God and Wal-Mart

This week I spoke with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders about the surprisingly diverse Christian Right opposition to the Obama administration. Is racism a major component of the tea party movement? No doubt. But is the broader right a lot more complicated? Absolutely. I witnessed that complexity a few weeks ago in the prayer rooms of the annual Values Voters Summit in Washington, at which would-be GOP presidential contenders audition for the established Christian Right. On the stage, a parade of Republican politicians — that is, white men (Palin was a no-show). In the prayer rooms, working class African-American and Latina women, furious with prayers against the media, liberals, feminists, and, most of all, Islam.

Over at Religion Dispatches, scholar Wade Clark Roof provides the numbers that prove that the Right isn’t simply a bloc of Bubbas, as caricatured by too many liberals more interested in dismissing the Right than actually fighting back.

Unsurprisingly, whites – especially those lesser educated – register the highest levels of discontent with Obama. But it’s also important to recognize that 55 percent of Asians, a third of Hispanics, and half of all other immigrants were not at all confident. The faces of these latter constituencies show up less in the media coverage of angry protesters, but their presence should not be overlooked.

Roof notes another number that may not be as surprising to urban sophisticates: “53 percent report weekly trips to Wal-Mart, adding to the profile of a constituency vulnerable to conservative activists who often play to class and cultural resentment.”

Which brings to mind a brilliant and important new book I’m in the midst of, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by University of Georgia historian Bethany Moreton. “If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit,” former Christian Right leader Ralph Reed once observed. “If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.” Moreton parallels the history of Wal-Mart with the rise of the modern conservative movement, a movement made up in large part by working- and middle-class mothers, “Wal-Mart Moms,” as some conservative pollsters describe them. Moreton’s book isn’t the typical lefty screed against Wal-Mart; by now, everybody knows the basic facts about the company’s exploitative practices. But those don’t explain the deep loyalty so many Wal-Mart Moms feel to the chain. Is it just low prices? Not exactly. “For the emerging Wal-Mart constituency,” Moreton writes, “faith in God and faith in the market grew in tandem.”

That wasn’t really Wal-Mart’s doing. In fact, Sam Walton was a liberal Presbyterian. Instead, Moreton looks to what she calls “corporate populism” for the roots of the free market fundamentalism of the Wal-Mart Moms. The term seems like an oxymoron, but for rural and small-town Southerners who felt passed over by the modern economy, Wal-Mart — which made a point of raising capital locally — felt like a way to fight back against the big (Northern-based) chains. And as women displaced from agricultural economies sought employment in the stores, they built on that misguided sense of ownership to develop a counterculture — in every sense of the term — to godless Yankee retail, and even to capitalism. That didn’t make them radical — indeed, it led them to reject unions as divisive and to embrace managerial authority as “father knows best” writ large. That submissiveness is the secret of the Right’s self-righteousness. Writes Moreton in a passage that is essential to understanding the Right’s sense of itself not as hateful but as humble:

Unlike earlier department stores, 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. The service workers therefore did not have to understand their attentions to customers in the humiliating metaphor of literal servants, promoting nothing more meaningful than individual comfort or acquisitiveness. The way was opened for a positive reinterpretation of shopping and service both, and evangelicalism offered the specific metaphors. The Wal-Mart mode of shopping removed several traditional stumbling blocks for Christian devotees of consumption. As long as mass buying could mean procuring humble products “for the family,” as long as men could perform women’s work without losing their authority, as long as front-line service workers could derive dignity and meaning from their labors, the service economy could survive its internal contradictions. Consumer capitalism could be born again.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).