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To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
Bethany Moreton
Harvard University Press, 2010
392 pp., 24.0

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Stewart Davenport

Pro-Capitalist Christendom

Two cheers for the market economy.

So is capitalism Christian or not? Can we be about building the Peaceable Kingdom while at the same time unabashedly championing the globalization wealth machine? Surprisingly, perhaps, both of the books reviewed here answer with a nearly unqualified "yes." But if the two books share a common answer, they differ significantly in their approaches to the question. Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is rigorous historical analysis that views the question of Wal-Mart's rise to retail hegemony through multiple interpretive lenses: geography; gender analysis; family history; labor history; and the role of government, religion, and political culture. What ultimately emerges from all of these vantage points (although somewhat impressionistically, as one might guess) is a picture of how American Christendom came to set aside its misgivings about Mammon and whole-heartedly embrace a world of big box retailers and everyday low prices.

On the other hand, Jay Richards' Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem is a polemic organized into eight chapters, each of which is designed to bust a myth about the supposed evils of capitalism. Apparently some American Christians need a basic education as to the compatibility of their faith with free-market capitalism—or perhaps they need more theological ammunition to defend what they already love but feel slightly uneasy about.

Moreton's story is indeed a fascinating one. Set in Ozark country—the middle of Middle America—her narrative begins with the Populist heritage of William Jennings Bryan and other demagogues who regularly used religious language and rationale to rail against the monopolistic practices of East Coast robber barons. Ironically, this is precisely the region where Sam Walton, a few generations later, would launch the Wal-Mart revolution that would ultimately reach around the world.

What happened in between, Moreton explains, was not so much an abrupt cultural about-face, but more of a gradual intellectual repositioning over the decades. In the Cold War context of America's opposition to godless communism, capitalism seemed less wicked, with this necessary evil eventually becoming, over time, a positive (and Christian) good. Wal-Mart in particular contributed to this change by consistently emphasizing family, family, and more family, all the while working its middle management to the bone. The average Wal-Mart employee, Moreton finds, loved the family-style atmosphere at work—collegiality with co-workers and the opportunity to socialize with customers, who were often one's neighbors.

But by far the most fascinating and significant shift in this cultural transformation took place in people's attitudes about consumerism. As Moreton clearly expresses the dilemma: "How did Wal-Mart make mass consumption safe for the white Protestant heartland, and mass service work an honorable zone of endeavor?" The answer, again, was family. "Unlike the earlier department stores," Moreton explains, "Wal-Mart did not promote self-indulgent luxury. It did not encourage shoppers to imagine themselves as European aristocrats, recipients of fawning personal attention to their comfort." Instead, Wal-Mart redefined shopping as "procuring humble products 'for the family.'" This kind of redefined consumerism was therefore thoroughly Christian, very American, and perfectly in tune with its historical moment. In other words, Wal-Mart was banging the family-values drum at precisely the time when a resurgent Religious Right was making notions of the traditional family the standard around which it would rally its troops.

This brings up both a great strength and weakness of the book. Moreton's analysis of this cultural milieu of middle-American, consumption-friendly, pro-capitalist Christianity is brilliant. She deftly weaves together the many disparate influences, forces, and sometimes tortured strands of thought that end up making sense of this postwar culture, while not actually judging it. I would imagine that Moreton dislikes the family-values agenda which she describes so well, but her writing, thankfully, is free of invectives, and her tone absent of self-righteousness. One of the book's weaknesses, however, is that it is sometimes more about this politico-cultural milieu than it is about Wal-Mart in particular.

If the first half of the book is about Wal-Mart proper, the second half ostensibly deals with the subject announced in the subtitle. Here Moreton shifts her attention decidedly away from Wal-Mart and focuses instead on a new main character: Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an "explicitly ideological organization that trained young activists … for the elaboration and dissemination of Christian free enterprise." "Students like these," Moreton explains, "were the shock troops of the postindustrial economy," militantly defending free enterprise against all its foes, foreign and domestic, and consistently pumping out Christian business-major graduates to servant-lead in the challenging global economy. As SIFE and Wal-Mart grew up separately but simultaneously in the Ozarks, it was only a matter of time before leaders of the two organizations sensed a match made in heaven and formed their partnership. Wal-Mart became SIFE's "biggest corporate sponsor," and SIFE became a pipeline into the ranks of Wal-Mart's middle and upper management.

While the story of SIFE is obviously fascinating in and of itself, and while there was a mutually beneficial connection between Wal-Mart and SIFE, the two halves of the book nevertheless fit uncomfortably together. Perhaps Moreton joined the two because no one would want to buy a book on SIFE alone; but the relegation of Wal-Mart to the status of a minor character is both abrupt and not clearly explained. Moreover, there is an unresolved tension in the book between the background setting and the main characters, with no clear indication from Moreton as to which mattered most. Did Wal-Mart and SIFE merely respond successfully to a changing economic and politico-cultural environment, or were they actually shapers of it? There is strong evidence within Moreton's narrative that they were more followers than they were leaders, leaving the real "Making of Christian Free Enterprise" a story still to be told. What is clear, however, is that whoever the architects were, Christianity and capitalism settled their differences and faced the postwar world as enthusiastic partners rather than bitter rivals. In other words, yes, historically speaking, a good American Christian can both follow Jesus and pursue the almighty dollar at the same time.

