Wal-Mart Fundamentalists

toservegodandwalmartNormally I don't look at book reviews since they're just opinion pieces, more or less. But this New York Times review of books about Wal-Mart had some problems with how it handled religion. One of the books is To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton. The book apparently discloses that Wal-Mart and its foundation have given a lot of money to conservative groups. No mention is made (in the review, at least) that Wal-Mart has also given millions to liberal groups such as The National Council of La Raza. Anyway, the article violated Associated Press style guidelines in the use of the word fundamentalist.

The reviewer says the book discusses the mystery of why people actually want to work at Wal-Mart, much less develop a loyalty to the company. The answer? It's a fundamentalist Christian conspiracy, of course:

It is no accident, she argues, that Wal-Mart emerged in the Ozarks, a stronghold of fundamentalist Christianity that was one of the last regions of the American economy to shift from farming to other pursuits. Many farm women actually preferred the part-time jobs with flexible hours that Wal-Mart offered, even though such jobs were exempt from many regulations. Many of these women, after all, were still trying to help their husbands eke out a living on their farms, and flexible work made it easier for them to care for their children.

Economists have long recognized the attractions of flexible working arrangements to some segments of the labor force. But Moreton also offers more novel observations about the lure of Wal-Mart. She explains, for example, how the company invoked the fundamentalist Christian teachings embraced by many of its employees to fashion a working environment that induced them to work contentedly for low wages and paltry benefits.

Who knew that fundamentalists even had a stronghold? Anywhere? And what are these mysterious fundamentalist teachings?

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.

Oh, that fundamentalist teaching. Servant leadership. Noted fundamentalists such as Episcopalians talk about it. So do the right-wing Catholics at America. While its roots predate him, many current practitioners cite some right-wing radical named Jesus as their inspiration for it. Anyway, the Associated Press stylebook says the term should be avoided:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Incidentally, a much better review of the book -- by Diane Winston -- can be found over at Religion Dispatches. Winston is a progressive who gets religion and respects the author and her argument too much to throw the word "fundamentalist" around.

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