From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Redux: Part II of Darren Dochuk Interview

Paul Harvey

Below I'm reposting part II of my interview with Darren Dochuk, author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. Part I of the interview is here. Part II was posted last week, but Mr. Monster-Blogger program ate it, so let's try this again. Hey, Mr. Blogger Man, play this post for me, I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

PH: You begin the book with one of the most famous tropes of American religious history -- the errand in the wilderness -- and use it to situate the plain folk from the South/Southwest that you are going to follow through the book. You write: "these white southern evangelicals envisioned themselves as pilgrims carrying out their own errand into the wilderness." Can you describe briefly how they saw that "errand," and more about what kind of world they hoped to create in that "wilderness"?

DD: While reading church newspapers like the California Southern Baptist and the Assemblies of God’s Informant I was struck by the way southern evangelicals approached their new home as if on a mission; pastors, editors, and denominational leaders all spoke of being on an “errand.” This isn’t uncommon among migrant groups, since uprooted-ness tends to encourage notions of exceptionalism, but I thought it was suggestive that southern evangelical migrants approached their move this way. Considering their impressive numbers, southern evangelicalism’s built-in entrepreneurialism, and the freedoms of Los Angeles’ hinterland, it seemed significant that southern evangelicals encountered their new home with a confidence that could affect change. Able to move from the small town south to self-contained suburbs, these sojourners didn’t feel the jarring effects of migration that we see in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which Old Testament motifs of banishment (“exodus” and “exile”) are stressed. This isn’t to discount Steinbeck, or historians like James Gregory, who rightly and beautifully describes the hardships southern migrants faced in California. Still, I think the errand motif is a helpful qualifier, because it stresses the empowerment southern evangelical migrants felt (and were told to feel) when resettling on the West Coast.

And to be honest, I also found it intriguing that these sojourners did what they set out to do—impose their will on their wilderness in order to awaken their people back home. Meant to give hope to an uprooted people, the “errand” motif (as exaggerated or skewed as it may have been) in fact became a blueprint of sorts that these sojourners followed to a tee. In the immediate, they used it as justification to carve out strong, independent churches, ministries, schools, and communities in which they could codify principles of individualism, local autonomy, laissez-faire economics, and family values. In the long-term, they used it to help fashion this amalgam of beliefs into a coherent political strategy—the GOP’s Sunbelt strategy—that would win the hearts and votes of the people they left behind in Oklahoma and Texas, and ultimately win them access to Washington’s halls of power. So, although a neat rhetorical device (another reason why I used it), the errand motif also points us to a real, lived experience that few historians have fully appreciated in the context of post-war religious and political change.

PH: As you know, the role of race within the "silent majority" is a major controversy of the historiography of twentieth-century conservatism. How did the people you write about conceptualize race in their worldview, and to what degree could they be seen as wanting to build communities, consciously or not, that preserved the privileges of whiteness?

Part of the challenge in writing a character driven narrative, as I tried to do, is that it’s tricky to delineate between subtle but important shades of racial views and measure structural forces of exclusion alongside attitudinal ones. It’s difficult to unpack this entire complex; others, like Paul Harvey, David Chappell, Joe Crespino, and Ed Blum, have done a more thorough job of it. That said, my book tries to offer a basic insight or two.

First, I think the racial “backlash” storyline is too simplistic. Other historians have stressed this point, but the sense that evangelical conservatives have acted (and continue to act) out of some sort of race rage remains strong. In terms of attitudes, the southerners I study came west with assumed notions of white privilege, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s they built churches and communities that sought (consciously or not) to protect this privilege. Southern California’s decentralized suburbs made this easy. But there was room within this worldview for preachers and parishioners to reconsider their views in light of California’s multicultural landscape; during the 1960s and 1970s many did, some didn’t, at least initially, and a few took it upon themselves to ensure that their neighborhoods remained white only. What is important, though, is the degree to which California evangelicalism’s moderates rose to the forefront and, through increasingly interracial ministries and interracial alliances (with black Baptist and Latino Pentecostals, for example), forged a post-racial, “color-blind” conservatism that celebrated the virtues of free markets and family values beyond white-nonwhite divided. Part savvy, part sincere, California’s color-blind conservatism certainly had its internal contradictions and limitations, but the point is that it allowed evangelicals and conservatives generally to turn their political attention to other pressing matters, like gender, women’s rights, and sexuality, and form a more centrist Right that could win the nation.

Again, this isn’t to diminish or write race out of the story as much as it is to complicate it a bit. Certainly, in terms of structural forces, my subjects contributed to a much larger system of racial exclusion, one in which their conservatism (either in its Jim Crow form or in its color-blind dispensation) was ill equipped to provide systematic answers. But then again, few Californians, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, could locate or agree on answers at the time. Southern evangelicals didn’t have to teach Southern Californian’s how to be racist, in other words, nor did they alone make Los Angeles the most segregated American city; systemic economic inequities created these divides, and whites of all class and partisan persuasion perpetuated them. To pin too much on evangelical conservatives is to miss a master narrative of prejudice in which everyone is implicated. At the same time, to downplay or lose sight of race and racism in evangelical conservatism’s history is equally dangerous. However explicitly or not, however innocently or not, the people I study made decisions based on a range of social, economic, theological, and political motivations that had lasting, negative consequences for race relations in California and the country, and that legacy is still with us today.

