The Californication of America: A review of Darren Dochuk’s “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt”

By Alan Bean

I received a copy of Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt as a birthday present from my daughter, Dr. Lydia Bean.  She said I’d love it, and she was right.

Like me, Dochuk hails from Edmonton, Alberta, and, like me, his doctoral dissertation focused on Southern religion.  But while I was primarily interested in progressive Christians struggling for social survival in the Deep South, Dochuk turned his attention to evangelicals from states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas who migrated in droves to southern California between the dust bowl thirties to the post-war period when the counties surrounding Los Angeles were booming as a result of massive government spending on military and aeronautical projects.

As a child, Darren Dochuk was driven to the vacation spots of Southern California every summer.  I dreamed of visiting Disneyland, but I never got there.  Still, the brand of Christian Right spirituality described in his book impacted my life in significant, sometimes painful ways.  The California-inspired Jesus People movement was in full flower when I attended the Baptist Leadership Training School in 1972.  It was around that time that my traditionally Baptist parents were attracted to the charismatic movement.  My father repeatedly invited me to luncheon meetings of the Full Gospel Business Men’s International, a loose affiliation of tongue-speaking, prophesying, faith healing neo-Pentecostals founded in Southern California by a layman named Demos Shakarian.

For me, these were bewildering experiences I had largely forgotten until I read From Bible Belt to Sun Belt.  Though I never understood the appeal of this style of religion, my parents informed me that my life would be transformed if I submitted to “the baptism” and received the “gift of tongues.”  I tried my best, but it didn’t take.

During these years, my parents made repeated trips to southern California, visiting charismatic meccas like Melodyland (located across the street from Disneyland).  They thoroughly enjoyed this brand of spirituality until things got political.  “I have nothing personal against Pat Robertson,” my father remarked one day, “but I can’t understand why the people in California are so excited about his politics.”

This reaction was hardly surprising.  My father’s childhood pastor and Sunday school teacher was T.C. Douglas, a social gospel pastor who eventually left the church to become Premier of Saskatchewan and, ultimately, leader of Canada’s small-s socialist New Democratic Party.

Christian Right religion also impacted the leaders of the Baptist Union of Western Canada, the tiny denomination in which I was reared.  In my youth, Canadian Baptists saw themselves as a kind of moderate half-way house between the liberalism of the United Church or Canada and the fundamentalism that characterized most of Canada’s evangelical denominations.  By the early 1980s, when I returned from seminary, the denomination had been swept up in a cautious version of what Americans were calling Christian Right religion.  According to the wisdom of the day, conservative religion meant growth; liberalism was a one-way ticket to the graveyard.  Moderates like me were clearly no longer welcome; we were bad for business.  There was nothing subtle about this dismissal; it was spelled out to me by denominational leaders in so many words.

When I returned to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for graduate study in 1989, my alma mater was under siege from a tightly organized cabal of Southern Baptists closely affiliated with the Christian Right.  Two years after returning to Southern, all four professors in the Church History department were gone.  The seminary, once the academic flagship of the Southern Baptist flotilla, is now firmly in the hands of Christian Right zealots with an odd affinity for Calvinism.

In other words, this is an emotional issue for me and the generation of moderate evangelicals who came of age with me.  Five years removed from his doctoral work at Notre Dame, Darren Dochuk represents a different generation, and it shows.  He approaches the evangelicals who transformed the religion and politics of southern California with a respect bordering on affection, qualified admiration, and genuine curiosity.  The colorful characters featured in From Bible Belt to Sun Belt changed the face of America, and Dochuk gives them their due.

In Dochuk’s telling, “plain-folk” evangelicals gradually evolved from conservative New Deal Democrats into the prime architects of the Christian Right.  He identifies two distinct kinds of conservatism in the Jim Crow South:

“Whereas evangelicals east of the Mississippi remained seared in their faith and politics by the ‘knowledge of human limitations’—‘Christ haunted’ in Flannery O’Connor’s memorable phrase—their counterparts to the immediate west relished possibility; theirs was a ‘Christ enchanted’ society.  By the late 1930s the West Coast beckoned as a new frontier on which enchantment with Christian democracy was just beginning to flourish.”

In the western section of the South, Dochuk says, “the legacy of clerical power set the stage.  In Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas the preacher assumed a prestige that placed him at the center of public life.”  This section was also dominated by a “cult of toughness that encouraged outward displays of masculine bravado.”

Poor southerners arriving in Southern California were amazed by the freedom to re-invent themselves, but they were also threatened by the comparatively secular culture they encountered. They were naturally drawn to entrepreneurial churches and charismatic pastors comprised almost entirely of fellow southerners.

As Ira Katznelson points out in When Affirmative Action Was White, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was acceptable to southerners because distributions of government largess remained in the hands of local politicians who were free to discriminate against black citizens.  New Deal compassion, limited though it was, dovetailed nicely with a social gospel vision of the common good.  As a result, the plain-folk refugees from the western section of the South carried their conflicted attachment to Jim Crow bigotry and New Deal progressivism with them.

