business news in context, analysis with attitude

Not surprisingly, we got a number of emails in response to yesterday’s lead story about a special interest group,, launching an advertising campaign against the giant retailer suggesting that Jesus would not shop at Wal-Mart because of it personnel policies.

The group also released a letter signed by 65 members of the clergy and religious leaders that challenged Wal-Mart’s policies in the areas of wages and benefits. "Jesus would not embrace Wal-Mart's values of greed and profits at any cost, particularly when children suffer as a result of those misguided values,'' the letter said, in part.

In our commentary about this story, we wrote, in part:

The world has gone completely crazy when these are the tactics used by special interest groups to gather support in a debate that is completely secular in nature.

Wal-Mart has not been convicted of breaking any laws. It pays its people a legal wage and provides them with whatever benefits the law requires it to offer. Could it do more? Sure. Is this a matter in which Jesus would take a stand? Perhaps…but it is utter arrogance for these people – most of whom, we dare say, have a political agenda – to presume to speak for Jesus.

Indeed, it could be argued that Wal-Mart performs its own version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes each day as it makes it possible for people to buy more for less.

These tactics are not just inappropriate. They are both cynical and manipulative because they do not just try to take the moral and ethical high ground (which is perfectly acceptable), but to claim that the deity in which most Americans believe has somehow cast his lot with their side of the debate. This is inappropriate in politics, it is inappropriate in governance, and it certainly is inappropriate in commerce. We have no problem is people choose not to shop at Wal-Mart, choose to lobby and protest against it, to say that their consciences dictate that they oppose the company’s policies and activities. But this is a step too far….

We thought we had heard it all until we were listening to a report on KOMO-AM while we were in Seattle late last week, and heard a piece about some religious groups saying that they were upset with President Bush for sending out cards this year that said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” That by itself wasn’t so surprising, since these were groups that felt politically entitled to a religious Christmas card from an administration they believed they put in office.

No, we were surprised to hear William Donahue, head of the Catholic League, quoted as saying that he believed that even if a Jew were elected president, it would be incumbent on him to send out cards that said “Merry Christmas.”

This is the same kind of presumption that claims to speak for Jesus, and is egotism at its inexcusable worst.

MNB user James Hornecker responded:

I agree with your point that the “where would Jesus shop” campaign should not be done. But I think you overstate your case.

You argue that it’s unacceptable to argue that God is on one’s side in disputes about politics and business. To a certain extent this is true. For example, it would be wrong to legislate that everyone must celebrate Christmas or recognize Mohammed as a prophet. Government must use as its foundation principles that are fairly applied to everyone. Since not everyone belongs to a particular religion it would be unfair to legislate on that basis. And since these conditions exist in most large-scale business environments, the same approach is appropriate. I think we could agree about this.

I think the key comment you made is, “The point of such an approach isn’t just to take the high ground, but to relegate everyone else to a lesser position and to exclude them from the “club.” Two points:

1) Don’t you consider it at least a little ironic that you have basically condemned them for the act of condemning? Aren’t you relegating them to a lesser position and excluding them from the group who holds your more enlightened position? Your condemnation doesn’t appear to be very “inclusive and compassionate.”
2) This line is evidence that you tend to assume the worst about committed religious people (not that this is the first time you’ve gone this direction). You have concluded that they use religion primarily to support their falsely held pride and superiority. Of course that happens with both individuals and groups, but I’ve noticed that happens at least as much with people who eschew or minimize religion, but I digress. I’m disappointed that you don’t admit or have to be cajoled into admitting that many people who seek to follow God may in fact be motivated out of actual desire for the good of other people, and that they may honestly and reasonably believe that certain practices (business, political, social, or individual) may actually be harmful even though they are celebrated by society’s elites. I think your prejudice against committed religious people is unfair and uncharitable.

As for Donahue’s hypothetical that a Jewish U.S. President ought to send out cards that say, “Merry Christmas,” it appears you’ve taken him out of context so that it buttresses your point above. I suspect Donahue’s comment was intended to convey that the U.S. President needs to be respectful of all religions and not just narrowly focus on the President’s own ecclesial body. Presidents have long sent religiously oriented greetings to Jews and other non-Christian religious groups despite the Presidents’ own religious affiliations. Donahue seems to be affirming this practice by his comment while expressing the frustration of many Christians by the back of the bus treatment they feel they are getting by all the replacements of “Christmas” with the neutered “Holidays.”

We suppose that there may be some irony in us condemning this group for condemning Wal-Mart, but it escapes us – and we have a high appreciation for irony. If your argument were to be accepted, then nobody would ever criticize anyone…and we’d be out of business, because we’re in the criticism business, holding forth with nothing other than a capacity for moral outrage, a laptop and an ability to write a decent sentence.

