Posted in 20th century America, capitalism, Christianity, conservative politics, racism, religion

To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

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

Bethany Moreton’s, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise examines Wal-Mart’s role in making free market and evangelical values mainstream during its rise as the world’s largest public corporation and the nation’s biggest private employer. Moreton offers a critical appraisal for how “Wal-Mart Moms” became a key constituency in shaping national values and how they helped to shape a global economic order founded on “Christian service” and “family values.” The main focus of the book is not on Wal-mart’s international appeal, but rather, Moreton focuses on the cultural roots of the Wal-Mart way of doing business, whose central employee and customer is female and Christian. Moreton asserts on the first page that one in five American women shopped at Wal-mart every week. And even as early as 1995, The Christian Coalitian understood the link between “value shoppers” and “values voters”—they could be reached from the pulpit or in the Wal-mart stores.

Moreton shows how Sam Walton built his retail empire from its farmer-oriented Ozark base starting with his flagship store that opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton tapped into the reservoir of cheap white female Ozark labor to begin his enterprise. Moreton claims that these women did not mind the low pay or lack of advancement because they were just looking to supplement their husband’s income and they appreciated the flexible work hours that enabled them to tend to their children. Work was like being with family and appealed to the female workers’ Christian values to create what the author calls “servant leaders.” Yet surprisingly, Moreton also explains that Walton and his wife fall outside of the demographic the book focuses on: “[N]either Walton could be described as evangelical, born-again, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist, let alone as Christian activists outside their mainstream denomination.” Helen Walton supported Planned Parenthood and legal access to abortion. Their Presbyterian congregation was considered to be conventionally liberal.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be Walton’s role in infusing the gospel of Christian free enterprise into university business curricula and Walton’s investments in college scholarships for Central Americans during the Reagan/Noriega era. To counter free college scholarships offered by communists in Central America, the Kissinger Commission suggested that Americans offer 10,000 of their own scholarships to help these youths embrace American capitalist values. The Waltons donated $3.6 million. They eventually helped to establish hundreds of scholarships to Christian universities in Arkansas. Recipients overwhelmingly majored in business (and were pressured to do so). Graduates would then return home to spread the religious and economic gospel.

This book relates to Suburban Warriors with common themes of white Christian conservative politics, the important role of females in the system, and the connections to the Reagan presidential era. However, the power structures illustrated in this book seem a bit different. For example, in Suburban Warriors, Estrid Kielsmeier is a woman from the suburbs who runs coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election. She was an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large through networking with other like-minded women. Sam Walton and his wife Helen also found powerful ways to effect change in their community and the world at large through building a financial empire. They too networked from the ground up until they developed the financial and symbolic capital to influence politics from the top.

Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.