“Prior to World War II,” Dochuk argues, “while rallying around independent-minded Democrats like Huey Long, these citizens had simultaneously protested corporate capitalism and the bureaucratic state . . . Upon their arrival in California, southern evangelicals still saw Roosevelt as a savior of sorts and the Democratic Party as a vehicle for positive change . . . In the political tumult that surfaced after the war,” Dochuk suggests, “southern plain folk witnessed the swift dissolution of this vision.”

Democrats in southern California were enamored of “an emboldened labor movement”, something alien and unwelcome to traditional California conservatives.  Initially, these southern transplants were looking for “an alternative path that maintained their notions of individualism, economic security, racial privilege, and Christian community.”  But they faced an unpleasant choice: “Should they lean Left with those who sympathized with their economic plight but vilified their religion, or should they lean Right for the sake of a united Christian, conservative front?”

Race and religion were the deciding factors.  In the mid-forties, the labor movement launched “Operation Dixie”, a strategic push into the Jim Crow South that constituted “an all-out assault on systems of racial oppression and economic inequality.”

These white southern transplants in southern California clung to white privilege, but that wasn’t their only reason for turning away from unionism.  Reading sermons from the period, Dochuk concludes that racial fears were “trumped by a fear of losing religious privilege.  Operation Dixie was, above all else in their minds, an attack on the South’s Protestant core.”

It was in response to this crisis of identity, Dochuk believes, that an inchoate conservative movement “began to acquire a vague outline.”  The business community rallied around the tenets of free enterprise.  In academic circles, Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and, at a more popular level, Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, “posited that old-fashioned American principles of free markets, limited government, private property, and self-reliance—in short, classical liberalism—had been squelched by the New Deal.”

“In both the style and substance of their faith,” Duchuk observes, “California’s conservative evangelicals thus harbored a worldview that was similar to that of business and intellectual conservatives.”

Initially, these developments made little impact in the world of politics.  Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower worked to find middle ground between business and labor while embracing the need for “an active, welfare state.”  At the same time, as Kevin M. Schultz argues in Tri-Faith America, proponents of a progressive and ecumenical blending of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish spirituality, had become the primary spokespersons for American post-war religion.  Initially, this move toward religious cooperation had no impact on the nation’s racial divide.  Any move toward racial reconciliation, it was feared, would harpoon the hard-fought gains made by leaders of America’s dominant religious communities.  That would change in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as liberal Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders rallied to the civil rights banner.

Despite their points of agreement, California evangelicals and business leaders didn’t rush into each other’s arms.  “For California’s conservative establishment—like its liberal one—southern plain folk and preachers posed a problem,” Dochuk explains. “The way southern evangelicals railed against big business as easily as big government disconcerted them, as did the overtly racist anti-Semitic rhetoric that seemed to accompany these rants.”

Gradually, California’s business community and intellectual conservatives made their peace with southern evangelicals.  The strident anti-communism symbolized by the John Birch Society provided an important point of convergence.  Evangelicals embraced the Manichean cleavage between free enterprise capitalism and Big Brother communism.

End times theology also eased the evangelical embrace of conservative politics.  The belief that this world would grow increasingly ungodly before the church was “raptured” into the heavens didn’t mesh well with New Deal optimism.  Premillennial pessimism was the perfect complement for the stark them-or-us categories of the Cold War.

Evangelical preachers like J. Vernon McGee were horrified by the vision of a One World Government the newly minted United Nation appeared to embody.  “McGee described the ‘chaos’ he had witnessed during lunch with delegates at the UN.  It was the cacophony ‘of all sorts of languages and dialects’ and the ‘utter godlessness of the place’ that convinced him that the UN’s multiculturalism would be the undoing of true Americanism.’”

Evangelicals envisioned a world shaped by Americanism and an America conformed to the tenets of evangelical Protestant Christianity.  As progressive America toyed with a multicultural vision in which different races, religions, nationalities and political philosophies lived together in harmony, evangelicals felt the foundations of their worldview shaken.

The shared prosperity of the post-war period also helped California’s evangelicals shed their New Deal proclivities.  “The monumental leap from Depression-era poverty to middle-class respectability,” Dochuk writes, “left them convinced of capitalism’s Christian virtues . . . In early cold war California, where personal wealth seemed to bubble up from the rich suburban soil itself, the democratic promises of pristine capitalism appeared restored . . . Southern evangelicalism was no longer the poor person’s religion.”

This brings Dochuk to the central irony of Californian anti-government capitalism.  “It was the sharp rise in military expenditure brought on by the cold war,” he points out, “that thrust Southern California’s economy into a frenetic state of expansion.  In the decade between 1952 and 1962, Pentagon spending would etch itself into every facet of Southern California’s economy, with 38 percent of its manufacturing directly tied to a defense sector subsidized by four billion dollars’ worth of government contracts.”

In 1964, Evangelicals, business leaders and academic conservatives found common ground in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater.  The Arizona senator favored states’ rights and opposed the Civil Rights Act on philosophical grounds, but southerners saw the conservative politician as a champion of Jim Crow orthodoxy.

