Women, Religion and Consumption By Amy Levin

While my last post focused on the similarities between the social and collective experience (perhaps qua Durkheim?) of the occupy movement and the feminist movement in religion, I’d like to continue thinking about themes by taking a different path towards the more direct relationship between religion, women, and capitalism. There are two contemporary studies that are just as useful as they are fascinating on this triadic dynamic: Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free-Enterprise, and Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Both of these authors pay attention to the nuanced ways in which patriarchy, capitalism, and religion can reinforce each other, and that women are at once victims and creative agents of these processes.

Though Wal-Mart currently stands as world’s largest multi-national corporation, it began in the mind of Sam Walton in a small Ozark town of the Sunbelt. Bethany Moreton’s book calls attention to the particular rural, Southern, agrarian, and Christian family values that helped construct the spirit of free enterprise so representative of Wal-Mart, and women had a particular role to play in the rise of this capital, helping to negotiate and construct Wal-Mart as an icon of good Christian family values. Conflating the store and the family served to bolster both the virtuous ideals of Wal-Mart culture, as well as calm anxieties of men who were threatened by female workers and the potential emasculation of working in the service economy. In this gendered economy, women – mainly white, middle-class, middle- aged mothers – helped structure a unique dynamic in the Wal-Mart industry, helping to restore Protestant family ideals in the workplace. While women held the majority of jobs, chain managers received decision-making power and sturdy salaries. Moreover, through an ethos of service and virtuous buying, women produced a “. . .victory of sanctifying capitalism and consumption under Christianity.” Wal-Mart acted as an agent of mass consumption by making mass service work an honorable endeavor.  

Female consumers began to embody the rationale that as long as they were selflessly buying goods for the family, they were buying piously. Thus, consumption could be seen as a sacred act through its expression of domestic Protestantism. Furthermore, female Wal-Mart employees thought of themselves as Christian servants, which mobilized an individualism not of autonomy and independence, but a rather a particular consciousness of self-realization through serving. The gratitude they felt toward the store and toward God could be transformed into empowerment through service, a type of sacred calling. The religious idioms of service, sacred calling, family values, and self-realization helped mobilize women to work in the service of capital production.

In Kathryn Lofton’s work on Oprah as religious icon, she complicates religion, gender, and consumption in a similar way, showing the ways in which both Protestant and New Age ideas are infused into women’s consumption practices – even as something as simple as buying a bracelet. Like the logic of Wal-Mart service through shopping, Oprah re-worked consumption as a mediator for spirituality. “In Winfrey’s capitalist modernity, this materiality is a spiritual practice.” What other scholars have called the “Oprah-effect” is enjoying life through consuming, and enjoying life is part of a spiritual practice. This is the central rational behind the prosperity gospel, which is “the belief that material wealth is God’s desire for the faithful.” Oprah’s spiritual capitalism is mobilized through two particular ways: a rhetoric of transformation through self-realization, and a method of buying that simultaneously (and conveniently) helps others.

In Oprah’s monthly O magazine she publishes “the O list,” an endorsement of her favorite products that month. Each item bought is a tool for self-discovery and indulgence, like deluxe footwear and Nike sneakers which are great for peaceful walks and yoga sessions, linen covered journals, jasmine candles, and alligator leather notepads to write down your ‘big dreams.’ Then there’s buying to help others. One prime example of this so-called ethical consumption is the “O Bracelet.” Designed for O magazine and hand beaded by women in Rwanda and Zambia, the O Bracelet is both pretty and pious, selfless and stylish. Lofton notes that every aspect of the O bracelet except for the mechanical labor and beading is managed by Americans, even as it is draped in the virtue of an organic Africa. However, the production behind the product doesn’t foster much concern for African women. On Oprah’s website where you can buy the bracelet through Macy’s, the description of the bracelet reads, “Call it an ethical luxury. A conscientious indulgence. If nothing else, it’s a really good buy.”

I don’t think either or these texts argue that consumption and religion are “bad for women,” or even “bad” at all. There are certainly cases in which consumption and religion have greatly aided in women’s lives, projects, sense of agency, etc. But I consistently wonder about what kinds of ideas we “buy into.” Should my purchase of Fair Trade organic coffee from Trader Joe’s today make me feel better, and in the service of what exactly? Is consumption really dangerous when it mixes with religion, or can we successfully separate out greed and patriarchy from the picture? And really, what’s so bad about journal for big dreams, especially if they align with the God of liberalism and all that is socially conscientious and transnationally just? I can only hope the journal is made of sacredly vegan material.

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4 replies

  1. Your blog is very disturbing which may be why no one responded to it yet. Not only right-wing fundamentalist Walmart, but feminist New Age Obama-supporting Oprah are identifying consumerism with their spiritual values. This suggests that consumerism is America’s “ultimate concern,” to use Tillich’s language. This is scary and most of us are part of it and none of us knows how to stop it.

    Again, John Cobb and Herman Daly’s For the Common Good is relevant. We must create economies that are not dependent on growith=more consumption and we must care about the conditions of labor and the effects of what we produce and consume on the environment. Easier said than done. It requires a revolution in economic theory. Sallie McFague is writing about how her environmental concerns led her to a critique of economic systems based on consumerism. This is something we as feminists should be talking about more and more.

  2. Thank you, Carol. I was starting to feel bad! I also find these relationships disturbing and think we should be having more of these discussions outside of academia. I had not heard of Sallie McFague – her work sounds fantastic. I didn’t mention it in my post, but “Selling Spirituality” by Richard King has been useful for this kind of thinking as well.

  3. Thank goodness for the replies above. I was getting upset at praising Walmart for allowing women to run it, perhaps just like women have “run” the Catholic Church – behind the scenes, unnoticed and unpaid. And I don’t like the link between Oprah and “spiritual consumerism.” Just when I
    was beginning to respect all that Oprah did over the past 25 years…

  4. Ooh, now I feel like I should comment too, not because I have anything significant to add, but because I want to encourage you Amy! I thought this was fascinating!

    I’m Australian, so we don’t have Wal-Mart but I think the idea of sanctifying capitalism is a common one. It’s so tricky trying to work out where our motivations are, even with things like fair trade.

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