Precision Tune Your Religion

But As For Me and My Precision Tune… -- by Darren Grem
My wife, son, and I recently returned to Georgia from a weeklong trip to the Carolinas and Virginia. The A/C in our car wasn’t working for the first leg of our trip, so I had the Freon refilled at a Precision Tune while we were visiting my folks in Rock Hill, S.C. After handing the keys over, I noticed that this particular Precision Tune was a privately owned, Christian business. The ichthys decals over the front door and service counter marked it as such.

I started thinking about the cultural messages conveyed by those decals because, on the record, I’m currently writing the part of my dissertation that concerns another Christian business, Chick Fil-A. Off the record, there was little else to do in the waiting room. It was either ruminating on Jesus Fish or reruns of Judge Judy.

Of course, God and the workaday world go hand in hand in many corners of starched-shirt and stained-shirt America. Whether they’re manning a keyboard or a Craftsman, folks define themselves (and others) by their work in this country. If they’re religious, their religious sentiments often grant additional meaning to their work (and others’). Given that, I wonder how such dynamics play out in the specific work environment of a Christian business. How does an officially sanctioned set of religious sentiments inform the value employees and employers place on their work? Does the “official religion” of the workplace create a sense of common purpose? Do the folks working under the hood share their boss’s sentiments? Why or why not?
I also wonder about the various images that these businesses want to convey. I don’t want to be a cynic and believe that a well-placed ichthys decal is merely an underhanded way to get suckers to PTL (in my hometown’s vernacular, that’s shorthand for “Pass the Loot”). Still, I think that there’s also a distinct difference between the message sent by, say, “God’s Glory Auto Sales” and “Jesus Is Lord at Bargain Shoes.” Both, of course, relate that there’s a higher purpose above the bottom line. The Lord, rather than the logic of capitalism, supposedly informs mission statements, manager/labor relations, and customer service. But car dealers and mechanics also have a reputation for hoodwinking. Shoe sellers, as far as I know, do not. Hence, noting that they are selling used Hondas for God’s glory signals that you’re going to get a good deal rather than the runaround. The ichthys decals at Precision Tune say the same thing: “Hey, we’re not going to screw you.”

I can see how this would have appeal. Folks want and need to know who to trust, especially in our transitory society. But how exactly do Christian symbols and verbiage help them do that? Do such symbols have greater pull in predominantly Christian communities or in more pluralist ones? Or do they appeal for different reasons to folks of various religious backgrounds? Do non-religious or unaffiliated customers even care about a business’s religious affiliation? Do self-professing Christians care? In other words, is there a bit of The Passion of the Christ-like consumption going on here? Do Christian customers see these Christian businessmen and women as needing or deserving their support? By “buying Christian,” do they see themselves as helping spread a capitalism that seemingly shares their values?

R. Laurence Moore, Colleen McDannell, and many others have shown that there’s been a lucrative market for religious wares in America for some time. But I wonder about those businesses that don’t have blatantly “religious” products for sale on the shelves. I’d be curious to find out if all this religious self-identifying actually creates more business. Depending on which stats you trust, between 60-90% of businesses fail in the first five years or so (interestingly enough, the rates of failure are roughly the same for most startup churches, but that’s a dog for another day). Do Christian sellers of Freon or Fila have greater success than unaffiliated sellers? Why or why not? If or when they fail, how do Christian business owners process that?

Thousands of small businesses and a goodly number of the most prominent and powerful outfits in America today have some sort of Christian affiliation in their distant past or in their daily routine (e.g. Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Days Inn, Thinking about the factors behind their successes and failures might be a rewarding way to map out the economic and religious landscape of everyday America. If nothing else, it certainly makes trips to Precision Tune more meaningful, whether you’re running the books, rotating the tires, or thanking sweet Jesus that your A/C’s up and running for another August in Georgia.


Art Remillard said…
Great stuff, Darren! After I read this I began thinking about my region [semi-rural western PA]. Here, "Christian" farmers have in their fields near roads 3-D anti-Abortion billboards. [During Christmas, one farm posts a sign reading "Santa Is a Myth: Lying to Children is Immoral"]. In addition to the social message, the billboards seem to have a subtitle about the farmer's operation in general, much akin to the businesses you're discussing. Only the statement is much more forceful, to say the least.

I may need to drive around and take some pictures. They are unique.
John Fea said…
Darren: Excellent piece. I enjoyed it. These signs and billboards are everywhere in central Pennsylvania. (The "Christian Yellow Pages" or the "Shepherd's Guide" is twice as big here than it was in my New Jersey hometown).

Art: I saw the same sign in Lancaster County last Christmas.
Tim Lacy said…
I detect D.L. Moody and the YMCA in the background here. While the parallels are obviously not one-for-one, the hopes and dreams of Christian business owners likely correspond despite at least a century's difference. - TL
Anonymous said…
Fascinating post!

I'm looking forward to reading your dissertation / book someday.
Rebecca said…
While driving through rural Louisiana in May I passed a truck owned by Jesus is God Catering Company.

There's also a landscaping business here in Houston that made headlines last year for exercising its Christian right not to do business with gay people. So I think, on balance, I'm probably less likely to do business with a place that's explicitly Christian.
DEG said…
My wife just informed me that Hobby Lobby has a bio of the company written by its founder, entitled something along the lines of More Than a Hobby.
Phil said…
Good post, Darren.

Driving to dinner tonight I passed by the "Chinese Buddha Tattoo Parlor" in west Houston, although I didn't stop in. Interestingly enough, this tattoo parlor is in a largely Hispanic part of Houston (in fact, the Latino and Hispanic populations in Houston now constitute a majority).

And speaking of religion and business, I remember seeing several times as a kid a yellow pages publication of specifically Christian businesses in Houston. I wonder if others have seen these kinds of publications?

Then there's the recent book by David Miller, _God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement_ (Oxford UP, 2006).
DEG said…

Good point about Moody and YMCA. Still, they had appeal in a "modernist," industrializing America. I wonder if these bizs - though seemingly new spins on old themes - are more particular to a post-modernist, post-industrial context. A decidedly more mediatized, suburbanized, individualized, automobilized, consumerized America...

Then again, Coca-Cola was at its most "Christian" in and around Moody's day.
Amy said…
Our garbage company in mid-Michigan is Christian. They have scripture on the sides of all the garbage truck. "Cleaning up Trash for the Lord."

Glory to God.

You ask a ticklish question here. "Do the folks working under the hood share their boss’s sentiments?" Depending on the owner/management policy, the point may be mute. However, this might have significant ramifications when considering public corporations such as Wal-Mart. If there is an expectation (even if unspoken via peer-pressure) EEO laws are being ignored.

This is more pertinent when considering Christian record companies which are either owned by "secular" corporations or church-affiliated labels enjoying distribution deals with major corporations. I am not a lawyer; however it seems both would be subject to federal EEO law. Thus it seems unwise for a business which has the potential to "go public" to attach a religious affiliation...unless they are willing to avoid the trappings of religious chauvinism in their management practices.

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