From Bible Belt to Sun Belt

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Darren Dochuk. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: Norton, 2011. xxiv, 520 pp. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-393-06682-1.



Darren Dochuk's ambitious account of southern evangelicalism's rise in Southern California focuses on the 1930s-1970s when "transplanted southern evangelicalism, itself revitalized and recreated in the Golden State, moved from the margins of the southern Bible Belt to the mainstream of America's first Sunbelt society" (xv). He argues that transplanted and adapted southern evangelicalism was deeply embedded from the beginning in "a conservative revolution that gathered momentum in Southern California during the early cold war period before breaking through nationally in the 1970s" (xix). Dochuk positions From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the current scholarship of conservatism, arguing that tensions between conservatism and liberalism existed throughout the postwar period as opposed to the previous formulation that charted a liberal consensus that was suddenly challenged by a conservative coalition in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Concerned primarily with ideology and institutions, he traces four major stages. Part One is the considerable migration of southerners west to places like Oklahoma and Arkansas before eventually pushing on to California. Unhappy with dominant liberal views and New Deal policies, and championing local control, these "sojourners" set up their own networks of churches and schools. Part Two discusses the fights between Southern Democrats and southern populist evangelicals over organized labor and the subsequent schisms in the California Democratic Party. Part Three, follows a new generation of evangelical preachers' efforts to bridge divisions between southern and non-southern evangelicals with an emphasis on shared views of evangelicalism and end times, as well as religious and secular conservatives through a strident anti-communist position. Finally, Part Four turns to the emergence of a conservative political apparatus, in which evangelicals played a significant role, that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan first as governor of California and later president.


Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is a sweeping account of how southern evangelicalism took root and transformed into a distinctly Southern California form. Although his stated emphasis is institutional and ideological, Dochuk often sprinkles in descriptions of individual efforts to further evangelicalism's influence. Of these, George Pepperdine's vision for his private college and the two generations of Shuler preachers stand out in a oftentimes dizzying slog through church leaders, influential supporters, and organizations. Coverage of E. V. Hill is unique as it is the only extended attention given to an African American or minority figure. The framing of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt from the perspective of predominantly white sojourners (choosing to use the term reflecting the idealism of moving west rather than the displacement of migration) reinforces the sense that the story of conservatism is one deeply rooted in the white male south. The second generation of preachers, like J. Vernon McGee and Robert Shuler, Jr., were able to broaden membership and support in large part because of a shift away from the openly racist sentiments of men like Robert Lackey and a softer language centering on the idea of color-blindness. What is missing is how these messages were received by minorities—did these more inclusive sentiments appeal to any minority groups or church organizations? A few women make it into Dochuk's narrative, but they are largely gestures towards the ways that women supported, but never shaped, the processes of migration and shifting messages of evangelicalism.

Where Dochuk is most successful is showing the continued connections between the south and southwest, primarily through church leaders' efforts to control the surge of independent, charismatic preachers who moved west to carve out their own congregations. The southernness of conservatism is further reflected in the titles Dochuk gives to each stage: Southern Errand, Southern Problem, Southern Solutions, and Southern Strategies. Liberals like Carey McWilliams, according to Dochuk, largely overlooked and/or misunderstood the core values of white southern migrants, who espoused a combination of Jeffersonian democracy and an unwavering belief in their doctrine. It is this lack of awareness by liberals, he concludes, that has largely supported the notion of liberal dominance until the 1970s and the supposed conservative backlash to the 1960s. By starting with the ideological and religious underpinnings for the first southern white migrants, however, Dochuk shows how southern evangelicals framed their work from the 1930s on as part of a larger struggle against Social Democrats and liberalism in American society. This analysis complements Becky Nicolaides' study of the South Gate community south of Los Angeles. In My Blue Heaven, Nicolaides describes the ideological views of this white working and eventually middle-class suburb as focusing on property ownership, self-reliance, and independence, a similar formulation to Dochuk's, albeit without the explicit connections to Jefferson and religion. Also, whereas Nicolaides implies a deeper southernization, she only mentions the external evidence: restaurants with southern motifs, square dances, and the opening of First Southern Baptist Church. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt thus provides a more extensive examination of the extent to which southernness infused Southern California and formed the structures that would support the national reach of conservative political movement in the second half of the 1970s.

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In his book, from Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, Darren Dochuk criticizes the assumption of “liberal consensus in post-World War II America.” He does this through an analysis of the growing influence of southern evangelical conservatives based in California that began during The Great Depression and World War II. His narrative shows how southern migrants to California found individual and community success while working in the growing defense and technology industries of post-WWII California. Their success and numbers helped them build church-centered communities, schools and colleges as well as begin to influence local, state and national politics throughout the post-WWII 20th Century.

While Dochuk is very successfully in showing the influence of evangelicals in local, state and eventually national politics, his narrative could have focused more on interactions with other groups in California. Dochuk makes it seem as if California was made up exclusively of Social Democrats committed to multicultural nationalism prior to the migration of southern evangelicals during the Great Depression and WWII. He makes it seem that the suburbs described were made up exclusively of southern migrants that had little to no interaction with individuals and groups more deeply rooted in California. He alludes to the influence life in California had on transplanted evangelicals, but needs to go into more detail regarding how cultural adaptation and interaction with other groups led to the “California Conservatism” that was distinct from ideas found in the Southern and Western United States in order for the reader to better understand the origins of the movement.

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Dochuk examines the evangelical movement in Southern California, a movement sparked by a growing number of southern transplants during the postwar years. Though it was economic opportunity that drew migrants to the region, it was the liberal climate that they encountered that provoked a rise in evangelicalism as southern migrants struggled to reconcile their own political and social beliefs with those of a more liberal California.

Dochuk traces the evangelical movement through the individuals that helped to sustain it, from “Fighting Bob” Shuler to Jerry Falwell to various other more obscure preachers. While Dochuk begins his narrative in the south with a chapter on plain-folk Americanism and the southern evangelical tradition, he uses the rest of his study to examine how southern migrants who carried these traditions with them influenced the southern Californian political and social landscape. These southern transplants allied with local officials as well as conservative businessmen in their battles to reform education, to combat communism, and to campaign for conservative politicians. But what Dochuk also succeeds in doing is exploring the inverse of this relationship; in other words, he answers the question, how did the politics of southern California impact or transform southern evangelicalism? His chapter on “Plain-Folk Preaching Mainstreamed” explores this relationship perhaps most compellingly. Recognizing the harm that the anti-Semitic and racist expressions of more radical preachers was having on the evangelical movement in southern California, southern churches “purged” their ranks of undisciplined and extremist ministers. These leaders recognized that certain political and social views needed to be softened and subjugated to a larger cause of defeating an expanding liberalism. According to Dochuk, “Cosmopolitan southern California imposed itself on southern evangelicalism by compelling it to trim some of its harder- edged tendencies” (xvii). This meeting and continued negotiation between southern evangelicalism and southern Californian politics ultimately led to the creation of a distinct southern Californian evangelicalism.

Though Dochuk’s focus is Southern California, his work has broader implications as it encourages examination of the role that religion has played and continues to play in politics.

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