The USA is a foreign country

I am now well into From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W W Norton 2010) by Canadian-born Darren Dochuk. I endorse this comment by Steve on Goodreads: “Well researched history like this is hard to come by. I can’t not praise this book too much or recommend it too highly.”


You can get some idea of the book from Dochuk’s 2011 Huffington Post piece Remembering Reagan: The Evangelical Model for Republican Success in 2012.

The curious story lives on in evangelical memory, though few outside American Christendom are familiar with even its faintest details. Considering the current state of politics, and the celebration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday on February 6, perhaps it deserves repeating.

On a fall day in 1970, California’s governor invited friends over to his Sacramento home. With Herbert Ellingwood, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, taking the lead, Pat and Shirley Boone, businessman George Otis, and pastor Harald Bredesen joined Ronald and Nancy Reagan in an afternoon of conversation and prayer. Much of the former revolved around the subject of prophecy; having just talked personally with Billy Graham about teachings in the Book of Revelation, Reagan wanted to hear how they related to events in the Middle East. After chatting for a while, he and Nancy joined hands with their guests for prayer. What came next stunned them all. During his supplication, Otis’s arm began to pulsate with an emotion he attributed to the Holy Spirit. Then, with his hand shaking (the same one holding Reagan’s hand), Otis prophesied that Reagan would someday be president. Sheepishly, Otis ended the prayer, leaving Reagan and friends speechless and eager to say good-bye. Otis was hardly sheepish some years later, however, when, he began telling others about what had happened that fall day. Released just in time for the 1980 presidential race, his much-publicized testimonial conveyed one basic message: born-again, Bible-believing voters needed to vote for Reagan, the only true born-again, Bible-believing candidate in the running.

Cut beneath the peculiarities of Otis’ prophetic utterance is a deep accord between evangelicals and Reagan that took root in California long before it blossomed on a national stage. This marriage was forged during Reagan’s run for governor in 1966. Reagan’s inspirational presence in Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign had already convinced evangelicals that he was their new hero, and in the months that followed they begged him with letters and prayers to seek office. Reagan seemed right to them, on so many levels. First of all, he had a spiritual narrative that rang true. In the months surrounding the 1966 election, the actor-turned-politician turned earnest as he described his recommitment to Christ. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he answered his adoring fans with heart-felt missives that spoke of his devotion to Christ and his determination to pray more. And Reagan met other standards of association as well, by surrounding himself with evangelical powerbrokers like Graham and Boone, businessmen like Otis and Ellingwood, and investing himself in his church, Bel Air Presbyterian, known for its dynamic pastor Donn Moomaw. Of course, Reagan also boasted a political narrative that resonated with California evangelicals too, particularly those who had moved west from Texas and Oklahoma in search of defense industry jobs (some 2.5 millions southerners had settled in California by 1970). In his public pronouncements against radicals and the Red Menace, campaign promises to get socialism and secularism out of schools and God back in, and switch from the Democratic Party to GOP in 1962, he spoke the language and walked the political steps familiar to these southern sojourners.

For his part, Reagan asked something of these devotees, and they came through…

On that a Presbyterian pastor comments:

This is the kind of analysis we need so badly, in order to understand the reactionary forces at work in our culture, forces determined to "save" us from "secular humanism" on the one hand, and from democracy on the other – because democracy allows too much freedom of thought. Though Reagan recognized this and used it to catapult himself into the White House, he tried to temper it. But these days, there is no tempering of anything in the GOP. It’s out for our blood.

I’ve just started reading your book, "From Bible Belt to Sun Belt" – having lived in OK for 12 years (I’m a Presbyterian pastor), I saw firsthand the power of the fundagelical message to shut down thought, instill anxiety and create "enemies." It’s an amazing thing to see … and infinitely sad.

More to read: Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Redux by Paul Harvey.

It’s a happy coincidence that I got my brand-spanking-new paperback copy of Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, on the very day that I learned that the book (which as a dissertation won the Allan Nevins Prize, and as a book previously won the AHA’s Dunning Prize — biggies, both) was just awarded the Ellis Hawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians. Some high honors indeed for the former volleyball star from the Great Plains of Socialist Canada.

The coincidence reminded me it’s a good time periodically to revisit some of our older blog classics, one of which was the interview we conducted last year with Darren and printed here. So, without further adieu, in honor of the book’s success and newly being made available for your course use in paperback, here is Part I of our interview from last year below; and from there you can click on the link for Part two here (or just follow the  link below). Congratulations again to Darren.

In that interview:

PH: You begin the book with one of the most famous tropes of American religious history — the errand in the wilderness — and use it to situate the plain folk from the South/Southwest that you are going to follow through the book. You write: "these white southern evangelicals envisioned themselves as pilgrims carrying out their own errand into the wilderness." Can you describe briefly how they saw that "errand," and more about what kind of world they hoped to create in that "wilderness"?

DD: While reading church newspapers like the California Southern Baptist and the Assemblies of God’s Informant I was struck by the way southern evangelicals approached their new home as if on a mission; pastors, editors, and denominational leaders all spoke of being on an “errand.” This isn’t uncommon among migrant groups, since uprooted-ness tends to encourage notions of exceptionalism, but I thought it was suggestive that southern evangelical migrants approached their move this way. Considering their impressive numbers, southern evangelicalism’s built-in entrepreneurialism, and the freedoms of Los Angeles’ hinterland, it seemed significant that southern evangelicals encountered their new home with a confidence that could affect change. Able to move from the small town south to self-contained suburbs, these sojourners didn’t feel the jarring effects of migration that we see in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which Old Testament motifs of banishment (“exodus” and “exile”) are stressed. This isn’t to discount Steinbeck, or historians like James Gregory, who rightly and beautifully describes the hardships southern migrants faced in California. Still, I think the errand motif is a helpful qualifier, because it stresses the empowerment southern evangelical migrants felt (and were told to feel) when resettling on the West Coast.

And to be honest, I also found it intriguing that these sojourners did what they set out to do—impose their will on their wilderness in order to awaken their people back home. Meant to give hope to an uprooted people, the “errand” motif (as exaggerated or skewed as it may have been) in fact became a blueprint of sorts that these sojourners followed to a tee. In the immediate, they used it as justification to carve out strong, independent churches, ministries, schools, and communities in which they could codify principles of individualism, local autonomy, laissez-faire economics, and family values. In the long-term, they used it to help fashion this amalgam of beliefs into a coherent political strategy—the GOP’s Sunbelt strategy—that would win the hearts and votes of the people they left behind in Oklahoma and Texas, and ultimately win them access to Washington’s halls of power. So, although a neat rhetorical device (another reason why I used it), the errand motif also points us to a real, lived experience that few historians have fully appreciated in the context of post-war religious and political change.

See also Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas from Temple University:

Dochuk reaches this conclusion having done his homework. He rightly centralizes high-profile players like Graham, Reagan, George Pepperdine, Pat Boone, and “Fighting Bob” Shuler. He draws on primary source materials from a variety of archival repositories. (Indeed, how many scholars of twentieth-century American evangelicalism can claim to have researched at both the Pat Boone Headquarters and the Strom Thurmond Center?) And, wisely, he chooses to anchor his narrative with the voices of “plain folk” evangelicals. Drawn from a catalog of self-collected oral histories and sprinkled effectively throughout the text, the voices of these relatively unknown figures illuminate the lived realities of evangelical politicization. This hybrid approach—fusing traditional political history with a modified version of the “lived religion” methodology popularized by a generation of religious scholars—elevates Dochuk’s book above other recent studies of the Religious Right…

Nevertheless, the book is not without flaws, the most obvious being the author’s failure to succinctly define his term “evangelical.” Given the elasticity of this appellation even within the scholarly literature, it deserves clear definition; Dochuk’s oversight in this regard, therefore, is a significant one. Although it becomes clear even within the book’s first 80 pages that Dochuk’s evangelicalism includes segments of fundamentalism and even some theologically distinctive conservative Protestant denominations like the Churches of Christ, the absence of a singular, declarative definition of the term at the study’s outset left this reviewer feeling unmoored during the early chapters.

