From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: An Interview with Darren Dochuk



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Editor's Note: I'm delighted today to post the first of a two-part interview (the rest will come tomorrow) with Darren Dochuk, author of the recent and much-noted book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, published last year by Norton. The dissertation version of this work won the Allan Nevins Prize, and now in published form I predict the work will be a top contender for some of the big forthcoming prizes. Here's a brief rundown on the work, from the book's website:

From Bible Belt to Sun Belt tells the dramatic and largely unknown story of "plain-folk" religious migrants: hardworking men and women from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas who fled the Depression and came to California for military jobs during World War II. Investigating this fiercely pious community at a grassroots level, Darren Dochuk uses the stories of religious leaders, including Billy Graham, as well as many colorful, lesser-known figures to explain how evangelicals organized a powerful political machine. This machine made its mark with Barry Goldwater, inspired Richard Nixon's "Southern Solution," and achieved its greatest triumph with the victories of Ronald Reagan. Based on entirely new research, the manuscript has already won the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians. The judges wrote, "Dochuk offers a rich and multidimensional perspective on the origins of one of the most far-ranging developments of the second half of the twentieth century: the rise of the New Right and modern conservatism.

Of course, an endorsement of this work from a justly obscure historian such as myself means jack, so let's look at what some of the premiere historians of our time (Kevin Starr, Michael Kazin, and Sean Wilentz) have to say about it:

The nation is today color-coded into red and blue. In this tour de force of research, narrative, and analysis, a brilliant young historian chronicles how Southern California served as the matrix for this enduring bifurcation. Beneath the sunshine and the palm trees, uprooted evangelicals experienced a Great Awakening that transformed American politics in our era.” — Kevin Starr, University of Southern California

“With narrative authority and sparkling insight, Darren Dochuk explains how and why Southern California became the crucible of the Christian Right. Anyone who wants to understand the history of modern American conservatism should read this book.” — Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

“Darren Dochuk's fortunate readers are in for some surprises as well as for enlightenment. The story of the Dust Bowl and the migration to southern California during the Great Depression, usually told through the left-wing tale of Tom Joad, turns out to be prologue to the rise of a vital segment of the modern Christian Right. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an essential contribution to our growing understanding of the origins and development of contemporary American conservatism.” — Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy

Just as a final note, I used this work this semester in conjunction with Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Wal-Mart (which we've featured extensively on the blog before, and is also reviewed, somewhat more critically, here) and Jefferson Cowie's fascinating new book Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (reviewed at length by Rick Perlstein here). Taking the three together -- with Dochuk and Moreton centrally featuring religious themes and characters, and Cowie scarcely mentioning religion as his interests/subjects lie elsewhere -- made for a fascinating comparison and contrast of recent history, especially the 1970s. In truth, by very different routes, the authors end up in some similar places, but perhaps the routes are more interesting than the final destination. For more extensive discussion of the emerging historiography of the 1970s, see the fine discussion over at U.S. Intellectual History.

Without further adieu, it's question time for Darren.

Update: Part II of the interview is here.
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PH: Darren, how does a volleyball star like you from the Great Plains of Socialist Canada end up studying and writing this massive book about conservative southern evangelicals in twentieth-century California? Take us through some of your professional trajectory that got you to this book.

DD: The Great Plains, Socialist Canada, and volleyball may have had something to do with my obsessions. As a kid growing up in Alberta, I had a warped fascination with all things American; I read more about George Washington than John A. Macdonald, I loved U.S. college football, and my family’s annual vacation usually took us south (Edmontonians don’t drive north unless ice fishing or moose hunting are in order). South meant Southern California, a place where we could escape the Great Plains tundra for beaches and Disneyland. It wasn’t uncommon for us to use some of the 30 hours of driving time to debate why Americans hate government so much and Canadians don’t think it’s so bad. Then, while playing university volleyball, I had the chance to compete against California programs I followed as a high schooler. I had the best match of my career against the Pepperdine Waves, despite being heckled by some brutally tough fans. So perhaps the book can be boiled down to catharsis—some subconscious attempt to reclaim (or maybe purge) a familiar past…but I’ll leave that up to my sister psychologist to figure out.


