From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

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A prize-winning, five-decade history of the evangelical movement in Southern California that explains a sweeping realignment of American politics.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.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Billy Graham reaches out on the cover, but the photo could just as well show George Pepperdine, E.V. Hill, Bill Bright—or any of scores of evangelicals and pentecostals profiled in Dochuk's well-wrought history of religion and politics. Poor workers from the Deep South immigrated to California in the 1930s for jobs; and, Dochuk argues, the "plain folk, preachers and entrepreneurs" packed their politics with their Bibles, intent on electing one of their own as president. They succeeded in 1980 with favorite son Ronald Reagan. For the cause, they pastored churches, parachurch organizations (Campus Crusade for Christ), businesses, and schools (Pepperdine University); they fought first Communists, then homosexuals; converted from being social justice Democrats to conservative, prosperity-gospel Republicans; diluted their racism; and learned to cooperate with each other's conventions. Dochuk, a professor at Purdue, conducted interviews and researched diligently through newsletters, newspapers, minutes of church and civic meetings, and the leaders' own letters, sermons, and memoirs. His convincing conclusions expose the foundations of today's evangelical conservatism; his writing is admirably clear and objective. (Dec. 13).
Sean Wilentz
“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.”
Library Journal
Most of the poor whites who left the South during the Depression and moved to California were Baptists. They became the bedrock for a new "Sunbelt" influence on American political culture. For Dochuk (history, Purdue Univ.), the key transition for this population of "Christ against Culture" white Protestants was a change in their self-identity, in which a pessimistic Old Testament narrative of exile was replaced by an optimistic quasi-Pauline sense of "errand" into the secular culture. These men and women proposed to bless an American society that they viewed as endangered by state collectivism and secularism. The result has been the "meld[ing] of traditionalism into an uncentered, unbounded religious culture of entrepreneurialism, experimentation, and engagement," whose high point for the participants was the presidency of Ronald Reagan. (The irony that Nancy Reagan used biblically forbidden astrology to set the President's daily schedule is not lost on Dochuck.) Gradually, the original worldly pessimism of the Baptists was dissolved in favor of "the more therapeutic and technological requisites of "Jesus, California style." VERDICT A colorful, intriguing, yet academic study of an important though little-researched process, this work is strongly recommended for students of American religion and politics.—Lisa Richmond, Wheaton Coll. Lib., IL
Kirkus Reviews

A lucid history of how California, land of fruits and nuts and be-here-nowness, became a bastion of fundamentalist reaction. The manuscript won the 2006 Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians.

Blame it on the Arkansas-Texas-Oklahoma borderlands, a region that, writes Dochuk (History/Purdue Univ.), "produced a distinctive hybrid culture that combined the steely persistence and principles of the South with the rugged impatience and pragmatism of the West." This backwater might have remained so were it not for the upheaval of the Depression, when it tilted sideways and poured its population into Southern California. So thorough was the transformation that by 1969 and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, California had more Southerners in its population than did Arkansas. This "hybrid culture" valued preachers over political leaders and kept a clannish distance from its neighbors. With the rise of crusading evangelicals, Billy Graham being just one example, transplanted Californians took their values and votes into the streets, establishing such bastions of conservatism as Pepperdine University and, well, Knott's Berry Farm, and putting into law such legislation as Prop 13. Dochuk is a careful explainer of odd historical events, though his historian's objectivity allows a few subtleties to slip by that he might have pounced on—not least how the Bible Belt rhetoric of California circa 1966 is the rhetoric of the entire nation in 2010, with its immigrant-bashing, thinly disguised segregationism and disregard for the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. Yet the author takes pains to chart how California's activist fundamentalism, once scorned by none other than Jerry Falwell, spread across the country, turning the whole place into an Ozark backwater, with music by Pat Boone.

Well-written and -documented, a supremely helpful guide in sorting out how we arrived at that odd state of affairs.

New Republic
Lively, utterly convincing.
. . . A superbly researched study of grassroots political mobilization. . . . [Dochuk] skillfully traces a continuous narrative stretching from the Dust Bowl to Ronald Reagan, and demonstrates with prodigious research how this narrative fits into a much broader American canvas.
. . .
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an important book.— Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehmann - New Republic
“Lively, utterly convincing. . . . A superbly researched study of grassroots political mobilization. . . . [Dochuk] skillfully traces a continuous narrative stretching from the Dust Bowl to Ronald Reagan, and demonstrates with prodigious research how this narrative fits into a much broader American canvas. . . . From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an important book.”
Kevin Starr
“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.”
Michael Kazin
“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.”
Steven P. Miller
“Darren Dochuk has painted a vista from which unfolds the creation of Reagan’s nation, as the California dreams of Southern evangelicals become the American dreams of Sunbelt conservatives. Through the guiding telescope of Dochuk’s prose, we meet a fascinating cast of characters destined to be staples in future tellings of this important story. This much anticipated book is well worth the wait.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393066821
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/13/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 520
  • Sales rank: 536,382
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Darren Dochuk is a professor of history at Purdue University and a former Fellow at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post and other venues. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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Table of Contents

Map of Southern California, CIRCA 1980 ix

Introduction: "At Home with the Angels" xi

I Southern Errand

1 Plain Folk 3

2 Preachers 27

3 Entrepreneurs 51

II Southern Problem

4 Labor Wars 79

5 New Allies 112

III Southern Solutions

6 Plain-Folk Preaching Mainstreamed 141

7 The New Gospel of Wealth 167

8 Declaration of Independence 196

9 Sentinels of Freedom 223

IV Southern Strategies

10 Creative Society 259

11 Jesus People 293

12 Moral Majority 326

13 Born Again 362

Epilogue: Wilderness Again 397

Acknowledgments 411

Notes 419

Selected Bibliography 473

Photograph Credits 485

Index 489

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