Contrary evidence from Scripture, with which Jay Richards begins, at first seems incontrovertible: "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." What Richards wants to do in his book is put these misgivings to rest. Arguing that the witness of Scripture has been misunderstood and sometimes willfully distorted, Richards builds his arguments on a solid foundation of historical evidence and what he refers to as "a messy little thing called reality." As he writes one page after quoting the Bible: "It's time for Christians to take an honest look at the economic facts and get acquainted with capitalism"; and soon thereafter, "Economic truths are truths." Period. It is clear that Richards has little time for idealists and dreamers, ranging from John Lennon to the murderous utopians of 20th-century communist regimes, not to mention self-righteous contemporary Christians who naively long for a society of perfect justice. (On this score, Jim Wallis serves as a convenient and somewhat justified punching bag throughout the book.)

But Richards is no hard-hearted Scrooge. As a Christian, he also wants justice, peace, and relief for the world's poor. He simply wants them within the confines of reality, and he sees global capitalism as a means by which these ends can best be achieved. The "things that can actually help the poor," he writes, "sound about as glamorous as unsweetened oatmeal—property rights, rule of law, personal virtues …. We Christians need to decide if we want to keep advocating what is hip and fashionable [fair-trade coffee, the ONE campaign, etc.], or the oatmeal-variety stuff that actually works." For what it is worth, this reviewer found Richards' argument for unglamorous economic realism both convincing and well-reasoned. There is indeed an important difference between what feels good to the well-intentioned Christian consumer and what ultimately makes a difference in the lives of the world's poor.

Many—but not all—of the rest of Richards' eight myth-busting arguments are equally convincing. Christians who have had legitimate ethical qualms about capitalism, therefore, will be able to find satisfying, but clearly biased, answers to their questions. Richards does a good job of explaining and defending private property, free-market exchange, banks, competition, and even mega-retailers like Wal-Mart. In one memorable line on Wal-Mart, Costco, Starbucks, and the like, he writes: "In market economies, most little operations get big not by getting evil, but by serving customers." He briskly debunks the zero-sum-game myth, and he is especially enlightening on the medieval history of money-lending and the church's changing position on usury. As he sums it up: "Usury isn't charging interest on a loan to offset the risk of the loan and the cost of forgoing other uses for the money; it's unjustly charging someone for a loan by exploiting them when they're in dire straits." This and other answers, of course, are the somewhat traditional fodder of capitalism's defenders, but again, Richard's book is intended to be a clear repackaging of those ideas for the Christian uninitiated, and in this the book succeeds.

However, in this introductory apology Richards fails to address adequately two of capitalism's most vulnerable fronts: production and excess. Production has long been the Achilles heel of capitalism. Karl Marx, for instance, did not rail so much against the evils of free trade as he did against the evils of the factory system and wage slavery. While production's ugly side has been largely banished from the good old U.S.A., clearly workers in other countries still suffer the ill effects of dredging up our raw resources, or monotonously assembling the widgets that we later consume. Some accounts of this kind of worker exploitation can be overblown in sensationalist journalism, but some of them are right on the money, so to speak, and this problem is not going away anytime soon. For capitalism to be fully in accord with the dictates of the Christian faith, this kind of injustice must still be addressed. And this is not self-righteous cant, or longing for some egalitarian utopia. Ignoring the problem, or calling it insoluble within the confines of historical realism, is instead a failure of our Christian conviction.

While the problems associated with production in a capitalist system are clearly material and often visible, the problem of excess is invisible. Whereas all economic systems require production, not all systems promote excess in the way that capitalism does. Richards attempts to deal with this by responding to the question, "Doesn't capitalism make people greedy?" His answer, however, is one of the most unsatisfying in the book. Instead of confronting the issue head-on, he points to how generous Americans are. In another chapter, on whether or not capitalism leads "to an ugly consumerist culture," Richards equivocates. "Delaying gratification is restraint," he writes in a telling but confusing passage, "it's the opposite of gluttony. So consumerism is hostile to capitalist habits and institutions."

Therein lies an unresolved conflict. Yes, moralists from the Puritans to Ben Franklin to Sam Walton have all extolled the virtues of hard work, thrift, delayed gratification, and sobriety as the means not just to amassing wealth, but to developing an upright character. In this sense, Christianity and capitalism are in fact compatible, as Max Weber pointed out one hundred years ago. But also inextricably built in to the capitalist system is the tendency to excess. We see this clearly in rampant consumerism, overwhelming credit card debt, ridiculous executive compensation packages, the housing bubble, and the entire apparatus of unscrupulous real estate assessment, mortgage brokering, and derivative gambling that recently brought the world's economy to the brink of collapse. These are neither good nor Christian, and they all emerge from central features of the capitalist system. Richards is right that capitalism has the potential to do great humanitarian good by improving the lives of many around the world; but it also has within it a profoundly corrosive potential—and even the seeds of its own destruction, if left to itself. If we Christians are going to sing capitalism's praises, our celebration should be carefully nuanced, acknowledging that we inhabit an economic mechanism that itself has not escaped the Fall. As with democracy, capitalism is in fact the worst system—except for all the others.

Stewart Davenport is associate professor of American history at Pepperdine University. He is the author of "Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon": Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Chicago, 2008).

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