The “professional trajectory” can be summed up more simply. While struggling to find a Ph.D. dissertation topic, I read (and loved) Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors and thought more could be done to explain Southern California conservatism, so I set out to do it. My goal was to write a book that embedded evangelicalism in the larger story of post-1930s politics by teasing out its connections to suburbanization, political economy, race relations, and the politics of labor, education, housing, and business. I wanted to thread evangelicalism into mainstream narratives of U.S. political history, which still tend to paint evangelicalism as a sideshow.

PH: I read somewhere, on another online interview I think it was, that in part this book is a response (and historical critique) of the "What's the Matter with Kansas" thesis, which of course holds that a fair number of Americans have been effectively snookered into voting against the own material economic interests by forces which have sold them on a falsely cultural populism. Am I right in seeing this book in part as a response, and if so, how so?

DD: I didn’t set out to address Frank’s thesis, but my book touches on a few of its themes. At the least, it tries to add a layer of complexity to Frank’s notion that Main Street populists have been “duped” by Wall Street corporate types into voting against their economic interests. First of all, the “duped” motif has its limitations. Some of the Wall Street types I include in my story could be classified as evangelical populists themselves whose own politics covered a range of issues beyond their pocketbooks; economic interest wasn’t their sole interest. And many of the Main Street types I talk about continually measured their economic interests against the “culture wars” agenda they’ve purportedly been spoon-fed from above, so to say they were snookered into doing something against their wellbeing shortchanges their own capacity as rational political actors.

Along this same line, I think Frank’s provocative critique also downplays the processes of negotiation that have taken place between Wall Street and Main Street over the past half-century. The people I talk about were embroiled in a struggle against liberalism that started much earlier than the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, and the alliances they forged to fight their battles were not static, uncontested, or permanent. The Main Street evangelicals I write about were never perfectly or entirely or always willing to do Wall Street’s dirty work in the trenches, and the evangelical businessmen I talk about sometimes acted on behalf of their rank-and-file brethren in ways that defied fiscal logic.

And ultimately, I’m hesitant to say someone is voting or acting against their best interests, as if I have some deep wisdom they don’t; I can’t even figure out what my own best interests are, let alone someone else’s, so I’m not that eager to pass judgment.

PH: The people you study didn't wait around for Rand Paul or the contemporary Tea Party to develop a pretty deep-rooted antipathy towards the New Deal and the expanded state that came out of the New Deal. Ironies abound here, of course, since the processes set in motion by the New Deal brought many of them to California in the first place. When did the subjects you study come to distrust the New Deal state, and how did they get to that point given their origins as poorer folk who were supposed to be one bulwark of the New Deal coalition? What role did religion play in that critique?

DD: I don’t think the people I study ever truly trusted the New Deal state. They certainly relied on it during times of trouble and they believed it was their right as white American citizens to do so; however contradictory or not, they thought that the federal government had a responsibility to provide short-term aid in exceptionally bad circumstances, and be the last resort in times of need. Roosevelt came through for these citizens, and they returned the favor by supporting him. But their first choice was always a limited state; as soon as times got better, Washington, they believed wholeheartedly, was to move aside.

When government didn’t move aside, they got angry. Their anger was politicized right after World War II, during the labor wars that erupted in the defense plants and neighborhoods that had lured them west.

Amid post-war adjustments, when California’s Social Democrats pressed for an active government that would support industrial unionism and race reform—for an expanded New Deal, in other words—southern evangelicals attempted to protect their interests as white workers and homeowners through a movement called Ham and Eggs, which combined calls for Christian revival and morality with a championing of the independent producer. This was William Jennings Bryan’s (and Huey Long’s) Populism reborn, and it scared Social Democrats, who believed that Ham and Eggs was irrational and racist. Ham and Eggs failed, leaving liberals in charge of California’s Democratic Party and evangelicals convinced that a coordinated assault on “big labor” and “big government” was in order. It’s in this moment that they began recasting Roosevelt and the New Deal as twin evils that had allowed socialism to creep in to American society.

It’s also in this moment that they began shifting their party affiliation to Independent and Republican. Evangelical businessmen, who at the time were helping form an anti-statist/free market movement, urged their fellow churchgoers along in this thinking. These sides would unite in the 1950s thanks, in large part, to Right-to-Work campaigns, which sought to rollback the power of unions in the workplace (sound familiar?).