PH: Talk briefly about how much influence the John Birch Society and like minded groups played for the coming together of evangelicalism and conservatism which you trace in the book? Would you agree with Lisa McGirr that, while the Birchers eventually of course got pushed out of mainstream conservatism by politicians such as Reagan when he was governor, that the Birchers nonetheless were central for a certain time in galvanizing people at the grassroots?

Lisa McGirr rightly emphasizes the John Birch Society’s key role in Southern California’s Right. The JBS certainly nurtured a sharper-edged, fundamentalist conservatism that responded well to the “extremism…is no vice” side of Goldwater’s GOP. But what I found so remarkable, when tracking this group, was how “normal” it seemed as a type of social club for average suburbanites. Political ideas mattered to JBS members, and they acted on them with strong conviction, but the society also functioned as a gathering space in which businessmen, engineers, and housewives could debate free market principles and talk about neighborhood issues and current events.

This was just as true (if not more so) among transplanted southerners who worshipped in fundamentalist Baptist churches associated with J. Frank Norris and the Baptist Bible Fellowship—out of which John Birch emerged as a missionary during World War II. Whether they joined the JBS or not, members of BBF churches held John Birch in high regard, and viewed the JBS with respect as a front-line organization fighting the good fight for all patriotic Christians. Such steadfast commitment to the JBS cause, in fact, made JBS leaders nervous. Churches like Tim LaHaye’s in San Diego were so welcoming of JBS members and ideology that they made the JBS redundant; who needed a JBS cell group when megachurches offered the same teachings in a livelier setting? JBS leaders tried to steer their members away from LaHaye and other Baptist churches, but to no avail.

The larger point, though, is that the JBS was critical to California conservatism’s pre-1966 history. Even after Reagan purged JBS members from the GOP—a key step in conservatism’s move from the Goldwater margins to the Reagan center—Southern California’s independent Baptists would remain fiercely loyal to the JBS message. And in a way, their pulpits and pews would become even more important conveyances of this message after the JBS was forced underground.

PH: Your book traces the triumph of your subjects in reorienting the politics and culture of a nation, yet the book's epilogue ends with some of your key characters (such as Oklahoma migrant Jean Vandruff, whose entire life trajectory your follow as emblematic of the broader processes you discuss in the book) wondering about their "community's moral fabric and political future." Do you think the main subjects of your book perceive their "errand in the wilderness" from the New Deal to the present day to have been a successful one?

I begin and end the book with Jean Vandruff because he’s the man who got the project rolling—I started thinking about the southern migration angle soon after interviewing him. It was striking to hear Jean talk about his community’s life story in a rise and fall pattern—as if the errand was achieved by 1980 then lost again. On one hand, this isn’t that unusual—generational change is easily couched in these terms.

But on the other, I thought it was quite suggestive of how evangelicals saw their movement after 1980. When talking to others, I got the sense that the Cold War era was really good for evangelicalism, and that this prosperity crested in the 1970s, but then declined. And it’s true—this decade did see California evangelicalism emerge as a national trendsetter. As I point out in the book, the “born again” phenomenon that swept America was, in many ways, a California creation. And things in Southern California did change dramatically after 1980—the loss of defense contracts and tax bases meant local economies struggled (leaving some communities, like Orange County, bankrupt, and churches struggling to stay afloat), and shifting migration patterns meant that California’s Cold War evangelicalism was no longer primed for the future.

Of course, it’s easy to stress this too much. Evangelicalism has always thrived on the declension narrative—the first generation’s tribulation is always viewed by the next as opportunity calling, and in evangelical circles the “errand” is never done; this, after all, is evangelicalism’s life source. So it’s dangerous to overplay this rise and fall pattern. Moreover, as a religious movement, evangelicalism did adjust its vision—its “errand”—and find new frontiers after the 1970s, in newer suburbs built between Anaheim and San Diego, west towards Riverside, and north towards the Central Valley. By the 1990s it would also find its way back into the city as a movement that new immigrant groups and more diverse communities could revitalize according to their own emphases. As a political movement, evangelicalism continued to extend its grassroots influence into the 1990s and 2000s as an arm of the GOP. It would do so, however, amid the rising influence of other conservative constituents (Catholic and Mormon), and an empowered liberal Democratic opposition.

So, by adopting the language of an errand won then lost, perhaps my book contributes to a slightly skewed outlook. Overstated or not, however, I think Jean Vandruff’s assessment isn’t far from the truth: that the Reagan years (1966-1974) were California evangelicalism’s golden years.


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