On Political Books

March/April 2011 Desert Fathers

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

By Ed Kilgore

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 a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.