PH: It's rather amazing to me that in reading your book alongside Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and WalMart, two previously obscure tiny colleges in Arkansas - John Brown University and Harding University -- have suddenly become central to the narrative of twentieth-century religion and conservatism, and hence to the entire narrative of twentieth-century American politics (I should add here that my cousin's son, who grew up in California, attends John Brown U.). As far as California higher educational institutions go, only Pepperdine plays as central a role in your book. Tell us something briefly about those two institutions, and what role they play in your book

Funny thing is, Bethany and I met in the one-room archive of John Brown University, tucked away in the foothills of the Ozarks. We were told that no researcher had visited in quite some time…yet there we were, two dissertators from “up north” eagerly flipping through files and splitting time at the photocopier.

The reason we were there is because we recognized that evangelical institutions have rich stories to tell. Historians often focus on preachers and the pews when tracking the evangelical Right. But a much thicker history of this phenomenon emerges when we follow the money trails that link evangelical schools to their patrons (highly politicized businessmen), or read between the lines to see how a college’s pedagogy endorses certain political expressions.

So, for instance, John Brown University and Harding University wrapped their pedagogy in a curriculum (“Head, Heart, and Hand”) that stressed practical education in the trades and business, full immersion in boots-strap entrepreneurialism, and staunch defense of traditional family values. These schools’ founders saw that this curriculum as a counter to the liberal elitism of the Ivy League, and the only answer to society’s “socialist” drift. Like countless other southern colleges, these two schools were near financial collapse in the 1930s. To save themselves—and preserve their independence—they approached the nation’s most powerful (and often evangelical) corporate leaders for support and got it, with the promise that they would train the next generation of evangelicals in a corporate-friendly environment. During the Cold War, as public education expanded and private schools faltered, John Brown, Harding, and their peer institutions stepped up their search for corporate help, by hosting annual “Freedom Forums,” for instance, which gathered CEOs, educators, and activists from around the country. In reaching out in this way, at such a formative moment in American political development, these schools essentially became the conservative movement’s first “think tanks” and marshaling zones.

I think a second benefit of studying these schools is the way they account for regional change in the post-Depression era. One of my book’s goals was to track the emergence of a Sunbelt axis of power—of the kind Kevin Phillips and Kirkpatrick Sale first designated in the 1970s as spanning from California to the Carolinas. Scholars have debated the strengths of the Sunbelt thesis, with detractors often stressing important differences in Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles’ metropolitan politics, or the disjuncture between notions of citizenship in Oxnard, California and Oxford Mississippi as reasons to jettison the concept. I think the Sunbelt concept is useful, and one way I saw it play out was in the realm of evangelical higher education. The more I dug the more I became fascinated with the way these schools (as well as west-coast ones like Pepperdine) linked the futures of the South and West through institutional channels, laying the groundwork for a broader, Sunbelt powerbase. Critics of the Sunbelt thesis claim that their research on urban development doesn’t bare the burden of this concept, but perhaps they should look to simpler data for evidence—bank statements for Christian colleges, which demonstrate Californian, Texan, and Floridians’ shared investment in places like John Brown University, or school enrollment books that track the flow of teens from Tulsa to Los Angeles, Orange County to the Ozarks—teens with last names like “Harvey."

Update: Part II of the interview is here.

6 comments:

Christopher at: May 10, 2011 at 11:34 AM said...

Fantastic stuff. I finally ordered my copy of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt yesterday (currently on sale for $9.92 on Amazon!) and can't wait to read it.

Gerardo Marti at: May 10, 2011 at 12:58 PM said...

Great to have this interview. I really enjoyed this book very much.

Rebecca at: May 10, 2011 at 8:28 PM said...

DOCHUK! DOCHUK! DOCHUK! (Just sayin.)

John Schmalzbauer at: May 10, 2011 at 10:57 PM said...

Dochuk's book could be a reading in my "Ozarks Religion" course. In 2009 I used Moreton. Love the fact that they first met in the archive at John Brown University. Call it the Route 66 theory of American politics and religion.

Kelly Baker at: May 11, 2011 at 8:46 AM said...

I just started it (in Kindle format), and I don’t want to put it down. I would much rather read Dochuk's lovely prose than index.

Anonymous at: February 5, 2012 at 8:18 PM said...

Your reference to :"Socialist Canada" in your interview question should lead to the description: "Fascist USA".

One is as much as the other...

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