We’re not trying to exclude anyone from anything, and we don’t represent the views of any group. While we got emails supporting our position, it wouldn’t have bothered us if all the emails had disagreed with us. We’re very comfortable with the old Groucho Marx philosophy: “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

We reject the notion that we have to be cajoled or forced into saying that many religious people are highly compassionate, caring and inclusive. Not true. Unfortunately, the religious people who make all the noise – and therefore, deserve to be smacked around – are the ones who demonstrate the opposite qualities.

Finally, we did not take Donahue’s comments out of context. He was asked a question, and he answered it.

And, by the way, you write that “I suspect Donahue’s comment was intended to convey that the U.S. President needs to be respectful of all religions and not just narrowly focus on the President’s own ecclesial body.” We agree – and that’s why we have no problem with a President saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” because it acknowledges that the President is a leader of all Americans, not just Christians. We also have no particular problem with a President who wanted to say “Merry Christmas” – it is a matter of personal choice and comfort.

The narrowness and bigotry is not ours.

Another MNB user wrote:

Mr. Coupe you perplex me.

Just last week, and at other times, you have quoted John Mellencamp (John Cougar to us old-timers) "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything", or something to that effect.

Then you admire John Updike for wanting a religion that says yes to everything. Sounds like Mr. Updike, and possibly you, are in the "fall for anything" category.

Religion is about believing and practicing those beliefs. There must be some limits and boundaries. Can we at least agree on good and evil?

With respect to Jesus, for believers, the challenge is to see Christ in everyone. Although he may not be in everyone, even Christ addressed this when he told his disciples to leave and "shake the dust from their sandals", from anyplace that would not listen and heed His teachings, we still have to look anyway.

How does this relate to Wal-Mart (or other retailers), you might ask?

The answer is simple, a business that has the resources and abilities to raise the bar and make a difference has the obligation to do so. It must ask not what can vendors, customers, employees, communities, etc. do for me, or even what can I do for them, the real question is what can we do together. This is going past JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what can you do for your country". It is more in line with how I believe Ted Kennedy eulogized his brother when he said that RFK looked at life not asking why things were as they are, but rather as why life was not as it should be.

Believe me, I am no liberal, actually quite the contrary. But the real issue is social justice. People have a right to be treated fairly, no matter where they work or live. Child and slave labor is wrong. Sweatshops are wrong. This perverse fetish that Americans have with saving money for themselves no matter what the cost to others is wrong. I use the word fetish because people seem to get some obscene pleasure with saving money that they will overlook everything in order to get it. However, they themselves need to be paid all the money in the world for their own labors. This is wrong.

In truth the cost of doing the right thing is not really that much. Is it worth an extra fifty or one hundred dollars on a TV that will last many years in order to keep jobs in the US? Of course it is.

We are all to blame for this. As Pogo said, "we have seen the enemy and they is us". We can't expect high wages and benefits for ourselves but not for anyone else. Unions must recognize globalization and that maybe more productivity and, perish the thought, that lower wages may be necessary to preserve jobs here. Union members must support their fellow workers. The UFCW has a credit card and guess the number one place it is used...right, it is Wal-Mart. This makes no sense and is precisely what Pogo was talking about.

Costco proves you can make money by taking the high road. Maybe Jesus would shop there.

Jesus would shop where He knew, and He knows everything, management was doing the best it could for the workers, the community and suppliers. maybe some could do it better based on their situation, but I believe Jesus would feel comfortable shopping where He knew the business was doing the best it could afford. He would want the business to be profitable, or else it could not do what it needed to do. The question is how much profit and at what cost.

It is obvious that Wal-Mart could do more at home and abroad. It is obvious that their culture is low cost above all else. It would seem to be that this is not a place that Jesus would shop at.

We could all do with asking ourselves "Would Jesus do this?" before we do anything. There is nothing wrong with this. There are a lot of places Jesus would not patronize. Some would surprise us. Even if you do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, as a philosopher no rational person can argue with His Teachings.

Finally, it is Christmas whether one believes or not. That is what it is and should be called. We would not refer to Ramadan as "diet for a month" or Passover as "Pure food week" so why should Christmas be anything less than Christmas. Believe if you want, or not if you so choose. Even non believers are happy for the sales and the day off, so they can live with "Christmas" if for no other reason than that.

Let’s be clear. We have no problem with people not shopping at Wal-Mart, protesting against Wal-Mart, or working against Wal-Mart’s growth – and if some of those people do so because of their Christian and/or ethical beliefs (as opposed to their financial interests), that’s just fine. What crosses the line is when any one group says that their God is on their side and only their side. It is arrogant, it is divisive, and it is wrong.

MNB user Karmi Middlemiss wrote:

The groups that are this fanatical are very small but speak as if they represent the rest of us God-believing Christians. It's a shame when so few can give so many a bad name.

MNB user Paul Barrett wrote:

Well done for speaking out and I couldn't agree with you more.