This, however, is but one critique of an otherwise stellar monograph—a monograph with a provocative argument far more nuanced than this reviewer has replicated here. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt marks a major advance in the growing body of scholarship examining the roots of evangelical political activism.

The very traditionally conservative Acton Institute  commends the book in this review, putting its own gloss on it, however.

Dochuk splendidly tells the story of the great Westward migration and the tale of a region that was not just caught up in an evangelical wave, but founded an empire of churches, colleges, and religious friendly businesses that was widely influential in changing evangelicalism and American politics. These transplanted Southerners brought a new vibrancy and entrepreneurial spirit to the region that helped to transform California into the eighth largest economy in the world. If their opponents believed the unleashing of Southern evangelicalism would cause "damnation for their region," it will be interesting to see the reverse effect on a future Southern California that becomes more and more secularized and continues to impose regulations and shed jobs at an alarming rate.

Slightly perverse, that conclusion, but as Dochuk shows a splendid sense of irony in the course of his narrative, while at the same time allowing the voices he captures full and fair scope, I am sure he would cope with that spin on his thesis.

Finally, see Jesus and Jefferson by Mark A Noll in The New Republic.

The great strength of Darren Dochuk’s book lies in his discovery of New Christian Right origins in postwar California. He skillfully traces a continuous narrative stretching from the Dust Bowl to Ronald Reagan, and demonstrates with prodigious research how this narrative fits into a much broader American canvas of demographic, political, economic, and ideological change. If there is a weakness in his book, it is that he does not document with similar care the moves that in the mid-1970s made California’s story a national story. But about the rest his book is utterly convincing.

The story begins with massive migrations in the 1930s of Okies, Arkies, and their Depression-driven fellow-sufferers who streamed out of the Southwest to California. In 1920, the population of Oklahoma and Arkansas was larger than the population of California by about 400,000 souls. In 1950, California’s 10.6 million dwarfed the 4.2 million left in those two states. The magnet for this great internal migration was jobs. Some jobs were waiting for Dust Bowl migrants when they arrived in the 1930s. Many more flowed from the economic cornucopia created by World War II, the surge of oil and gas industries, and a massive infusion of defense contracts. To an unusual degree, workers from the Southwest and South filled the demand for labor. In turn, well-compensated workers settled, raised families, built schools and churches, entered local politics, and otherwise made themselves at home…

The transplanted ideology that took root in California at the very time when that state became the forerunner of postwar national prosperity embodied a potent synthesis: theology stressing individual redemption, church culture emphasizing local independence, and social instincts trained by segregation to resist outside interference from Yankee do-gooders and intrusive Big Government. As adherents of this ideology purchased homes, built businesses, sent their children to school, looked for recreational opportunities, and helped their entrepreneurial pastors build large churches and then mega-churches, the traits of their Southern plain-folk religion became the nutritive medium for political mobilization.

Already in the 1930s, early Southern immigrants patronized a California movement known as “Ham and Eggs” that advocated a scheme for income assistance related to Huey Long’s famous “Share the Wealth” in Louisiana. It drew most of its support from Southerners who looked upon relief as hands-off assistance to individuals. Supporters of Ham and Eggs were also mostly Democrats, but of the local Southern sort instead of the big-government Northern variety.

