Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: TO SERVE GOD AND WAL-MART. by Bethany Moreton [Vol. 2, #32]

A Brief Review of
To Serve God and Wal-Mart:
The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
.

Hardback: Harvard UP, 2009.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Bethany Moreton has given us, in her first book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The making of Christian Free Enterprise, the richly told history of Wal-Mart’s development from a single store in Rogers, Arkansas to the largest corporation in the world (which if it were an independent nation, would have an economy ranking thirtieth largest in the world).  Do not be fooled, however, this new book is not an anti-Wal-Mart rant but rather a complex tale born out of Moreton’s deep love for the Ozark region in which Wal-Mart has its roots and her empathy for the characters in this story, particularly the women who, seeking part-time jobs in the waning of the Ozarks’ agrarian economy, were essential to Wal-Mart’s early success by bearing the bulk of the day-to-day service work in the stores.  While there is much in To Serve God And Wal-Mart that would commend it to general audiences as a significant work of history and social commentary, I believe it is essential reading for socially-engaged Christians, as – perhaps unintentionally – a cautionary tale about  the dangers of baptizing the existing social order as “Christian.”  One of Moreton’s major themes in this book is precisely Wal-Mart’s own highjacking of evangelical principles prevalent among its early Ozark employees.  Deeply rooted evangelical notions about gender roles and headship were useful to foster cooperation between higher management (mostly male) and local service-oriented employees (mostly female).  Moreton’s most pointed critique, however, is of Wal-Mart’s vast promotion of free enterprise as a form – if not the primary form – of Christian service.  Her exploration of the ways in which Wal-Mart relied on the principle of service is a brilliant case study in the insidious power dynamics that a service mentality creates, as has been critiqued in the works of John McKnight, Ivan Illich and others.  McKnight, for instance, notes the primacy of Jesus’s calling us into the equality and mutuality of friendship.  To invoke the language of service outside the context of friendship as Wal-Mart does – and where, I would add, one party stands to gain much more than the other – is to pervert the way of Christ.  We begin to get a sense of the depth of this perversion as Moreton’s story winds around to Wal-Mart’s funding in the 1980’s and 1990’s of Central American students to study business at Christian colleges in and around Arkansas.  The idea was that these students would return to their home countries as missionaries of sorts, bearing with them the Gospel of Free Enterprise as they would build new transnational economies in the wake of the large-scale political, social and economic destruction wreaked by U.S.-backed regimes in the early- and mid-1980’s. While Moreton is clear here that Wal-Mart came onto the Central American scene after the political upheaval, their opportunism under the guise of Christian service was a key step in launching them toward their present status as the world’s foremost corporation.  Western missionaries of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have routinely been criticized for spreading a Gospel whose content lie more with Western modernity than with Jesus Christ.  In the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, this project of transforming the world into the Western likeness continues in the work of corporations like Wal-Mart who understand free enterprise as a loose form of Christian service, as Moreton illustrates here.  For socially-engaged Christians, we would do well to take Moreton’s Wal-Mart research as a case study in the dangers of co-opting Christian principles for our own agendas – whatever they may be.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


One Comment

  1. Thank you Mr. Smith for writing this thought-provoking review. I found Bethany Moreton’s description of the book on the web at:

    http://www.powells.com/blog/?author=635