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

Article excerpt

From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. By Darren Dochuk. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 520. Acknowledgments, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

Historians have displayed renewed interest in the history of Southern California in recent years. Previously portrayed as an exception to national trends, the Southern California described by political and social historians today is a region that displays and anticipates political, racial, and cultural developments that end up affecting the rest of the nation.

Darren Dochuk extends this interpretation of Southern California by locating evangelical Protestantism within the broader context of the development of Sun Belt conservatism. His title aptly summarizes much of the book's content: In the 1930s and 1940s, thousands of evangelicals from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas migrated to Southern California in search of economic opportunity. They took with them their distinctive brand of "plain-folk" religion-a mix of southern democratic individualism and anti-establishment, revivalist Protestantism.

Dochuk tells the fascinating story of how these migrants eventually gained a foothold in postwar California, achieved middle-class status and social influence in the 1950s, embraced the hard conservatism of Barry Goldwater during the Cold War, and later helped shape the softer, more irenic conservative movement that elevated Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. It is a story that features famous evangelists such as Billy Graham, influential pastors such as J. Vernon McGee and E. V. Hill, religious colleges such as Pepperdine University, and religious entrepeneurs such as the famed LeftBehind author Tim LaHaye.

Among the southerners who would develop an affinity for Southern California was an Arkansan by the name of John Brown-not the famous abolitionist but an early twentieth-century evangelist who established the college in Northwest Arkansas that bears his name. Though John Brown is relatively unknown today, he was important to the rise of Sun Belt conser vatism, serving as a microcosm of the role of Arkansas in Dochuk's account in general. Indeed, two Arkansas colleges-Harding University and John Brown University-played important roles in creating the conservative movements in Southern California, which, would, in turn, come to influence American society at large. …