Adventures in Christian Retail: Finale



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By Charity R. Carney

This is the last installment of my extended commentary on my experiences working for a large Christian-run retail chain. Part I of that commentary is here. Part II is of this series is up here. Extended responses informed from Darren Grem's own academic work on capitalism and American Christianity are here and here.

The one good and seemingly Christian thing about CC (“Christian Chain”) is that it is closed on Sunday. Until it’s not. One of the aspects that many shoppers find appealing about CC (in addition to the P&W muzak like “Awesome God”—that’s for you, Paul Harvey) is that it openly states that it treats its employees well. It’s right there on the door as soon as you walk in: “Closed on Sunday for Worship and Family.” The store is technically closed on Sunday, but it must be for customers’ worship and families because oftentimes employees are called in on Sundays to stock shelves, clean the store, hurriedly ready it for an upcoming visit from management. So what is at the heart of the work ethic of CC? Is it a Christian calling or is it corporate pressure, or both?

A striking element of CC’s character is it does have many long-term employees—individuals who have been working there for several years, some almost a decade on and off. Why do they stay and why do they agree to work Sundays? Why do they keep working until 1 AM on some nights to get the stock on the shelves when their shift was over at 5 PM? Why do they maintain 14 hour days when they are making part-time pay with promises of full-time benefits eventually (oftentimes promises that go unfulfilled)?

I’ve considered many options and overanalyzed the answers to these questions, I’m sure. If one took a Weberian approach, the answer may be that the employees see some greater meaning to their work. They see their employment with the company as part of their larger role as members of God’s Kingdom and doers of his will. And some of the workers at CC may very well view themselves this way. Case study: an older woman, well beyond the age of retirement, comes to work every day and puts her all into her job. She sees the work as necessary for her family and also productive in and of itself. She keeps a Bible at her station and often shares passages with coworkers and customers. Mrs. Mary (as she is affectionately called by everyone, including the manager) is not content in her employment (she often talks about how she wishes that she could go home early or how her feet hurt), but she does engage in it as a result of a compulsion to work for a higher good. God wants her to work and she sees God’s hand in her work.

What undermines this Weberian perspective are the other employees. Sexual harassment is rampant at CC as well as a general desire to goof off. In other words, Mrs. Mary is not the norm. The sexual harassment is particularly distressing considering the said mission statement of the company. There is, however, internal arbitration for any complaints. (Sorry, but a “yeah, right” is due here as anyone who has dealt with “internal arbitration” before can probably attest.) I witnessed male employees taking pictures of female employees rear-ends and bragging about it, female employees grabbing each other’s crotches as a joke, and constant back-and-forth sexual teasing. I was once asked by a male coworker if I would ever cheat on my husband. All this being said, the sexual harassment and general malaise of CC employees completely detracts from whatever Weber would say about the company and the employees’ drive to work with a godly ethic. That ain’t happening.

In the middle of the two extremes is the “false idol” worship that is incorporated into every day dealings with employees behind closed doors. At every staff meeting the manager insists upon a prayer before getting down to business and the prayer always begins by thanking God for the owner of CC and asking God to bless the owner as the owner has blessed each of us. Creepy? Yes. Christian? Uh, no. I welcome analysis of this feature of CC as it was one of the more baffling. Perhaps it is a derivative of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that the owner is making millions because of his commitment to God and that through trickle-down Prosperity Gospel we were somehow benefiting from it? Again, I welcome ideas here, especially from you, Deg.

Ultimately, I’ll lean on Marx (as usual) for an explanation of why employees remain in this environment (and don’t flee and file complaints with OSHA as I did). Opiate of the masses. Class. Take your pick. Religion serves as the opiate of the customers more so than the employees. Consumers come into CC with an understanding that it is a Christian company, that it is run on Christian values, that they will get soothing Christian muzak (sort of) once they enter the doors. Employees are force-fed an odd Christian message at staff meetings and through the general material culture of the place while not experiencing it in their interactions with other workers and managers. It is simply class status that keeps them there. They cannot find other employment because they have neither the skills or the education to do so. And if they do have skills/education there are other barriers: the market is terrible, one guy had a felony under his belt for domestic abuse, etc. It is mostly the ones who need the job who stay—they simply don’t have a way out. Another case study: I ran into a former CC coworker the other day. (She hardly recognized me out of uniform.) She has been at CC for over 2 years now and I never got close enough to her to tell if she was content or merely smiling because her job depended on it. Well, away from CC I found out. As soon as she saw me she ran up to tell me how much she and other coworkers wished they could do what I had done and quit. She wants to find something else but there just isn’t anything else out there. She is Pentecostal, lives by Christian virtues, and does not buy into CC’s message of Christian retail. Not after the way that she’s been treated as one of its employees. Her final message to me before we parted ways was “You go, girl. You did the right thing and stood up for yourself. I just wish I was in the position where I could do the same thing.”

Ultimately, it’s class that keeps CC’s employees there. Not some religious work ethic or “time for worship and family” on Sundays. They are there because they need the money and their families could not survive without the extra income.

My final thoughts on my experience working for CC are this: not all Christian-run retailers are the same, but the social expectations for them are. American consumers who purchase items because they believe that the corporation is working for some higher cause should question the company’s motives (key word: company) and should research what they are really selling. I think they may be surprised. I sure was.

Editor's note: You can follow Darren Grem's responses to Charity's posts "Adventures in Christian REtail" here and here

10 comments:

Luke Harlow at: November 2, 2011 at 9:45 AM said...

This has been a great series. Thanks Charity.

Paul Harvey at: November 2, 2011 at 10:00 AM said...

Charity, definitely going to submit this to the "best series of posts" category for the Cliopatria awards. And thanks for the Muzak reference, my day is now officially ruined.

rjc at: November 2, 2011 at 10:48 AM said...

I've long been intrigued with the fact that the Bible has many, many passages that say not to work on the Sabbath, detailing punishments for those who ignore this injunction -- and yet, it says hardly anything about homosexuality or premarital sex or abortion. But what is it that "conservative" Christians in the US get worked up about? I'm not necessarily saying that they shouldn't get worked up about the things that they do -- just that the justification of Biblical authority for those stances has far more to do with social and cultural forces than with textural references.

DEG at: November 2, 2011 at 11:36 AM said...

Great series and insider scoops. Thanks, Charity. I'll offer my two cents as soon as I can.

Edward J. Blum at: November 2, 2011 at 11:52 AM said...

wow Charity; powerful stuff!

Edward J. Blum at: November 2, 2011 at 11:52 AM said...

and sad

Bryan Kessler at: November 2, 2011 at 9:44 PM said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, aside from the thought that this required you working under such circumstances and that your coworkers are stuck there. The stories are harrowing yet fascinating.

While Retail X was obviously an overt Christian store, many of the practices you talk about (i.e. praying before meetings) seem just as likely at other Christian-based businesses, such as Chick-fil-A. I wonder how similar the behind-the-scenes culture is at a more "professional" and public business that gets a lot of play out of its Christian trappings.

Charity Carney at: November 2, 2011 at 10:43 PM said...

Thanks, all, for your comments so far. I'm glad the series was successful. Is it time for the big reveal?... Maybe I'll wait until Deg is finished with his commentary. Teasing until the end... that's me. :)

Chris Price at: November 4, 2011 at 9:59 PM said...

Very interesting experience. Sadly, not surprising. It's a shame that people try to profit excessively because of an employee's belief in a calling. I'm personally working on a puritan historiography. I've read a couple of recent books (Margo Todd on Christian Humanism and Mark Valerie on Early Boston) that indicate that the early puritans (ministers, anyway) were more concerned with the good of the community than with the profits of the merchant. Interesting change in motives...

Chris Price at: November 4, 2011 at 10:02 PM said...

Interesting stuff...profits over people...imagine that. A couple of interesting books I've read recently are Margo Todd's Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order and Mark Valeri's Heavenly Merchandize. The original puritans had more concern for the commonwealth than for the merchants. Today, the attitude among many is the exact opposite.

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