Sunday, November 06, 2011

From Dust Bowl Days to the Reagan Revolution

Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: Norton, 2011.

This post is a version of something I wrote up for an online discussion group that focuses on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The group is reading this book together, and I was assigned to report on the Introduction and Chapter 1. Here's the gist of what I sent in:

According to his faculty web page, Darren Dochuk completed the PhD at Notre Dame in 2005. Since then he has taught twentieth century U.S. history at Purdue University. He specializes in religion, politics, and culture. Over the last ten years, he has published a good number of journal articles and has contributed several book chapters. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is his first book. A second book is forthcoming. So it seems like we'll be hearing a good bit from this young historian in the years to come.

Introduction: "At Home with the Angels"

Dochuk begins his book with an impressive description of the Billy Graham crusade held at the baseball stadium in Anaheim, California in September 1969. The author tells of the campaign's tremendous preparation and remarkable success. Among the statistics he reports: a ten-day campaign with a total attendance of 384,000 and over 20,000 decisions for Christ. He also mentions how Graham, from North Carolina, reflected on how comfortable he was, how at home he felt there in the Los Angeles area. Dochuk then comes to his point:

This book explains why Southern California proved so welcoming to Graham and nurturing of his worldview. More specifically, it describes and assesses the ways in which this evangelist's style of southern plain-folk religion--uprooted and relocated to the West Coast by monumental social changes begun in the 1930s--reoriented Southern California evangelicalism toward the South by the late 1960s. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt also tells the analogous story of how transplanted southern evangelicalism, itself revitalized and recreated in the Golden State, moved from the margins of the southern Bible Belt to the mainstream of America's first Sunbelt society (xv).

Although the author notes that the southerners who migrated to Southern California came from a variety of states, he describes their religious outlook as "Texas theology," which can be characterized as busy, vocal, promotional, and task-oriented (xvii). He says that, notwithstanding the images presented in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, southern migrants to Southern California were not so much "victims of circumstance," but rather "champions of a cause" (xvii). It wasn't that they were fleeing Egypt; they were responding to the Macedonian call. With their political views never far from their faith, these southern evangelicals not only reshaped Southern California's religion, they also impacted the politics of that region and far beyond. In fact, says the author, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency represented their success.

But, says Dochuk, it didn't happen easily or suddenly. The long struggle was spread out over the years between 1910 and 1970. Within those six decades, he identifies four distinct periods to which the major sections of his book correspond. He overviews his book as follows:

Part I "charts plain-folk evangelicalism's relocation from the western South to the West Coast."

Part II "examines the clash of cultural views that resulted from southern evangelicalism's West Coast sojourn." Specifically, he reports how southern evangelicals lost the battle for their "early nineteenth-century populism" in California's Democratic Party and later "forged a powerful political front on behalf of the emerging conservative movement."

In Part III he describes how the conservative impulse began to define itself in the churches and church-run schools of California and how it moved from there into precinct and government. He says that this "phalanx of institutions threw its full weight behind Barry Goldwater's presidential run in 1964."

Part IV, says Dochuk, "shows how this evangelical front helped win the governorship for Ronald Reagan in 1966, the South for Richard Nixon in 1972, and ultimately the country for Reagan's Republican Party in 1980." (The overview is found on pp. xx-xxi).

Chapter 1, "Plain Folk"

Dochuk sets out to describe those people who made the migration to Southern California. A large percentage of them came from the Western South, by which he means southern states, most all of them west of the Mississippi (including, especially, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, but also Missouri and Louisiana). According to the author, these folks embodied the Jeffersonian ideal of the plain person who knew how to raise a crop, who rejected special privilege and elitism, and who deeply valued the local community and, therefore, civic responsibility. Their political heroes were men like "Jeff Davis, the 'Wild Ass of the Ozarks,' W. Lee 'Pass the Biscuits, Pappy' O'Daniel of Texas, and Louisiana's Huey Long" (11).

Dochuk suggests that because these western southerners did not live at the center of the South, their memory of the Civil War was not so pointedly tragic. From a younger, less-settled part of the country than their cousins in the Upper and Deep South, they represented a culture that was forward-looking and optimistic. Upon moving west to California, they sought first to find good jobs and to establish strong churches in communities that would reflect their values and way of life. Dochuk points to the example of Bell Gardens, California in the 1930s, called by critics "Billy Goat Acres." Here was a place where recent arrivals from the South could find cheap housing close to local industry, a place where a person could keep chickens and raise a decent-sized garden.

"Yearning for familiarity" (a great phrase), these transplants naturally planted churches. They soon discovered that, living in such close proximity to one another and bound together by a common political, social, and religious outlook, what sprang up among them was a strong sense of belonging. But they also discovered that the same favorable economic and labor environment was just as available to other types of people as well. So it was up to the evangelicals to convert their neighbors in California, to save the lost of the world, which was now very close by.

So much for my overview of the Introduction and Chapter 1. The first thing I want to add is that my summary doesn't read nearly as well as the book itself. For the sake of brevity, I've left out almost all of the author's interesting details. But they are what make the journey of discovery in his description so enjoyable.

I have only one minor criticism of the book to this point: I think that Dochuk tends to overplay the idea that evangelicals from the South saw themselves as missionaries to Southern California. Observation and experience suggest that why a family moves and why they say they moved are sometimes two very different stories. Oftentimes, this is a matter of the family making the most of a less-than-desirable situation, and telling the version of the story that is most easy to live with, playing up the good that emerges in the new place. Dochuk suggests that the Grapes of Wrath view of southern migration to California doesn't represent the historical truth very well. Of course he's right about that. On the other hand, I don't think it was missionary zeal that led people like Okies to places like Bell Gardens. The evidence seems to suggest that it was hardship at home and the promise of a better life in California. Is there any evidence, for example, that southerners moved to California for the same kinds of reasons that members of the Churches of Christ moved to the Northeast in the Exodus Movement of the 1960s? I haven't seen any evidence for that so far. This is not to discount the real impact of these southerners. My only quibble is that I don't think there's a strong connection between why they moved to California and the religious and political influence they had once they got there.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent summary Frank. Keep up the good work.