Book Review: From Bible Belt to Sunbelt

An evangelical offers friendly critique of Darren Dochuk's history of "plain folk religion."

It is a strange thing to read a history of one’s own people. I was baptized be W.A. Criswell at age 7 in First Baptist Dallas. Reading Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt made me feel at once nervous and fascinated, afraid of what an honest and reputable muckraker might make of one’s family and heritage, but excited by the prospect of seeing one’s self from without, if even through a mirror dimly. Ultimately, I loved it. There are many salutary observations to be gained from Dochuk’s outsider’s perspective of evangelicalism’s coming-of-age in Southern California–mostly having to do with its troubled and difficult disentanglement from racial politics. For American evangelicals, particularly those who hail from the south, this book is a must-read. But perhaps because I am the subject of inquiry, certain criticisms come to light that would not otherwise be obvious from reading such a fascinating and detailed volume. Perhaps it is because one knows oneself behind the disembodied face in the mirror that certain objections to its features inevitably arise, so the below critique should not be taken to diminish this fine and important piece of historical writing, but to illuminate some overlooked features that cannot be gathered from an outsider’s view.

Ideology haunts several recent histories of politically active conservatives, but it never quite makes it into the spotlight. Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism was a feminist’s tribute to extreme right-wing housewives in the nineteen-fifties, lauding their activism without condoning their cause. Dochuk too is interested in the grassroots activism that southern evangelicals inspired. He calls their movement “plain-folk religion,” and to his credit, treats it not as crazed religious fever, but historically important political animus. A sober tone has come to characterize liberal academic studies of conservative activism. It seems that the shock and outrage of the postwar conservative uprising has subsided, and scholars are seriously trying to account for these movements and what they mean for the character of American political activists. Dochuk’s evangelicals, (Billy Graham, J. Frank Norris) are not backcountry whackos, but canny movers and shakers with a mind for effective political movement-making. They want to locate the motivating force of these political movements to study and even celebrate them as realizations of human ingenuity.

Both Dochuk and Nickerson are to be applauded for daring to take on broad, realistic, and evenhanded histories of classes of people that are unpopular with most of the established Academy, but whether by dint of their desire to be balanced, or simply their location outside of the traditions they write about, they paint a picture of ideology that is static, regional, and without internal logic. Dochuk’s book is not really about the ideals of “plain-folk religion” and how or why they may have animated their adherents, but about how they were worked out politically. Dochuk and Nickerson both treat ideology–whether religious or otherwise–as the animating force behind their subjects’ politics, but they do not stoop to enter into its content. Ideologies, to these writers, are like the humors of medieval medicine. They are immutable doses of vigor to be measured by their concentration (read: radicalness). They explain political behavior, but are not themselves ever the subjects of inquiry. Thus, on Dochuk’s account, “plain-folk religion” is a set of symbols and idioms through which people mobilized politically. It could be more or less radical, but had no trajectory, no life or evolution of its own. Southern religion became less racist and more mainstream as it moved westward, it reacted to various situations and sometimes changed its tune, but it is not itself a character in the drama.

This simplistic portrait probably does not arise out of a distaste for conservatism or evangelical Christianity, rather it is a symptom of much modern historical writing.
Dochuk and Nickerson write as if, were one to open up their subjects’ heads, one would find roiling passion and religious infection, rather than rational, thinking minds, aware of themselves, assenting to propositions due to their moral or intellectual credibility or usefulness. In both cases, the authors write fairly, and even admiringly, about their subjects’ political savvy, but they don’t make any attempt to evaluate or even criticize the content of their subjects’ beliefs beyond pointing out how their uncompromising spirit (negatively) affected race relations. The solution is not a matter of an author simply inserting his own opinions into the text–however one may feel about that. Instead, it is a call to philosophy and interpretation throughout the volume. In the same way Richard Hofstadter accounted for the populism as reactionary anti-modernism, and Christopher Lasch psychoanalyzed radical progressives, what accounts for evangelicalism? Naturally, there will be some (rather heated) debate on this topic, but I think it is the duty of the historian to wade in. If he does not, he revokes philosophy both in himself and in the heads and hearts of the people he studies. Consider this quote from Lamin Sanneh about the ideology of American Exceptionalism:

America’s role in history is to prove that good will overcome evil. That goodwill trumps hate. James Fellowes said that “Americans lack tragic imagination,” an idea echoed by Marilyn Robinson when she wrote “Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore as beset, as all humankind is beset.” That is really what is meant by American Exceptionalism.

Evangelical Christianity could have used some of this kind of this rich theoretical analysis in Dochuk’s book, and it could have gone a long way in explaining just what animated these plain folk, rather than simply contending ourselves that it did animate them. In a way, these left-wing accounts of right-wing movements are curiously complimentary of a progressive, liberal understanding of politics. There is no sense in which the content of the ideology crafted the shape of the public expression, but rather the intelligence, determination, and political savvy of the actors made them successful. The cause itself is more or less interchangeable. One could make the argument that the structure of church meetings and the figure of the pastor shaped political discourse, but here again is a matter of the structure of religious observance, not its propositional content. In any case Dochuk seems more interested in the plainness of their religion–as a characteristic of successful populist action–rather than the religion of these plain folk. How do we account for the content of ideology in political histories? The answer lies in a deeper anthropology than we presently have, one that accounts for people as rational beings whose ideas hold power even beyond the realm of political maneuvering.


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