Desert Fathers

The Religious Right’s real pioneers came not from the South but Southern California.

By Ed Kilgore

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From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism
by Darren Dochuk
W. W. Norton & Co., 520 pp.

 he saga of the Christian right is often told as a horror story of southern fanaticism escaping from the rural churches of Dixie and infecting the politics and culture of a sometimes uncomprehending country. Less well known is the history of conservative Christians who made Southern California their home, and who came to have as profound an impact on the emerging Sun Belt and its conservative approach to God and country as their brethren in the Deep South itself.

In his new book, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, Purdue University history professor Darren Dochuk tells the tale of southern migrants (mainly from the freewheeling states of the “western South” such as Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma) who flooded into the Los Angeles area before and after World War II. They brought with them a distinctive brand of institutionally adaptive but theologically rigid evangelical Protestantism, which eventually served as a crucial vanguard for the conservative movement that mobilized behind Barry Goldwater and reached the promised land via California’s own Ronald Reagan.

Dochuk excels in his profiles of early “plain-folk” settlers and their world, and the tangled personal, institutional, and doctrinal motives of the ministry that served them. He describes the evangelizing and church-building activities of “tent-makers and prophets”—essentially religious entrepreneurs—like Bob Shuler, Jonathan Perkins, and Robert Lackey, and the educational efforts of John Brown (whose John Brown University in Arkansas pioneered evangelical championship of capitalism) and George Pepperdine (whose eponymous university in Los Angeles, originally affiliated with the Churches of Christ, became one of the flagship conservative schools in the country). All of these leaders contributed to the politicalization of Southern California evangelicals and built a close alliance between churches and wealthy conservative ideologues.

Most of these settlers, battered by the Dust Bowl, were drawn to the Los Angeles area by the jobs that came with the massive defense spending that accompanied and followed World War II, and were soon inhabiting America’s first major “sprawl” community. Neighborhood churches became a focal point for political activism, and a militant anticommunism become a near-universal creed.

Throughout From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Dochuk shows an unusual sensitivity to the particular religious strains represented by his subjects, particularly the early importance in California of the conservative restorationists of the Churches of Christ (Pepperdine’s denominational origins), the neo-Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God, and both the southern and independent versions of the right wing of the Baptists.

Also born in California were the cross-denominational phenomena that were later to assume national importance. These included the neo-Pentecostal “charismatic movement” that eventually spread beyond Protestantism into the Catholic Church, and the youth-based “Jesus Movement” that became a notable feature of the popular culture of the 1970s. In addition, the first megachurches, a major Sun Belt phenomenon in the 1990s, first took root in the rich and heavily tilled cultural soil of Southern California.

But it is in the realm of politics where California’s Christian conservatives most significantly led the way. Whereas white Christians in the South didn’t bolt the Democratic Party until the 1960s, their brethren in California began leaving as far back as the 1940s and ’50s, Dochuck notes, thanks to the growing progressivism of California’s Democratic Party and its labor allies. There were widespread battles over school curricula and textbooks in California a good forty years before the Christian Coalition made school boards a prime target across the country. Dochuk also suggests that California’s political culture (up to and including the shock of the Watts riots of 1965) forced southern expats to abandon overt racism and pioneer the sort of race-is-not-an-issue rhetoric and aggressive recruitment of like-minded African American and Latino ministers, a strategy that southern conservatives took longer to adopt.

By the end of the 1950s, much of what was later known as the Christian right was already in place in Southern California, with very active evangelical ministers and lay people avidly backing conservative cultural and economic causes and assisting in a conservative takeover of the state’s Republican Party. It’s no wonder that the area was a hotbed of support for Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, which in turn was the basis for Ronald Reagan’s successful gubernatorial run in 1966.

