Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Walmart and the Clergy

Walmart Watch just alerted me to "Wal-Mart, Its Foes Turn to Religion," in the LA Times.

I wanted to excerpt this part of the story which depicts Wal-Mart's pre-emptive responses to the organizing of the Wal-Mart movie screenings in churches. One of the strongest moral points in the film is that being a Christian entails caring for the poor. So, what is at issue here is two different conceptions of what it means to care for the poor. Most of you know, if you are reading my blog, that I don't buy Wal-Mart's approach.

Wal-Mart Watch's religious efforts are part of the group's Higher Expectations Week, a series of nationwide events at churches, clubs, colleges and other organizations that highlight criticism of the retailer. The activities include free screenings of Robert Greenwald's recently released documentary, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," a critical look at how the company, the largest private employer in the U.S., treats workers.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on its outreach to clergy. But church leaders from around the country said the retailer had contacted them to encourage their support — or to respond to their criticism — of the company.

The Rev. Ron Stief, director of the Washington office of the United Church of Christ, said a Wal-Mart representative telephoned him about six weeks ago after he criticized the company in a church newspaper article about Greenwald's documentary. After years of writing letters to the company to complain about Wal-Mart's conduct, Stief said, he finally received an invitation to Bentonville.

"They wanted me to come see their side of it," he said. Stief said he hoped to take the retailer up on the offer after he and other church members see the film.

The Rev. Clarence Pemberton Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said a Wal-Mart representative attended Tuesday's regular meeting of about 75 Baptist ministers in that city.

"It appeared that what he was trying to do was to influence us or put us in opposition to this film that is coming out and will be in the churches," Pemberton said, referring to the documentary. "It was implied very strongly that it was about some sort of cash rewards for people who would become partners with Wal-Mart and what they were trying to do."

Bishop Edward L. Brown, a regional leader of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said a Wal-Mart representative attended a CME bishops meeting last spring in Memphis, Tenn.

"They are reaching out, no question about that," Brown said. "They were trying to give their point of view, to do damage control."

And the Rev. Ira Combs of the Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson, Mich., told the Jackson Citizen Patriot last week that Wal-Mart recruited him to be part of a national steering committee of community leaders that would meet in Washington to "develop responses to issues raised by the company's critics."

Combs, who told the paper that he was a Wal-Mart supporter and might have been chosen because he is active in the Republican Party, did not return calls seeking comment.

Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara said he was not surprised that Wal-Mart was hoping to influence church leaders. Through its community grants, the company already gives money to many local church projects.

Wal-Mart Watch, in reaching out to churches, has opened a new front in its campaign, hoping to win converts among those who are not natural allies of labor and environmental activists, the mainstays of the group's support.