When I was growing up in the 1950s in a small town in southwest Missouri, I knew the end was near. That thrilling sense of imminent doom partly stemmed from my parents’ ardent premillennialism; we expected the Rapture any moment. But it also stemmed from the daily newspaper. And with good reason. The communists—commies, we called them—had acquired The Bomb, overrun China, driven United Nations forces into a humiliating truce in Korea, hurled Sputnik into space, crushed Hungarian freedom fighters, and colonized Cuba. Worst of all, Senator Joseph McCarthy had been muzzled by the Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, when he tried to expose traitors in the State Department.
When I was a college student in the late 1960s in the Bay Area, I still knew the end was near. Now, however, the reasons were different. The Rapture no longerthreatened, but right-wingers did. The United States had fallen into a senseless war in Southeast Asia, and the people of California had elected an actor—an actor, no less—to govern one of the largest and most forward-looking states in the nation. Soon, four students lay dead on an American college campus, gunned down not by the Viet Cong but by our own National Guard.
From the perspective of 2010, I can see that I was partly wrong in both the 1950s and in the 1960s. Actually, I have known that for some time now, but Darren Dochuk’s brilliant book1 helps me and, I suspect, many others of my generation better understand why.
Dochuk’s story begins in the early years of the twentieth century in the south central states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. That era and region served as the destination of hundreds of thousands of plain folk from the Old South, the states east of the Mississippi. They represented hard-working men and women searching for better jobs and a better life. Besides their skills and ambition, they brought a fervent creed that Dochuk calls “Jefferson and Jesus.” The “Jefferson” part of the creed esteemed the wisdom of the common man, the will of the majority, and the entwined values of localism, individualism, volunteerism, and free enterprise. If white racial superiority was presupposed, so was contempt for the silk hat crowd that ran the banks and railroads. That meant that government held a legitimate role: to curtail predatory business practices and to curb social evils like prostitution, divorce, and the teaching of evolution. The “Jesus” part of the creed was rooted in the theology and practices of nineteenth-century revivalism, but in the hot sun of the western South, it took a harder, more combative form. Dochuk calls it “Texas theology.” Less haunted by the “ghosts of the Confederacy” and less worried about defending the “Lost Cause,” partisans of the Texas theology manifested a jut-jawed determination to establish its place in the center of their society. Separation of church and state was a good thing, but only to a point.
Yet times remained tough. In the 1930s and 1940s, drought and depression drove the same settlers and their children into a new migration, this time into the sprawling orange groves and burgeoning defense industry of southern California. Jefferson and Jesus went with them. In the migrants’ minds, government still had a legitimate role, but only to provide economic opportunities (especially for white people), not suffocate economic growth with needless regulations and handouts. By the end of the War, Uncle Sam was signing forty percent of the region’s pay-checks. If the wide-open southern California environment offered energetic folk opportunities to do well, it also offered them opportunities to do good. They planted churches, evangelized neighbors, and orchestrated welfare programs. What the historian Everett Wilson has said about Latin American Pentecostals, Dochuk might well have said about Southern California evangelicals: they did not have a social program; they were a social program.
In the 1960s, two powerful yet contrasting political impulses increasingly defined California evangelicals. The first was the rise of the hard right, which culminated in the nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater for president. Though his Jewish roots and Episcopal affiliation caused some concern, his flinty commitment to free enterprise, hatred of communism, and distrust of United Nations internationalism rang true. The second process represented growing doubt about the wisdom of Goldwater’s confrontational approach. Many found Governor—and later, President—Ronald Reagan’s “creative conservatism” more appealing. Reagan knew that liberals were there to stay and that he would have to work with them. He also knew that there was no place for racism in modern America. And though he preferred publicly to herald the virtues of free enterprise, privately he understood that government could not abandon its time-honored role as a safety net. Besides all that, Reagan was an upfront evangelical Christian. If God could forgive his free-living Hollywood past, evangelicals could too.
While secular political figures like Goldwater and Reagan play important roles in Dochuk’s narrative, the focus falls on a vast cast of ordinary evangelical believers and not-so-ordinary evangelical leaders. The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by fire breathers like “Fightin’ Bob” Schuler and J. Frank Norris (a Texan who, after being acquitted of a murder charge, spent much time in Southern California). The 1960s and 1970s, in contrast, were dominated by up-town educators like George Benson and George Pepperdine and by renowned pulpiteers like J. Vernon McGee and Billy Graham. The stars of the later period remained committed to the principles of free enterprise and personal evangelism. Yet they, like Reagan, understood that free enterprise required common-sense adjustments, and that personal evangelism worked better with an irenic style that emphasized applications over abstractions and inclusion over exclusion.
Southern California evangelicals won, at least in some respects. Though Dochuk does not provide hard data about their escalating economic fortunes—who could?—both qualitative and anecdotal evidence leave little doubt that they prospered in the sunshine state. They effectively colonized Anaheim and Orange Counties and spread their influence over much of the rest of the state. They built a dense network of schools and colleges (most notably, Pepperdine University), helped pass landmark legislation (most notably, Propositions 13 and 8), and propelled favorite candidates into public office (most notably, state school superintendent Max Rafferty and, of course, Ronald Reagan). They provided key players in the nationwide evangelical surge of the 1970s, including Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, Melodyl and founder Ralph Wilkerson, and the immensely influential (and immensely under appreciated) African American pastor and evangelist, E. V. Hill. The more conservative minority among them fueled the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s, and the more liberal majority among them provided crucial support for Billy Graham’s crusades in California and elsewhere.
Other able historians have examined aspects of Dochuk’s story, but no one has woven all the strands as masterfully. Not surprisingly, the Ph.D. dissertation (Notre Dame, 2005) that undergirds the book won the Allan Nevins Prize for the best history dissertation produced in the United States that year. Besides the exhaustive research in archival, primary, and secondary sources, four features of the study particularly merit notice.
First, the prose, which is consistently clear and as edgy as the story it tells. Frequently I found myself pausing to cut and paste memorable lines into my KindleClip File: “Hardship was inevitable but defeat was not;” “the unassuming edifice and unforgiving pew;” “plain-folks schooled by life rather than by the Ivy League;” and countless more. Equally striking is Dochuk’s eye for the telling quotation. “Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet,” he paraphrases Milton Friedman, “put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.” And humor. The Los Angeles pulpit prince J. Vernon McGee once advised a protégé to make his sermons as simple as he could, and then go back and make them simpler, and then do it again, and when you preach it, your main elder will come to you and say, “‘My, preacher, you were sure wading deep this morning!’”
The second feature that merits notice is the compelling demonstration that a major part of the twentieth century evangelical story lies in Southern California. Dochuk wisely does not argue that the latter was more important than the steamy revivals of the Old South or the drafty Bible schools of the North. But he does suggest that Southern California proved comparably important, for it offered a perennially fertile site for conservative growth and expansion. There, defense,agribusiness, rubber, chemicals, petroleum, aerospace, and electronics, coupled with advanced media, advertising, and marketing tools, provided resources for millions of plain folk eager to leverage themselves up the ladder. Other scholars have documented the seismic demographic shift that spun millions out of the South and into Southern California, but no one has so carefully analyzed the religious world they took with them.
The third noteworthy feature is Dochuk’s methodological precision. For one thing, he pays attention to his sources. Like a patient school teacher, sometimes he calls on the faceless folk riding the rail cars west and asks them simply to tell their stories. Sometimes he turns to “silvery tongued” preachers. And sometimes he showcases plutocrats and educators. He also pays attention to irony, and, more important, he does not try to smooth it away by cherry-picking the texts. The most conspicuous example was the recurrent tension between evangelicals’ certitude about their core doctrines and their simultaneous determination to evangelize others, which of course required engaging the outside world on its own terms. If evangelicals never quite mastered that tension, they never failed for lack of trying. And he gets the cues right too, all the way down to evangelicals’ favored style of household architecture. To be sure, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt’s dramatic opening pages make Billy Graham look more like a performer fresh from central casting than the earnest pleader for souls that he really was. Yet Dochuk’s frequent references to Graham elsewhere are carefully crafted and feel exactly right.
Finally, Dochuk’s handling of race merits praise, both for his even-handedness and for his courage to read the evidence as it is rather than forcing it to fit a predetermined hagiographic or iconoclastic mold. On one hand, he shows that California evangelicals started with assumptions of white superiority. In time, they embraced colorblind politics, yet rarely saw that those policies often perpetuated historic structures of discrimination. On the other hand, Dochuk makes clear that evangelical leaders like Pepperdine, McGee, and Graham worked by their best lights. After all, if Martin Luther King could say that children should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin, it is understandable that evangelicals would take his words at face value. More important, their ranks gradually reflected a rainbow of color. By the late 1970s, even the liberal journalist Carey McWilliams—no fan—would admit that the evangelical denizens of the “’the missile crescent’” stretching from Florida to Southern California were “by no means exclusively white; thousands of Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, Indians and White ethnics are also members.”
The gem in the crown is Dochuk’s powerful and empathetic portrait of E. V. Hill, the fiery and influential African American pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in the heart of Los Angeles’ Watts district. Largely overlooked by historians, Hill won respect as one of the finest preachers in the nation. He also won the censure of the African American left, which discounted his conservative politics along with his conservative religion. Yet Dochuk shows that Hill remained acutely aware of the suffering around him. He just felt that civil rights activists were looking for answers in the wrong places, in legislation rather than in personal conversion and tightly bound and morally upright local communities.
In a work of such achievement, it seems churlish to ask for more. But in the interest of the sport, I will raise two questions that might lead to fruitful re-thinking for the guaranteed second edition. The first question arises from Dochuk’s relative inattention to Fuller Theological Seminary. Founded in Pasadena in 1947, Fuller soon grew to be the most influential evangelical seminary in the nation. (Today, with nearly 5,000 students, three professional schools, and six campuses scattered across four Western states, it is also the largest and strongest.) Its founder, Charles E. Fuller, enjoyed international fame, partly because his weekly radio program, “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” long ranked as the mostly widely heard religious broadcast in America. Fuller Seminary’s Ph.D.- heavy faculty represented the intellectual stars of the evangelical world. Prolifically productive, they turned out theological scholarship weighty enough to win the combative attention of mainline theologians. To be sure, “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour” fit the “folksy,”“homegrown,” “saddlebag saint” image that Dochuk broad-brushes onto the larger movement. Yet the seminary, with its decidedly three-piece-suit and bowler hat ambience, did not. If Dochuk had featured Fuller Seminary rather than Pepperdine University, the picture would look more complex, and so would the Sunbelt’s influence on American life.
The second question grows from Dochuk’s relative inattention to manliness. To be sure, he talks about evangelicals’ esteem for valor on the battlefield and John Birch’s heroism in China. Yet the sources imply more than he notices, for they relentlessly intimate the manliness of authentic evangelical belief and practice over against the effeteness of liberal ecumenism and compromise. Evangelicals stood tall for their principles. They did not back down in the face of communism a broador internationalism at home. And later on, when secular humanists emerged as the primary threat, they did not cower. Rather, they launched a counter attack, building their own schools, colleges, radio programs, television stations, and even cable networks. Shrewdly grasping the tactics of precinct work, they outflanked their enemies by running for office and often winning. Not surprisingly, Donn Moomaw, UCLA’s one time star quarterback, served as a respected Bel Air pastor and “poster boy” for Campus Crusade for Christ. Many historians make too much of their evidence; in this particular case, Dochuk makes too little.
I started on a personal note and will end the same way. George Marsden, whom many regard as the “dean” of American religious historians, recently retired from active teaching at the University of Notre Dame. Marsden’s many achievements included mastery of the art of narrative history. Dochuk learned well. If this book portends the future, Marsden’s secret lies in safe hands for decades to come.