Buried in Darren Dochuk’s expansive study of evangelical Christianity in southern California is a scene that might chill even dyed-in-the-wool Republicans: At a secret prayer meeting, a minister stands over future president Ronald Reagan and begins speaking in tongues about his political aspirations. The migration of such a practice, and the ascent of the men who encouraged it, drives Dochuk’s religious history From Bible Belt To Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, And The Rise Of Evangelical Conservatism.
As tenant farmers migrated west to California during the Great Depression, they brought their Southern Baptist traditions with them, often preferring to worship within their insular communities after receiving less-than-warm welcomes from the locals. New ministers graduating from Southern seminaries flocked there too, after failing to find jobs in the crowded parishes of their home states, retaining the homegrown emphasis on a personal conversion experience and faith that was active in the public sphere. Those philosophies resonated with local entrepreneurs who came to California seeking opportunity and expansion without government interference, making their mark and their fortunes in local commerce. As the movement strengthened, new churches sprouting in the suburbs and planned housing developments catering to new arrivals offered education, entertainment, and safe haven for political activism; parishioners first pinned their hopes on the 1964 Goldwater campaign before reaping their seeming reward in the rise of Reagan, a transplant himself.
From Bible Belt To Sunbelt extracts the conservative counter-countercultural strand of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland to examine its grip on a previously politically relaxed area of the country, galvanized by the few. (Nixon is a minor player here, mostly in conference with close friend Billy Graham, whose speech in Anaheim’s “Big A” stadium failed to bring local leaders to consensus.) The link between Baptist membership and financial well-being, says Dochuk, proved irresistible to Dust Bowl-wounded families; when some became extremely rich by establishing new churches, that contributed to the myth and the attraction.
Defenders at the time cited the movement’s pro-segregation sermons and union scapegoating as byproducts of its siege by popular culture and outside attempts to constrain religious freedoms, and Dochuk patiently picks this apart as well. His weakness is for the personalities: His book is populated with energetic rookies who grew up to be leading lights, like Rick Warren, James Dobson, and Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series, and Dochuk chases after them to the exclusion of their followers. His efforts to incorporate individual believers feel tokenistic at best. In surveying a movement that continues to influence religious practice today, From Bible Belt To Sunbelt is an overhead view, captivated mostly by the dips and swells.