MNB user Jerry Cook wrote:

Amen! Thank you for taking the stance that you did on this subject!

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

I totally agree with you on this one. It is groups like these that make it easy for non religious groups to label all Christians as kooks. They do not speak for me. If we really wanted to know what Jesus would do, he would probably speak out against these groups as he did against the legalistic Pharisees calling them white washed sepulchers.

MNB user Lisa Everitt wrote:

You're spot on in the ongoing nauseating debate about what to say in December and why.

You missed a nuance (if you can call it that) in the White House Christmas card flap.

This year's card from George and Laura had a verse from Psalms and…some folks objected to the verse because it's from the Old Testament and therefore "not Christian enough."

The world has gone mad, and a thinking person can only imagine what Jesus might say.

MNB user Matt Weeks wrote:

In all seriousness we have got to get back to what is really bothering us. I am looking at a laissez-faire-faire public that has thus far rewarded Wal-Mart's practices in total, which have resulted in convenience and low prices, while that same public has predictably turned a blind eye to the less appealing and less-visible aspects of how those benefits are attained. We learn in religious school not to do that, don't we? In a strong economy it was easier to turn a blind eye. We could convince ourselves that there was no real negative fall-out, no harm done. In a more desperate economy it is more obvious as to the human cost of low wages, thin benefits, and the difficulties small entrepreneurs experience when displaced by this juggernaut.

It's a cold, unfortunate fact that decent people working for small businesses, earning modest wages found themselves displaced and forced to work for lowest wages, with minimalist benefits in the recent economic cycle. Is Wal-Mart an evil agent making this happen? Not exactly. They are an honest player in a tough marketplace in a tough economic cycle.

Should and could Wal-Mart accept their role as "consolidator" in marketplaces and do more for their workers at the expense of profits? Perhaps. That is the argument before us. What we have is an absence of social and community leadership in the executive suite.

Some companies go overboard to imbue their company with a social conscience (see: Service-Master). Wal-Mart's executive leadership has elected to take the continued growth in revenue as a mandate to continue along and even accelerate existing practices. I am ashamed to own shares in a company that has leadership willing to pretend that they are too busy to notice this.

What do they expect their kids to think? Do they teach "don't look, don't ask, don't think" to their kids? Of course not. What is missing is the teaching that "everyone counts," and that "everyone has a responsibility to help." Being a huge corporation does not relieve executives and directors of the enormous responsibility of being a community citizen. The greater the market share, the greater the burden of responsibility. If you take money from people and bank profits from their community then you owe a responsibility to the health and well-being of that community. Including its members you employ. In the banking business we have to do this all the time. It's called the Community Reinvestment Act and it is formalized and regulated. Interesting thought about the largest employer in our Fair Country. Might it end up having its social conscience injected into executive leadership via regulation and legal fiat? What a failure of the American Way that would be.

For those people now caught up in the wake of this machine, and now find themselves impacted by the community and corporate fall-out, the question has to be: "would I tolerate paying ten or fifteen bucks more a month for my groceries et cetera, and have my community enriched by a more financially generous Wal-Mart? Or would I resist paying average prices that reflect doing the greater good, in exchange for a more selfish attitude about shopping for discount prices "at any cost?"

Now if we went back to church/synagogue/mosque/the beach/wherever you worship/ and sit for a moment to ask: what is the "right" answer? It's not hard to figure out at all, really. And in this holiday season we should have more time to pause and consider the impact of saving five or ten bucks on a huge cart of groceries in exchange for Wal-Mart having to skimp on the benefits packages of the workers who wish us well and sit next to us in church and come to our house for holiday parties.

As a consumer I personally wish to vent my displeasure at the behavior of the people forwarding the campaign you mentioned. I agree. Out of bounds. However I am also hugely disappointed that the exec team at Wal-Mart has failed repeatedly to put that Faustian bargain before the press, the shopping public and the communities they serve, and has repeatedly taken the "dark" route towards profits, without using their bully-pulpit power to explain these tough choices and let the public decide.

If the execs at Wal-Mart are "good guys" and "good citizens" (and I think they want to believe that they are) then why would we have to seem to be dragging them feet-first into putting this exchange before their customers, shareholders and communities? Seems to be a core failure of leadership. Or just plain arrogance. Wal-Mart does not need to kneel to Wall Street's quarterly profit demands, and everyone on Wall Street knows it. To claim otherwise is silly. An increase in prices of 2% or 3% won't be treated negatively if the company puts its huge PR engine to work explaining that it is paying for workers' wages, benefits for kids, et cetera. It's all about how an exec team and a board of directors choose to define their mission.

Apparently everyone is out of the room when this comes up. Shame on them. Shame on us (the general public) for failing to let them know that we don't want them to behave amorally either. Shared responsibility and moral accountability in a connected community.

