Adventures in Christian Retail: A Response -- Part II

by Darren Grem 

As promised, here's my follow-up to my first post in response to Charity Carney's recent "Adventures in Christian Retail." 
Why “Christian” at all?  

So, if we’re going to ask about their experiences, the experiences of those at CC and other Christian businesses, how do we start? The intersection of religion and capitalism is a pretty well-trod one, so we have plenty of guides. Marx, Weber, and dozens of lesser mortals have unpacked religion – especially a Western-derived version of Christianity – in the marketplace. You can certainly read Dr. Carney’s experience at CC with those models and come to fine conclusions. 

With CC and other CC’s, however, I think it’s also instructive to think about historical context before moving on to an analysis of why -- or in what way -- this particular site is “religious” at all. In other words, first focus not on what a CC is doing to mark itself as “Christian” or “religious.” Focus instead on what it cannot do at this particular historical moment. Companies cannot hire/fire/promote/demote employees based on religion as per the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII. Of course, they can get around this or create a wink-wink, nudge-nudge "cultural gatekeeper" that signals it’s only accepting applications from like-minded job seekers. And, if they are operating stores in areas where, say, 95% of the people in their local community are of some religious group, then there are powerful cultural pressures for folks not to raise a legal stink. Still, at the end of the day, ignoring or doing an end-run around Title VII is taking a risk of the most fearsome four-letter word in corporate America -- tort. 

Yet, many business owners feel compelled to do something. Why is that the case? It depends and ranges widely based on race, gender, political leanings (which are, admittedly, conservative in general), industry, mass vs. niche market, place, type of Christianity, and other factors. But one thing, at least as far as I can tell, does unite their various impulses for bringing Christianity into the workplace and marketplace. For the most part, they share a sense that the workplace and marketplace are spheres of influence and, therefore, places for cultural activism, a way of shaping the world in their own image.  

Indeed, the ideological and cultural fights of the past thirty years have made an impression on many Christian business owners. This is not to say that the cultural issues of previous decades have not, but that the recent ones over race (such as affirmative action), gender (such as abortion or the "feminization of work"), and class (such as the disconnect between work, identity, and community) are the most prominent -- and they have been wrestled with in the midst of drastic restructurings in American capitalism that have left many without a row to hoe, a line to work, or a mouse to click -- or worried about the said row, line, or mouse. As scholars, we like to focus on the "big" arenas, big-name politicians, and, unfortunately, all too often on the biggest blowhards in these fights. But I would argue that the reflective decision by a small business owner -- or an attendant or a cashier or line worker -- to bring "faith," however they conceive of it, to play in their personal crusade in and against whatever the imagine as the dominant culture to be -- that is worthy of attention as well because it illustrates the very work of identity construction, cultural construction, class construction, and political construction. It's the very place where religion hits the road. And, as Dr. Carney's dispatches noted, it's a decision with multiple and often complicated implications. 

Ok, so, given those historical considerations, how might we interpret what’s going on religiously at CC or other companies? What's a company that wants to be “Christian” to do?

It can create an unmistakably “Christian” internal culture. But there are legal risks involved with that, at noted above.  

It can encourage or allow a “soft culture” of Christianity in the company. I think this is where the “Christian muzak” that Dr. Carney heard comes in. I’ve been to many CC's and seen it in countless other forms. Evangelistic tracts sitting next to the candy rack. An ichthys on the registers or on stationary. Bible verses on the bottom of Big Gulps. Tattoos on a tattoo artist (my favorite). It
all seems to work off the same impetus -- toss a little Christianity into the pot as spiritual spice, thereby making the company just a little "different." To attenuate charges of sectarianism or intolerance, especially if its not selling goods or services“by Christians for Christians,” a company can be somewhat flexible with its language, imagery, rituals, and terms of consent. I think of it as custom-fitting a Christian business for a “spiritual but not religious”America. Playing “Imagine” in the midst of a CCM-tilting playlist is another way to do this. So is putting “God’s Glory Auto Sales” up instead of “JesusChrist is the Only Savior of MANkind’s Auto Sales." 

It can also encourage an operationally“Christian”culture in the company, one that accords to whatever managers and workers are willing to accept as “Christian.” This is extremely difficult to observe and generalize about, even though it is certainly the part that sympathetic observers of Christian business like to talk about. In much of the Christian business/self-help/leadership literature (which is a growing genre), this is everywhere and it's usually framed in us vs. them terms, sometimes with culture war flourishes, sometimes not. In short, it's the infusion of "faith at work" that creates the presumed “difference” that Christian business owners see between themselves and their “secular” competitors, especially in how“moral” or “ethical” their business practices are. Higher wages, better customer service, "Christian" leadership, "character"-based decisions not to cheat an unknowing customer – these are all practices that can fall under this category and advance the evangelical-style "world changing" that CC's often cast themselves as partaking in. As Dr. Carney notes, this also opens the company up to charges of hypocrisy on religious grounds. Someone might say, “I’m a Christian. To my mind, Christians don’t do what you're doing to folks. You’re doing that to folks. Are you really Christian?” I've already written about when or where such questions might be appropriate to ask. But as scholars, I think one of the more interesting lines of inquiry might be why those religiously-based criticisms do or don’t often stick to Christian companies (or companies in general). I’m sure those conducting research into the history of anti-corporate Christianity right now might have something to say about that. (See Heath Carter's post as well as Janine Giordano Drake's forthcoming dissertation.)  

It can use “Christian” in branding, promotion, and networking. Some companies explicitly advertise themselves as “Christian." Maybe they put it in their ads, mission statements, or name (e.g., ServiceMaster, as in "Service Thy Master"). Others do it through corporate policies like – as Dr. Carney notes –closing on Sunday. This certainly advertises to customers who might share the company's religious affiliation or sensibilities. In the past, this has also been a way of creating anti-secularist solidarity between Christian businesses and consumers, as witnessed by the uptick in "Christian" business directories in the 1970s and 1980s. The placement of company franchises in church-saturated or notably dual parent, heterosexual, evangelical environs can also create links between a company’s brand and a “base” of Christian consumers. Joining Christian business owners or workers in non-profit, non-competitive associations (e.g., Fellowship of Christian Companies International) can do the same, encouraging sacred "fellowship" and the creation of social capital between members of the same business class or niche market.  

It can incorporate “Christianity” or “Christian”tenets in its social engagements, CSR, philanthropic endeavors, and political interests. Not every Christian company does this, but many do. It takes various forms – sponsoring “character-building” camps for kids, donating to Christian service or missionary agencies, giving money to local Christian charities, giving personal wealth to like-minded candidates. Publicly-traded companies, of course, generally hold back on using corporate profits or encouraging religious donations by executives, for obvious reasons. For that reason, a decent number (probably about half) of businesses with Christian owners or managers are privately-owned, thereby freeing them up to be freer with their money (or with their “stewardship”as they often call it). Trust me –political donations are down the list. For these folks, at least, there’s not much ROI in theocracy.

All of this should give the sense that what Dr. Carney observed did not happen by accident. If we are to take religion seriously in the marketplace, we need to think seriously about what folks are deciding to bring into the workplace, when and why they are deciding to do that, and how and why certain manifestations of religion appear there. This can be highly specific and custom-made, particular to a given store in a given area in a given state at a given point of time. It might even be limited to a given shift.

We should also recognize that, for as much as the appearance of religion in the marketplace is intentional, it is not always as well-thought out by our subjects as we might think or expect. Best-laid incentive-chasing does not explain it all, no matter what the Freakonomicists say. This does not mean that our subjects are not religiously self-reflective or collectively so. It certainly does not mean that they are dumb. To be sure, those running Dr. Carney’s CC might be behind the times in terms of tag-gun pricing and finger-counting bookkeeping. But many of CC’s counterparts are not Luddites, primarily because they have never been or can’t afford to be.  Many founded hi-tech companies or work for engineering firms. A few run or work for design firms and programming shops; others depend on government contracts and more than a few work for the DOD. As Darren Dochuk is currently researching, a lot of them founded or work for extractive companies– hardly a profession for the empty headed. Others created retail chains and work for large-scale corporations that depend on “just in time” coordination, top-shelf mathematical models,and multivariate problem-solving. All that, in my opinion, is more instructive and important to consider than the low-fi traditionalism observed at CC. Evangelicals have been often noted for their technological prowess in media production from the printed page to the Internet age. I wonder if that they’ve been even more technologically-inclined and savvy in corporate America, a place that evangelicals have been comfortable working in and through for much of the twentieth century and especially for the past fifty years.
And yet, to be sure, just because they can get a precision, laser-cut sprocket delivered to Toledo by Tuesday does not mean that they dotting every "i' and crossing every "t" when they pull or push religion into the marketplace. There are incongruities caused by religion's presence in the marketplace that fit oddly even within our received models of how it should work -- and sometimes quite oddly with how our subjects imagine a given religious practice should work. 

Take, for instance, Sunday closing. Sunday closing is incongruous with the very capitalism it's embedded within. Capitalism does not close on Sunday. The goods that are on CC’s shelves might have been made by Christians in another time zone, where it was actually Sunday there but Saturday here. The cargo ships and tractor trailers transporting these goods to the loading dock behind the store did not stop running on Sunday. As Dr. Carney reports, folks worked on Sunday putting those goods on the shelves because of the pressures and demands of their boss, who is certainly aware of the pushes and pulls of the system. The only point in the capitalist system that can be closed on Sunday at CC is the consumptive point– the doors letting customers in and the people behind the cash register checking them out. And all that is primarily because it is in retail. Can you imagine a Christian hotel closing on Sunday? A Christian electric company? Or worse yet, a Christian coffee company? 

Sunday closing is, therefore, an odd thing. But I think it's at those points of incongruity and inconsistency are where the richest analysis can and should happen, at the very points too many journalists, scholars, and many others like to leave uncomplicated, poke fun, or dismiss. It's at those points when religious sites like CC push us to consider the in-betweens of culture and capitalism in contemporary life, as well as push us to think hard about those who work every day in the midst of those in-betweens. 

Thanks again to Dr. Carney for telling us all about her time at CC and inviting us to think about it. And, in case you're dying to know, "CC" is a pseudonym for [intentionally left blank].


Jeff at: December 9, 2011 at 5:11 PM said...

There was a photograph in this blog that really struck me. The photo of the sign that read "Open 24 Hours, Closed Sunday, Family and Worship" sitting directly over what appears to be a "Drive Thru" sign. As I discussed in my History 400W class a few weeks ago, the US seems to be transforming into a country with less stock in strict religion in favor of "spirituality" (which affords individuals a belief in a higher power without conforming to a specific theology). The whole prospect of a "Drive Thru Worship" seems a bit ridiculous, but perhaps in a few years, who knows?

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