When fundamentalism serves a corporate agenda


A New York Times review of a book on Wal-Mart provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways that a corporation can use fundamentalist Christian values to promote a corporate agenda that advances the bottom line through lower wages or other exploitative policies. The reviewer notes that

Anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of her experiences as a Wal-Mart clerk in “Nickel and Dimed” or Steven Greenhouse’s chronicle of Wal-Mart’s widespread flouting of safety and hours regulations in“The Big Squeeze” might well wonder why anyone would even consider a job with the company.
The answer, it seems, is that Wal-Mart appeals to fundamentalist Christian values. These values were particularly prominent in the Bible Belt region where the company was founded:
Sam Walton was not a fundamentalist Christian. He and his wife, Helen, worshipped at a liberal branch of the Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. Walton was even an early abortion rights advocate. But Moreton argues that Walton and his fellow executives quickly recognized the economic advantage of weaving specific strands of the Ozark region’s fundamentalist belief system into their corporate strategy.

At the heart of that strategy was the company’s emphasis on the Christian concept of “servant leadership.” In other parts of the retail sector, the servitude demanded of retail clerks was typically experienced as demeaning. But by repeatedly reminding employees that the Christian servant leader cherishes opportunities to provide cheerful service to others, Moreton argues, Wal-Mart transformed servitude from a negative job characteristic into a positive one.

Another cultural strand in Moreton’s account is the company’s policy of reproducing the social relationships characteristic of fundamentalist Christian households in the workplace. To this end, Wal-Mart needed a legal pretext for hiring mostly men as managers and mostly women as clerks. The solution was to move managers to new store locations frequently, a condition of employment that men would generally accept but most women would not.

But even though the managerial jobs paid better and offered more opportunities for promotion, there was still a problem for male employees. The highly regimented, rule-driven jobs at Wal-Mart were a pale substitute for the independent farmer’s role from which the company’s Ozark male managers had recently been driven. Rather than cede greater control to managers, Moreton argues, the company salved the egos of the men by celebrating a patriarchal ideal of “Christian manliness.” The women, for their part, were only too happy to adopt the prescribed submissive role.