Immediately after World War II, a perfect storm of threatening initiatives stimulated extensive counter-measures. When, in 1946, the CIO backed Proposition 11 on the California ballot to outlaw racial discrimination in hiring; and when it mounted its Operation Dixie program to unionize workers in the South: and when in the same year new laws were proposed to ban restrictive housing covenants in Pasadena, Glendale, Eagle Rock, and other southern California communities; and when these reforms received strong support from leaders of the liberal Federal Council of Churches and key members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy; and when it looked like these moves were coordinated by the same forces that had supported world government at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco only the year before—it was then that the New Christian Right was born…

Two themes are most important in Dochuk’s lively book. The first is the ideological synergy that Dochuk describes as Jefferson (and the principles of a government-averse yeomanry) in league with Jesus (and the principles of a God-offered salvation). The second is the California setting where voterregistration drives, fund-raising for the purposes of lobbying, incumbents targeted for defeat, interest-group advocacy on statewide referenda, and many other practical political strategies were a taken-for-granted fact of life decades before Jerry Falwell or Francis Schaeffer had even thought about Christian political action.

Dochuk’s revisionist account is strengthened by its nuance. He never contends that California was the whole story. Billy Graham’s famous evangelistic crusade in 1949, as one instance, strengthened ties between California’s conservative Protestants and evangelicals elsewhere in the country. Dochuk also recognizes that some political events touched religion only indirectly. Thus, the Senate election of 1950, in which Richard Nixon rode anti-communist attacks to victory, is important for the larger story mostly because it solidified the move of erstwhile Southern Democrats into the right-wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps most importantly, Dochuk also demonstrates that the California experience significantly modified certain aspects of the Southern plain-folk worldview. He is especially convincing that over time explicit racism gradually faded as a primary component of California’s conservative Protestants. But he is also persuasive that the anti-government ideology and pro-local entrepreneurialism that always accompanied Southern white racism did not fade away…

It is a fascinating read and links quite personally with episodes in my life back to the 1950s.  See The year my voice broke…, Time and friendships 2 — the class of ’59, Last night I was 15 again… On the other hand “Jefferson and Jesus” really cuts no ice in Australia. In so many ways while at one level quite understanding the “plain folks” I am reading about at another level it is like contemplating space aliens. Really! As Peter Hartcher says so well in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Australians deluded on meaning of US election.

… It’s interesting that, as the Herald reports today, an overwhelming 72 per cent of Australians would vote for the Democrats’ Barack Obama if they had a vote in the US presidential election while a mere 5 per cent would choose the Republicans’ Mitt Romney.

That is probably evidence of two facts. One is that, as the incumbent for four years, Australians know a good deal more about Obama than Romney.

Second is the fact that Australia is a much more left-leaning country than the US. In aggregate, Australians naturally incline to a Democrat world view more than a Republican one. And not only Australians, but the entire developed world, as it happens.

In Canada, for instance, the balance is similarly lopsided with voters preferring Obama by a margin of seven to one, according to a poll by Canadian Press-Harris Decima. And a Pew poll across 21 countries in June showed that ”Obama would cruise to re-election in November if Europeans and Japanese could vote,” as Agence-France Press put it.

”The centre of gravity of American opinion is much further to the right” than it is in any other rich country, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in their book The Right Nation.

The US is the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave, for instance, and the only one that does not pay child support to all families.

”America upholds the right to bear arms, the death penalty and strict sentencing laws,” write Micklethwait and Wooldridge, Englishmen both. ”The US is one of the few rich countries where abortion is a galvanising political issue, and perhaps the only one where half the families regularly say grace before meals.”…

The inability of Australians to distinguish their reality from America’s is leading to delusional thinking. Why?

”The mental transformation for Australians to put themselves into the shoes of average Americans is immense,” the chief executive of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Geoff Garrett, says. ”I think it’s close to impossible for Australians to understand why the centre of gravity in US America is so far to the right.”

For example: ”[Tony Abbott] has decided that major industrial relations reform is off the agenda. In the US, Australia would be considered profoundly anti-competitive and anti-market.”

A much more realistic way for Australians to assess the US is as a foreign country. As soon as we take that view, the question changes dramatically. It’s not which candidate you prefer, but which is likely to be better for Australia’s national interests?…