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Randall J. Stephens

The Sunbelt Coalition

Evangelicals and politics in a new light.

In 1968, Christian Life magazine featured a story on "The Reagans and Their Pastor." The Hollywood-star-turned-governor explained: "While prayer always has been a part of my life, I have spent more time in prayer these past months than in any previous period I can recall." He had much to pray about in that rocky election year. But when not praying, Reagan now and then slipped into jeremiad mode. Mild-mannered and affable in the eyes of many, Reagan raged at that "mess in Berkeley." The cold warrior morphed easily into the culture warrior. Civilization seemed to be collapsing. Juvenile delinquents and their liberal élite enablers wanted to wreck the Golden State. In response, Reagan promised constituents that he would stand firm against hedonism, crime, and all manner of sin. And though the situation was grave, he was not above cracking a well-timed joke. The typical campus radical or hairy young libertine, Reagan famously quipped, "dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheeta."

Southern California's conservative Christians, many who came out West from the southern plains, naturally took to the Gipper. He spoke their language. Darren Dochuk reflects on Reagan's popularity among those faithful in his wonderfully written and expertly researched From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

In the early 1970s, evangelicals halfheartedly supported Richard Nixon, who, along with being shifty, was once too cozy with silk-stocking Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller. Later in the decade, evangelicals from Atlanta to San Diego began to cast a suspicious eye on Jimmy Carter. In their view, the Baptist president from Plains, Georgia, was a liberal appeaser, soft on communism, and softer still on moral degeneracy (code for homosexuality, abortion, and feminism). Reagan, by contrast, would not vacillate on family values, thought supporters. Neither was he a seedy political chameleon. He united stalwarts across the Sunbelt South.

Long before Reagan left the back lots of Hollywood for balloon-filled convention halls, evangelicals in the Bible Belt had engaged in politics and weighed in on a host of public matters. Dochuk's account of that longer political legacy runs counter to the dominant narrative, which goes something like this: Evangelicals entered politics after decades of lying dormant following their humiliation at the hands of Clarence Darrow, who made a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee. Almost overnight in the late 1970s, believers re-armed themselves, clutching Bibles and flags. An army of holy warriors, under the Moral Majority banner, sporting three-piece polyester suits and comfortable shoes, sang "How Great Thou Art" all the way to D.C.

As with most caricatures, there are grains of truth here. Evangelicals were mobilized in the Me Decade. They did turn out in droves to pull the lever for Reagan. But this ex nihilo account masks a fascinating regional and political history, skillfully revealed in Dochuk's genealogy of religious conservatism in Southern California. He describes how dirt farmers flooded the region during the Dirty Thirties. Okies, Arkies, and Texans made their pilgrimage west in search of a better life and some level of autonomy. Many reconnected with their southern faith, joining Baptist, Churches of Christ, holiness, and Pentecostal congregations all up and down the state. Newly arrived southerners, observes Dochuk, "conflated the doctrines of Jefferson and Jesus." These "Christian citizens living west of the Mississippi believed their true calling was to advance the Christian heritage passed down to them from their Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish ancestors, not simply to preserve it."

Some of the most famous heroes of the faith—"Fighting Bob" Schuler, J. Frank Norris, and John Brown—did not shy away from politics. Neither did their rapt followers. Preachers and parishioners targeted "socialism," "liberalism," and the New Deal with a zeal that matched their campaigns against theological modernism. New evangelical entrepreneurs like George Pepperdine, whose Western Auto business made him millions, and R. G. LeTourneau, who struck it rich with a land moving company, joined laypeople and pastors in their fight for conservative Christian principles and free-market values. Pepperdine College, John Brown College, and LeTourneau Technical Institute linked like-minded Christians across the South and Southwest and served as training grounds for a new generation of culture warriors.

A populist streak ran throughout the Bible Belt, with affinities that the standard narrative of evangelicals-and-politics doesn't entirely comprehend. Some enthusiasts followed Huey Long and an old-age welfare scheme called the Ham and Eggs movement. (Surprisingly, California's Pentecostals were heavily represented in the latter.) But that "uneasy alliance of revivalist religion and economic radicalism," Dochuk notes, was not to endure. Billy Graham's plain-folk gospel message and red-baiting won a ready audience when the North Carolina evangelist held his first major campaign in Los Angeles. Before long, Southern California's right-wing Christians would abandon the Democratic Party of their parents and grandparents to join the resurgent GOP.

As Dochuk works his way through the 1950s and 1960s, a variety of well-known characters pop in and out of his account, including end-times prophet and conspiracy theorist Tim LaHaye, anti-communist gasbag Billy James Hargis, and the crooner who made rock music safe for children, Pat Boone. But most readers will be as surprised as I was to learn how deeply involved figures like these—and countless others who never achieved celebrity—were in the political realm. Dochuk tracks a dizzying array of pastors, housewives, small business owners, and academics who were caught up in the political tumult of the postwar years. He follows two relatively unknown figures, both originally from the South, as they make their way through the campaigns and initiatives of the era. (As a literary device, drawing readers into a personal story, that focus works very well.) Nazarenes, Baptists, and Pentecostals in Southern California fought to ensure that their children received a godly, non-secular education, free from liberal indoctrination and sex education. They rallied behind land usage propositions, some meant to keep government from encroaching on sacred space, others to keep their suburbs lily-white. They backed Barry Goldwater, only mildly put off by his Jewish heritage and nominal Episcopal faith. A few, sensing conspiracies at home, joined up with the John Birch Society and rallied to get the U.S. out of the UN.

The extensive parallel world that evangelicals and their dyspeptic fundamentalist brethren created in Southern California is fascinating. (That topic, treated only briefly by Dochuk, could be the subject of an entire book.) The landscape had changed. Christian bookstores popped up like dandelions in the suburbs, churches proliferated, new academies and colleges catered to bright youngsters, and later Jesus People hangouts lifted the fallen hippie out of sin and misery. Far from being marginalized, Dochuk writes, "the virtues of patriotism, entrepreneurialism, localism, and family values assumed conspicuous form in such fantastic creations as Disneyland and such wild innovations as drive-thru restaurants and drive-in churches."

In some ways, Dochuk says, Ronald Reagan drew the parts of the evangelical world into a unified whole, advocating a color-blind conservatism while shunning civil rights activism. Evangelicals, wealthier and more influential than ever in the 1970s, had arrived. (Even once-fringe hobbyhorses like premillennialism won wide appeal. Hal Lindsey, born in Houston, counted Reagan and Orson Welles among his fans.) Call it southern evangelicalism ascendant. The new Sunbelt evangelical coalition—linking allies from Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, San Diego, and L.A.—showed just how political conservative Christians had become as the election of 1980 approached.

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an outstanding work of scholarship and an entertaining, engrossing read. Dochuk's work—along with that of Kim Phillips-Fein, Dan Williams, Steven Miller, and Matt Sutton—will change how historians think about the connections between conservative religion and politics.

Randall J. Stephens, associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, is an editor of Historically Speaking and the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard Univ. Press).

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