- To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
In the opening pages of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton makes it clear that her analysis of the retailing giant will not take the form of a narrowly construed narrative of corporate ascent. Rather, she argues that the company provides a window into the development of "Christian free enterprise": a social philosophy and way of life that has permeated the ideas and practices of post-industrial society. This is a history in equal parts of Wal-Mart and the world that Wal-Mart has made.
Her analysis, accordingly, canvasses the extraordinary range of late-twentieth-century social developments that Wal-Mart both reflected and helped to bring about: the growth of a conservative populism that embraced rather than excoriated the actions of business elites, the transformation of gender relationships wrought by the increase in two-income households and the transition to a service economy, the collegiate shift away from a liberal arts curriculum and toward vocational training, and the emergence of global corporations that exercised international influence through the allocation of capital rather than the overt application of military force. Wal-Mart has impacted widely varying aspects of American life, sometimes with deliberation and sometimes not. The expansive ambition of Moreton's analysis befits the subject that it attempts to comprehend.
Moreton's approach marks a clear contrast to that adopted by Nelson Lichtenstein in a book published two months after her own, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. Lichtenstein focuses on Wal-Mart's business activities, and the controversial policies and practices that drove its transition—following its initial public offering in 1970—from a regional discounter to the heights of the Fortune 500. Moreton, in contrast, adopts a more innovative methodology: the history of a business like Wal-Mart, she implies, cannot easily be extricated from the history of its cultural environment. In a Wal-Mart world, her readers might reasonably conclude, there is no discernible boundary between business history and the history of society itself.
The success of Wal-Mart, she argues, was closely entwined with its ability to fulfill the social needs of its constituents. Its rural origins and early ownership structure distinguished it from chain stores that were capitalized and managed from the urban north, and therefore uniquely positioned its management to benefit from regional [End Page 171] antipathies. Its ethos of servant leadership salvaged a stable patriarchal order amid the transition away from an economy based on "manly producerism" (p. 102). Its low prices helped to reconcile a consumer culture with an ethic of frugality. And its emphasis on Christian values provided a sanctuary for existential needs that were otherwise ignored by the cold logic of the market. Moreton reveals Wal-Mart's extraordinary capacity to develop cultural solutions for the very crises that its business model produced.
Her prose is extraordinarily lucid and often provocative, and presents the subject in a manner that will hold interest for both scholars and general readers. The latter may struggle at times with the book's structure, which eschews a chronological narrative in favor of thematic chapters that loosely correspond with advancing stages in the company's history. Although this approach can result in disorienting temporal reversions, it grants the individual chapters a coherence that allows them to function as independent works of scholarship. To Serve God and Wal-Mart should become a standard text in business history courses, and deserves to be widely assigned—in whole or in part—in a broad range of undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of the twentieth-century United States.
While many of the virtues of Moreton's history derive from her emphasis on Wal-Mart's corporate periphery, this approach leaves some important questions unaddressed. She positions her account as a forceful rebuke to histories of the conservative ascendancy that rely on facile assumptions of elite manipulation, but the story of...