Review: From Bible Belt to Sunbelt
Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. xxiv + 520pp. ISBN: 978-0-393-06682-1.
In October of 1970, Ronald Reagan met with several influential leaders of charismatic renewal in the U.S., including George Otis, Harald Bredesen, and Pat and Shirley Boone. When the group joined hands to pray at the conclusion of the meeting, Otis, who served as a general manager of the Lear Jet Corporation before committing to full-time ministry, felt compelled to deliver a message from God to the then-governor of California: “If you walk uprightly before Me,” Otis nervously prophesied, “you will reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” (370–71).
Reagan’s meeting with these charismatic leaders, most of whom lived in California at the time, graphically illustrated the powerful nexus between conservative politics and conservative evangelicalism that emerged in Southern California and eventually helped shape U.S. politics across the nation. Whereas Otis credited his prophecy to the spur-of-the-moment inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Darren Dochuk’s fascinating, thoroughly researched book reveals the extent to which this unique encounter represented a culmination of trends that were literally decades in the making.
Dochuk’s narrative begins in the western South. He details the plight of plain-folk southerners who sought to escape the dire economic conditions in the region during the 1930s and early 1940s. Drawn by the promise of better opportunities, numerous individuals migrated to Southern California, bringing their distinctive culture and outlook with them. In contrast to their counterparts in the Deep South, individuals from states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas tended to embrace a “purer populist doctrine that combined a radical individualism, experimentalism, and egalitarianism with a willingness to unite in protection of their interests” (10). Religion, of course, was a crucial component in this culture, and Dochuk effectively demonstrates the way in which Baptists, Pentecostals, and other evangelicals from the region “folded the teachings of Jesus and Jefferson into a formula for participatory politics” (17).
If these southerners brought to Southern California a distinctive brand of God and politics characterized by an “innate inventiveness and combativeness,” they also changed in important respects as they established themselves as a permanent fixture on the West Coast (xvii). Transplanted evangelicals increasingly began to emulate some of the more cosmopolitan instincts of their neighbors. More often than not, they shed overt forms of anti-Semitism and racism, and also enjoyed the economic benefits of living in an area dominated by burgeoning defense-related industries. Of even greater significance politically, numerous believers came to question previous deeply engrained political loyalties. Their emergence on the California political scene brought to the fore tensions in the New Deal Democratic coalition, as social Democrats sought to curb the influence of the growing number of southern evangelicals in their midst. Dochuk skillfully outlines the competing interests and visions at stake in this battle for the soul of the California Democratic Party, calling attention to failed efforts during the 1940s to reconcile religious conservatism with an economic populism. Disillusioned by these internecine quarrels and by the success of progressive Democrats who championed a more robust multicultural nationalism, the door opened for southern evangelicals’ political realignment and their increasing identification with the Republican Right.
Having set the stage for southern evangelicals’ sharp rightward turn, Dochuk spends the remainder of the book detailing the efforts of a diverse and colorful cast of characters who spearheaded the formation of a united “evangelical front.” These individuals, all of whom had significant ties to the western South, pushed and prodded their fellow evangelicals to embrace the merger of political and religious conservatism by means of an increasingly dense “network of schools, interdenominational organizations, communication systems, and associations” (xxi). Demonstrating an impressive mastery of a wide range of source materials, Dochuk traces the influence of figures such as George Pepperdine, a wealthy auto supply salesman turned educator; E. V. Hill, a charismatic black preacher who criticized the civil rights movement; and the southern-born entertainer Pat Boone. Alongside discussion of these evangelical powerbrokers, Dochuk also skillfully interweaves the stories of individuals like Marie King, a legal secretary for MGM whose eventual embrace of the Republican Party epitomized his argument. Throughout he consistently demonstrates Southern California’s role as an ideal incubator for the kind of grassroots political mobilization that would come to define later evangelical forays into politics on the national stage.
Despite his otherwise exemplary attention to detail and nuance, it is fair to say that Dochuk never fully addresses noteworthy antecedents to the trends he describes that potentially complicate some of his claims regarding southern evangelicals’ unique contributions to Southern California religion and politics. He follows other historians in contrasting his protagonists and Southern California’s resident evangelicals, who “turned ‘serious, quiet, intense, humorless, sacrificial, and patient’ in the peak religious experience.” A significant proportion of California’s non-southern evangelicals may have resembled this description, yet a number of others clearly did not. Already by the 1920s the Canadian-born Pentecostal celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson established her ministry in Los Angeles, and around the same time the Oxford-educated pentecostal Charles Price also began attracting very large crowds in a variety of venues along the West Coast. Suffice it to say the style and substance of their ministries mirrored in many respects that of Dochuk’s “‘busy, vocal, and promotional’ and ‘task-oriented’” southern evangelicals (xvii). To be fair, Dochuk mentions the 1906 Pentecostal revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles, highlighting the southern roots of some of its leaders, and he does make cursory references to both McPherson and Price. That said, the biographies of these two prominent Pentecostals, as well as their evident appeal, underline the degree to which non-southern evangelicals helped pave the way for the success of their southern co-laborers later in the century. In addition, McPherson’s forays into politics beginning in the 1930s and her efforts to mobilize her constituency on behalf of the U.S. government during World War II set an important precedent for the overt politicization of evangelicalism that Dochuk outlines, even if she did not align herself so clearly with the Republican Right. None of these observations negate Dochuk’s basic argument regarding the powerful impact that southern evangelicals’ large-scale migration had on the region, though the precursors to southern evangelicals’ style of religion mentioned above do merit greater attention in the text.
These comments should not detract from what Dochuk has accomplished. As he suggests, too many histories of the Religious Right treat it as an overnight phenomena that burst on the scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Dochuk’s meticulous history successfully focuses the conversation on an earlier era. In the process he shines a bright spotlight on Southern California and on the numerous individuals with ties to the region who eventually played a crucial role energizing politically active evangelicals nationwide.