I want to thank Dr. Carney for the opportunity to respond to her “adventures in Christian retail.” I don’t intend to offer a peer review or a point-by-point response to each post. Rather, I’d like to reflect on a few questions raised by Dr. Carney’s time at CC.
There’s probably too much to deal with in one post (read: I had more thoughts than one post can contain). So, I’m dividing it up into a few posts. Expect another one soon.
So, are they really “Christian”?
If you do research on “Christian” business long enough, you’re guaranteed to field some version of that question. Often, it's the first one that folks ask, and I think it comes from an urge for normative evaluation of for-profit endeavors and, therefore, of capitalism itself. For whatever reason, people want to know if you can do capitalism in a “Christian” fashion, by which they usually mean “morally,” “ethically” or “differently from That Bad Company I Hate.” Among Christians, especially evangelicals, the question usually begs for answers about whether a company is "doing more" than acting within the boundaries of the law. They usually want to know if a given company is also willfully encouraging what they deem to be “Christian” forms of activity, whether in-house or in its broader socio-economic engagements. It’s most analogous, I suppose, to questions about the “greenness” of a company, with all the attendant assumptions and complications that question entails. And, given the egregious abuses witnessed on Wall Street and elsewhere in corporate America in the past few years, it’s an understandable one to ask.
Others, of course, ask about a business’s Christianness because they are suspicious of any religious claim about business. Or, perhaps they relish hypocrisy. Either way, they want to know what really makes a Christian business tick, what really goes on behind the scenes, and who or what is really responsible for making the entire enterprise -- of Christianity, of capitalism, of "Christian" capitalism -- a fraud at best and a cover for abuse at worst.
If you wanted, I suppose you could take away either impression about CC, as per Dr. Carney’s dispatches. The comments that accompanied some of her posts – defending “Christian” businesses or deriding them – show that you can.
I certainly have my own opinions about the “Christianness” of various companies. But asking if a company is actually a "Christian" business usually ends up obscuring more than it reveals. Let’s be honest – as with anything else, where you start your line of inquiry will shape the questions you will ask and the answers you will probably get. Asking about a company's "Christianness" will also -- more than likely -- lead you back to yourself and your own definition of what "Christianness" entails. That's fine, I suppose, in certain contexts. But I'm not sure it will tell us much about CC or any other form of "Christian" enterprise.
So, how can we proceed? Thankfully, Dr. Carney’s experience shows us a way.
Whatever you may think about the pros and cons of her “undercover” methodology, her discussions with folks at CC – especially the men and women working the aisles and running the registers – point to the fact that our interest in a company’s “Christian” identity is a shared one. The employees at CC evaluated its Christian claims for themselves and came away with opinions that do not fit easily into an either/or dichotomy. Their emotional state, personal experiences, religious upbringing, sex, race, economic security, historical context – all of these factors went into how they addressed, for themselves and others, how “Christian” the workplace was and is, how “Christian” their boss was and is, or how “Christian” their work was and is.
This is all to say that places like CC are very interesting religious sites indeed. They are places where the complicated relationship between identity, community, religion, class, gender, race, and capitalism is in high relief. Of course, they are not the only places where this relationship is available for observation and study in contemporary America. But they are a “field” of a sort. Or, as another historian of all this once told me, they are “archives” ripe for the picking.
So, for starters, let's try to proceed with an analysis of such sites that is less about us and our own religious or ethical or conceptual matrix. Rather, it is about trying to understand, contextualize, and convey theirs.
Up next: Why “Christian” at all?