That's what religion is supposed to be all about, if you want to come full-circle on this thing. At least that's what I'm teaching my pre schooler. If you have the power to do one small thing each day, seize it and act. If you can shop at a place of business that has low, but not lowest prices, but treats their people generously, be proud to make a small sacrifice (saving some amount, but perhaps forgoing the lowest price), in exchange for doing a good thing. When your time comes to meet your maker, which act will go on the scales--- saving that extra 3% or going a bit out of your way by shopping someplace that helps support someone's wage and benefits package? Do the math. It's time to wake up Mr. Scrooge and show him Aisle 9 where the greeters are handing out fresh cups of conscience.

“The bigger the company, the greater the responsibility.”

We agree.

MNB user Dan Raftery wrote:

So it takes a pack of secular wolves cloaked in sanctimonious verbiage to get you to defend Wal-Mart. Well done. Great observation on the righteousness cancer spreading through society.

Don't you think this is the same type of rationale fueling the Islamic extremists who believe God wants them to take out as many infidels as possible when they blow themselves to bits? What happened to the Christian belief in tolerance? For that matter, what happened to that tried and true Eastern protest technique of self-immolation?

Not so cheery thoughts during this season of multiple religious holidays. But that's where we are now. Danger levels are rising around the world. Peaceniks from the Sixties are too busy in it, to clog the system with mass movements. The power of the keyboard, however, can be wielded by even greater numbers. Keep it up Content Guy.

Another MNB user wrote:

The one thing I am sure of is that if Jesus were here we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas at all. And we sure wouldn’t be asked to go spend money we usually don’t have on material gifts we often don’t need, give even more things to people we often don’t like, while ignoring the people in real need.

So if someone wants to speculate on what Jesus would almost certainly think – and does it honestly – it isn’t going to look good for anyone who equates shopping with Jesus at all.

MNB user Steve Ritchey wrote:

Jesus had a name for people like this, and they are the one group he really came down hard on, hypocrites. All other people who had committed all manner of sins were summarily forgiven and told to change their behavior. The hypocrites, those who professed to be something they were not, he always had harsh words for.

The preacher at my church had a great sermon on this a few months ago, where he asked are you a believer in the fundamentals of Christianity, or a fundamentalist who thinks anyone who doesn't think like you is wrong.

Another MNB user wrote:

Think of how many people have died over the course of history because someone's "God" gave them the right to inflict whatever damage / harm was necessary to further their cause. This course of action by the anti- Wal-Mart activists, while much tamer than the Islamic Extremist activates (I am embarrassed to even make this reference) we see daily, is nonetheless based on the same misguided notion that their view of the world is as their God would want the world. Dangerous ground no matter what the religion (anyone remember the Crusades?).

Also, thanks for more insight on the Catholic League. I'm a "fallen away" and was not much aware of this group.

MNB user Frank Rich wrote:

Although I am NOT a Wal-Mart fan, thank you for expressing exactly what I feel about the "Jesus" comments from the religious right. This is inexcusable.

MNB user Lisa Malmarowski wrote:

Thanks for your thoughtful and reasoned viewpoint, KC!

Another MNB user wrote:

The validity of any groups' claims can be reasonably judged based on the reliability of their fact bases. We can, and should, immediately discard as invalid any group that resorts to hyperbole or outright mis-statement or a high rate of fact cullage in their position papers. That's what thinking people do.

These groups - not just the Wal-Mart antis but, unfortunately, nearly all the self-anointed - rely on such tactics knowing full well that the bulk of their audience isn't thinking about things. It's the USA way: whiter whites, better taste, crookeder politicians, immoral retailers, snake oil that cures what ails ya. We can't argue any point on the truth, and we can't argue a point civilly. Sad, sad, sad.

Another MNB user chimed in:

As much as I might dislike shopping at Wal-Mart, and as much as I might agree that the “WalMartization” of America is not a good thing, this latest story makes me determined to spend some of my seasonal shopping $’s there. This latest advertising campaign is beyond insulting. Did it ever occur to these people that one thing Jesus might NOT have approved of --- is the practice of twisting his teachings around for purely commercial purposes?

This story has ruined my morning…

MNB user Jerry Sheldon wrote:

I couldn't agree with you more that the group has stepped way, way over the line. To presume to speak for Jesus, when the heart of the matter here is gain for one's political cause, is both shameful and distasteful. I'm reminded of how Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. Jesus judged character. With the money changers, he knew they were out to dupe and abuse the people in the name of being religious. I get the feeling we're seeing modern day money changers now. Wonder how their tables will get turned!?!

Finally, our favorite email came from an MNB user who claimed to know exactly where Jesus would shop:

He was a carpenter. He'd shop at Home Depot.

Funny line. Wish we’d thought of it.

And we’re glad someone else is keeping a sense of humor about this stuff.
KC's View: