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When I was growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, I knew the end was near. “The thrilling sense of imminent doom”…the fear of communists…the expectation of“Rapture [at] any moment” informed my life, just as it did Grant Wacker’s, though, perhaps, with less referencing of McCarthy and Eisenhower and more of Brezhnev, Khomeini, and the Red Army hockey team. A fear of the Bomb consumed, as did fascination with an actor who had won the White House with a promise to sub due the Soviets. My point is that when reading Wacker’s review of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt,1 I remembered what drew me to this project in the first place, namely a pesky fascination with Cold War universals that animated the evangelical subculture I grew up in, universals that crossed national and generational boundaries. Central Alberta in the 1970s and 1980s was not southwest Missouri in the 1950s—and it certainly was not Southern California in the 1960s—but my intellectual foray into these territories let me revisit something familiar and personal, and in a sense bridge Wacker’s world with my own.

If inquisitiveness set From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in motion, a scholarly quest sustained it: to thread evangelical individuals, institutions, and ideologies into anexpansive story of post-1930s political change, and to do so by way of engaging narrative. Wacker’s generous comments suggest that I struck a few chords, and for that I am pleased. They are especially gratifying since Wacker’s own writing is a model to which younger scholars aspire. To be commended for “clear and edgy” prose and “methodological precision” means a lot, because the commendation comes from someone who has set an impossibly high standard on both counts.

I also appreciate Wacker’s positive words about my book’s dealings with race and Southern California exceptionalism, two related themes. One of the most exciting trends in current scholarship is the study of Southern California. In the 1940s, Carey McWilliams called this place an “island on the land” set apart from the nation; twenty years later, he called it the “nation to come.” Historians, as of late, have begun charting this metamorphosis, opening up in the process fresh ways of understanding America. While urban historians have looked to this region’s patterns of metropolitan growth as indicators of a new urbanism, cultural historians have stressed this region’s mid-century battles against Jim Crow in housing, industry, and education as a sign of what was to come in the nation writ large. It was Southern California in the 1940s and not the South in the 1960s, they charge, that thrust civil rights onto a national stage. Political historians, meanwhile, have profiled this region’s many left- and right-wing movements as trigger-points for national power. While “suburban warriors” of Southern California’s New Right have been identified as vanguards for Goldwaterism, numerous labor, civil rights, and student activists have been singled out as shock troops for a vibrant American Liberal-Left. Rather than an exception to national change, in other words, Southern California is emerging from this new historiography as the pivot and pacesetter.

My intention for From Bible Belt to Sunbelt was to follow these leads by integrating this region’s ground-breaking brand of evangelicalism in the mainstream account of postwar American political culture. Much first-rate work has already been done in this regard, but when starting research for this book it seemed to me that historians of evangelicalism had not yet probed questions others were now asking of this region. In what ways, for instance, did Southern California’s post-suburban grid precipitate evangelical action over zoning, land use, and property taxes? Why, in response to an advancing liberalism, did Southern California evangelicals fiercely protect their statuses as laborers, homeowners, parents, and patriots? And (returning to Wacker’s comment), how did they deal with race? I found that the answers to these questions were waiting to be pried out of the rich histories of local churches—sites of community organization where evangelicals are always most active. Reverend E. V. Hill’s biography, which Wacker highlights as a “hidden gem” in my story, is a case in point. This illustrious Baptist pastor sought interracial healing by accentuating the transformative potential of individuals; “changed hearts and minds”—not enlarged government—was his antidote toJim Crow. This conviction, coupled with the fact that he led a booming congregation in the heart of Watts, made this black minister a perfect ally of Billy Graham, Richard Nixon, and an emerging, “color blind” Republican Right. Hill is exceptional insofar as he earned a sparkling national reputation. Yet my larger point is that E. V. Hill is but one of countless “hidden gems” waiting to be unearthed by more thorough investigation of local evangelical institutions, and more careful consideration of evangelicals’ investment in the politics of race, space, and place.

The irony, perhaps, is that even when focusing on Southern California’s dynamic evangelical institutions, I overlooked one of its most powerful. Wacker is right to point out this shortcoming in his first criticism: Why does Fuller Theological Seminary—whose history George Marsden brought to life in Reforming Fundamentalism (1987)—make virtually no appearance in my story? There is no doubt that Fuller was the flagship of America’s “new evangelicalism;” through rigorous research and compelling prose, Marsden’s book made that perfectly clear. In someways, my own “relative inattention” to Fuller grew partly out of this fact—that Marsden had left little else to say. Perhaps in my own eagerness to carve out a new path, I strayed too far from this epicenter. Admittedly, I recognized this failing before the book’s final draft was done and—hurriedly and haphazardly—tried to insert more of Fuller in my account. Alas, the slapdash add-ons were left on the cutting-room floor. Had I treated Fuller with nuance from the start, however, I would certainly have followed Wacker’s line of reasoning and featured it as one of Southern California evangelicalism’s most important exports.

That said, and in my defense, two bits of logic nudged me away from Fuller. First, my story is about the impact predominantly southern-based “plain folk, preachers, and entrepreneurs” had on California culture, and the way they helped forge a conservative political bloc across the nation’s southern rim. In my estimation, Fuller Seminary is representative of an evangelicalism created by men (Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and so forth) whose theological and political tendencies were carved out in Illinois and Massachusetts rather than Texas and Oklahoma. What I do not show, of course, is the degree to which Ockenga, Henry, and especially the businessmen who financed Fuller Seminary (and other “new evangelical” agencies like the National Association of Evangelicals), helped shift American evangelicalism’s pre-World War II gaze on Chicago and Boston to post-war Sunbelt locales like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta. This is an important omission, but in some respects, at least, I believed I could cover this same ground by paying attention to the history of the Church of the Open Door (COD). Like Fuller Seminary, COD entered the 1940s comfortably oriented to Midwestern evangelicalism, but by the 1960s it was attuned to the theological emphases, economic potentials, and political priorities of the South.

This leads to my second bit of logic. To a degree, I felt it necessary to trim Fuller’s story in order to include Pepperdine University’s, which I find more interesting and illustrative. So few historians of evangelical conservatism make room for the Church of Christ; it is usually deemed too sectarian to be worth including in the story. At the very least, then, I felt that incorporating a Church of Christ institution would add texture to a historiography dominated by the Fuller Seminaries and Wheaton Colleges of the evangelical orb. But more than that, I think Pepperdine’s past opens up fresh ways of looking at evangelical politics in the modern era. This school’s origins in the 1930s (rooted in anti-New Deal agitation),its blossoming amid wartime mobilization in the 1940s, its struggles to remain a float financially during the 1950s preoccupation with public education, its attempt to escape crisis by forging alliances with wealthy Republicans in the 1960s, and its struggles to come to terms with rising cultural influence and political power in the1970s, paints “plain-folk” evangelicalism’s ascendancy in sharp relief.

Wacker’s second criticism of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is also well taken, if more difficult to answer. My “relative inattention to manliness” is something that hints at a larger neglect in my work, namely a relative inattention to gender. From the beginning, my attempt to give men and women of all social standing a voice was deliberate, and I feel that my book adequately covers this ground. That said, the way in which my subjects saw their politics through the lens of gender is something that gets left out. I hint at the bravado that moved west with the first generation of “saddle-bag” pastors and show how this informed their view of interdenominational relations and American war efforts abroad, but I do not track these ascriptions of rugged manliness into the anticommunist crusades of the 1950s, Goldwater and Reagan “cowboy conservatism” of the 1960s, or the fierce culture wars of the 1970s, when gender and gay rights topped all other political concerns. I suggest ways in which plainfolk women who moved west amid Depression and war fulfilled gender norms expected of them by the frontiers women of yesteryear (perseverance, independence, and assertiveness), but I do not adequately show how these norms filtered into more inflexible Republican rules of Christian womanhood that informed second-generation housewives who fought the feminists of their day. Some of this has to do with the natural momentum of the book; where asits early chapters offer thick descriptions of cultural expectations at the local level, its later chapters concentrate on the institutional mechanisms that thrust these expectations onto a national stage. But in the main, it is a function of assuming too much and analyzing too little, and of skimming over sources that Wacker rightly suggests were ripe for interpretation.

I too will end on a personal note by thanking Grant Wacker for his thoughtful critique, the hours he invested in assessing From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, and most importantly, for the encouragement he has offered these past few years as I have worked to bring the book to completion. I hope I have done justice to his generation.

Cite this article
Darren Dochuk, “Response to the Grant Wacker Review of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 317-320


  1. Darren Dochuk. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise ofEvangelical Conservatism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 544 pp. $35.00, ISBN 9780393066821.

Darren Dochuk

Darren Dochuk is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University.