoiding the taint of “foreign” capital by raising funds from the Walton family then from other Ozark businessmen.

Like its customers, Wal-Mart’s employees carried over patterns from the agrarian economy. They regarded employment as a way to subsistence, rather than a way to wealth. Many employees, especially women, took jobs at Wal-Mart as a means of supporting a family farm, or of supplementing the family income. Women’s labor at Wal-Mart was undertaken as a “second job” in conjunction with their labor as homemakers and childcare providers. The types of jobs that appealed to women were therefore part-time service position, rather than managerial careers. Work at Wal-Mart was thus highly gendered: women worked as clerks, while men worked as managers. Wal-Mart consciously maintained these distinctions by requiring that managers frequently relocate, and it took advantage of the general undervaluing of women’s labor in order to pay them subsistence wages.

These labor practices, however, were not resented by employees. Rather, they appealed to workers because they reproduced familiar patterns of labor from families. They also appealed to Christian concepts of “servant leadership.” This idea was that through service to others, one became a leader and fulfilled his or her duty to God. The idea was in the first instance applied to personal and church relationships, but was also explicitly applied by Christians to business. Through service to customers and co-workers became a way of turning work for Wal-Mart into work for God.

Moreton’s cultural reading of Wal-Mart is perceptive and nuanced. Nevertheless, it suffers from several problems of interpretation and evidence. First, separating the business history of Wal-Mart from its cultural history leaves the reader unable to evaluate the relative weight to be assigned to cultural and economic causes. Put bluntly, did Wal-Mart really prosper because of its cultural adaptation, or because its goods were plentiful and its prices cheap? A simple test is the observation that Wal-Mart has spread far beyond its rural, Christian roots in the Ozarks; it cannot have profited solely from the customer base described in this book. It might also be pointed out that Wal-Mart, while in part a service industry, is also a mover of industrial goods, and so does not fit so neatly in the category to which Moreton assigns it. Then too, Moreton has a powerful explanation for the appeal of Wal-Mart to workers, but one suspects that economic necessity is at least as powerful a motivation.

Second, the book lacks chronological and geographical specificity. This is not to suggest that this topically arranged book ought to have been cast in a narrative, chronological structure. Rather, within each chapter Moreton cites evidence from many years, without explaining how the highly anecdotal evidence is or is not typical. There is little sense of how Wal-Mart developed over time. At the same time, Moreton cites evidence from stores without placing them in their culture outside of the Ozarks. The effect of this lack of specificity is that the book often casts Wal-Mart as the actor, rather than making it plain who the human actors were behind the corporation.

Third, it is not always plain what the connection is between Wal-Mart and the other institutions whose histories Moreton sketches. These institutions are intended to provide an illuminate the culture around Wal-Mart. A case in point is the sketch of the Fellowship Bible Church in Arkansas. The corporatist, entertainment-centered ministries of the church supposedly demonstrate the connection between Wal-Mart and evangelicalism. But the connection is so loosely drawn (some Wal-Mart executives have attended the church) that any other mega-church might have been substituted. For example, Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago and Saddleback Church in California (pastored by Rick Warren, whose Purpose-Driven Life is sold in Wal-Marts) have much in common with Fellowship Bible Church, yet are in no way typical of the Ozarks. Other than the concept of servant leadership, the connections between Wal-Mart and evangelicalism are not well drawn.

Any book dealing with the combination of conservative Southerners, Wal-Mart shoppers, and evangelical Christians is ripe for scholarly disdain. Moreton has successfully avoided that potential pitfall, instead analyzing her subjects with insight and sympathy. Still, by knitting the three groups together so loosely, Moreton may have unintentionally perpetuated these stereotypical connections without adequate evidence.