Reagan, suggests Dochuk, was the perfect vehicle for a “centrist conservatism” that reassured voters frightened by Goldwater’s rhetoric, but was closer personally to the religious and corporate figures who dominated Republican politics in Southern California. They forgave him several heresies as governor, most notably his signature on a liberalized abortion law and his opposition to a ballot initiative aimed at barring gay teachers from classrooms. But it was the disgrace of Richard Nixon, who had his own complex relationship with religious conservatives back home,  that united California’s evangelical conservatives behind Reagan’s national aspirations. “Because of Watergate, an emboldened Democratic Party was able to solidify control of Congress,” writes Dochuk. “Moderate Republicans, meanwhile, leveraged Nixon’s follies to shift the GOP back to the center, a transition symbolized by President Ford’s choice of Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president.” Thus Californians (particularly the future apocalyptic novelist Tim LaHaye) played a major role in the creation of the organized Christian right, even though southerners like Jerry Falwell were their most visible spokesmen.

The book ends with Reagan’s 1980 victory, with a short epilogue suggesting that California’s ever-changing demographics (including a reverse migration of southerners back to Texas and other new Sun Belt boom areas) and the fading away of key leaders shifted the center of gravity in the latter-day Christian right eastward—but without changing the formative elements the movement acquired in the crucible of greater Los Angeles.

Dochuk carries off his argument quite well, though the vast cast of characters he conjures up is difficult to navigate. His ardor to make his case for Southern California’s central position in the religious and political conservative movements also leads Dochuk to a cataloging of California connections for virtually every major conservative figure in the country that sometimes rings false. Reading this book, you might be forgiven for thinking Strom Thurmond spent more time in LA than in Columbia or Charleston, or that Billy Graham’s California Crusades were the only ones that mattered.

This meticulously researched book is also marred by some factual errors. Billy Graham was never, as Dochuk calls him, “Richard Nixon’s right-hand man.” Pat Boone was not quite the political and cultural powerhouse he seems to be in this account. But Dochuk’s central hypothesis comes through the exposition well established. As he puts it in a comment on those who advance the standard theory of contemporary conservatism:

[W]here they saw the “southernization of America” on a north-south trajectory, they should have looked for it on an east-west axis. During the preceding generations, transplanted Texans and Oklahomans like Bill Bright and E. V. Hill had “southernized” Southern California evangelicalism, creating an awesome political force. As a way to compete in a cultural marketplace saturated with faiths of all kind, adjust to new arrangements of urban space, capture and hold their hearts of their young, and vie for control of a fiercely contested political sphere, they had turned California’s evangelicalism into the vanguard of American evangelicalism. By the early 1970s, this emboldened religiosity had drawn on its entrepreneurial sense to help forge a creative, centrist, youthful, color-blind conservatism and fasten it to Ronald Reagan’s Republican Right.

Before they became thoroughly politicized, Southern California evangelicals were radicalized by the cultural collisions inevitable in their environment, and this drove them to find identity and a sense of collective purpose in the traditional faith and values of the region they had left behind. It’s significant in Dochuk’s tale that the most theologically rigid leaders often were the most innovative in building culturally adaptive churches, parachurch organizations, worship practices, evangelizing techniques, and political tactics. Conservative theology in a chaotic milieu often led to an identification of godliness with everything old that could be maintained when everything seemed new, and conservative cultural and political causes provided the glue once supplied by creeds, strong denominations, and traditional liturgy.

Throughout Dochuk’s book, conservative evangelicals regularly alternate between the defensive reaction of the “righteous remnant” to the alleged tyranny of secular humanists and big government, and self-assured claims that they represented a “moral majority” that was simply exercising the right to self-government. This ambiguity about the basic nature of America has become a regular feature not only of the Christian right but also of today’s big conservative grassroots movement (which heavily overlaps in membership with the Christian right), the Tea Party movement.

It may well be that this ambivalence was born in California, the wonderland and nightmare of so many of the “plain folk” and leaders Dochuk writes about in this ultimately fascinating portrait of the early Christian right.


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Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.  
 
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