The American dream, Dochuk points out, “was attainable for many Southern Californians, but only for those who were white.  For black, Latino and other minority Californians, the cold war boom proved tragically illusory.”  Moreover, “By the end of the 1950s Southern California’s suburban communities would be the most segregated in the entire United States.”

The primary problem was lack of minority access to the all-white suburbs where most of the attractive jobs in southern California were found.  Dochuk puts it succinctly:  “Settled in exclusive neighborhoods that bordered exclusive industries, white suburbanites . . . lived in a homogeneous reality.”

That changed with the five-day Watts riots of 1965 in which 34 people died, 1,032 were injured, and 3,438 were arrested.  The disastrous association between Barry Goldwater and bigotry in the 1964 election and the horrific events unfolding in Watts forced evangelical preachers and conservative politicians to rethink their stance on race.

Dochuk uses Pepperdine University and the career of black preacher E.V. Hill to trace the emergence of the colorblind conservatism that helped evangelical Christians and small-government politicians like Ronald Reagan embraced in the wake of the Watts riot.

E.V. Hill, a Texas transplant to Los Angeles, grew up hard in a poor black family.  As a young man he hated white people and gravitated toward Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.  Bit by 1965 Hill concluded that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was a liberal illusion and that nothing short of a transforming experience with Jesus Christ could change a person, a neighborhood, or a nation for the better.  Although he stayed with his church in South Central, Hill joined hands with white evangelicals like Billy Graham and white politicians like Ronald Reagan.

In Hill’s view, the black residents of South Central needed to be educated about “a change in hair-do . . . taking a bath, and not being mad at the world.”  The ethics of self-help, self-discipline, and moral fortitude were missing from his community, he believed, and that needed to change.

This message dovetailed nicely with the Jesus-only, anti-communist, pro-business message that was now central to the evangelical vision.  A gifted preacher, Hill became a fixture at evangelical gatherings, a walking embodiment of colorblind, post-racial conservatism.  Although most black evangelicals have been much more wary of white evangelicalism and Republican politics than Hill, his Jesus-only approach is shared by most black evangelical pastors.

In 1937, Pepperdine College was built adjacent to a prosperous upper middle class neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles.  By the late 1960s, white flight had transformedthe neighborhood into a poor black section of the city with soaring crime rates.  At first, Pepperdine made the best of the situation, boasting a student body that was 20% black by the end of the 1960s.  But in 1970, the school changed its name to Pepperdine University and opened a plush new campus in the Malibu Hills.  The South Central Pepperdine campus survived for a decade as the poor sister of the Malibu campus, but the school eventually sold its urban campus to an entrepreneurial black congregation.  The Pepperdine student body is now 6.8 percent black.

The Christian Right, Dochuk suggests, succeeded by creating an alternative reality.  Within the evangelical bubble, evolution was a myth, government was a problem, free enterprise and the teachings of Jesus were two ways of saying the same thing, ‘liberal’ was synonymous with ‘socialist’, and America stood strong as the defender of the free world.

This worldview, Dochuk suggests, was embraced by every expression of the Christian Right, from the countercultural Jesus People, to charismatics praising God at Melodyland, to apocalyptic Christians like Hal Lindsey who preached free market prosperity and the imminent end of the world.  In contrast, liberal let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom diversity proved to be inconsistent with movement building.

Dochuk demonstrates how the Religious Right cooperated (without enthusiasm) with Richard Nixon and (rapturously) with Ronald Reagan.  Reagan is remembered my many conservatives as the Great President because he was shaped by the brand of southern Californian religious-political conservatism Dochuk describes in such exacting detail.

Ronald Reagan believed in supply-side, anti-communist, Jesus-only religion with whole-hearted confidence, and the Christian Right still loves him for it.  When Barack Obama says he wants to be a transformational president in the manner of Ronald Reagan, he means he would like to change the political discourse of America in fundamental ways.  But Reagan succeeded by embracing and embodying a brand of political religion that does not exist for moderate Democrats like Obama.

The Tea Party represents the latest expression of Christian Right orthodoxy, but Dochuk believes the bloom is off the rose.  Billions of dollars in government defense contracts are no longer galvanizing the economy of southern California, the Proposition 13 tax revolt has bankrupted the state’s public education system, the Golden State’s vaunted university system is in turmoil, and many southern transplants are abandoning California for their old haunts in Texas and Oklahoma.

In the meantime, a growing segment of the white American evangelical world is rediscovering the teaching of a biblical Jesus who cared for the poor and preached the Kingdom of God–a powerful vision of the common good if ever there was one.  In the process of building a powerful social consensus, white American evangelicals have abandoned the message of the Jesus they proclaim as Savior and Lord.  If the market sets the value of people, places and things, the market is God.

Evangelical Christians felt they had to choose between two secular philosophies.  The real challenge was finding find fresh ways to follow the Christian Savior into the political, cultural and social maelstrom we call America.

One thought on “The Californication of America: A review of Darren Dochuk’s “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt”

  1. I’ve reserved this book in our local library–it sounds very interesting. How interesting that your father had Tommy Douglas as a Pastor as a child. Means a lot more in Canada, where he was voted “The Greatest Canadian” partly for his pioneering universal health care.

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