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Little Churches Everywhere: California's Evangelical Conservatism | The Nation

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Little Churches Everywhere: California's Evangelical Conservatism

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Meanwhile, evangelicals also came to embrace the anticommunist cause with a religious zeal. A pivotal figure in the militant anticommunist movement—and its first bona fide American martyr—was a second-generation Georgia-raised missionary named John Birch, killed by Chinese Communist officers in 1945 while detained on accusations of espionage. Birch was an acolyte of another Texas-bred Baptist revivalist, J. Frank Norris, who went well beyond the regional ambit of enthusiasts like Shuler by “recognizing Southern California’s potential in the spread of southern religion across the Pacific.”

From Bible Belt to Sun Belt
Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.
By Darren Dochuk.
Buy this book.

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
By Matthew Avery Sutton.
Buy this book.
 

About the Author

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehmann, an editor at The Baffler and Bookforum, is at work on a book about American religion and the culture of...

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However, the former New Dealers in the evangelical camp retained a strong antibusiness animus that disqualified them as “natural allies for the West Coast’s conservative elite,” Dochuk writes. The challenge for strategists seeking to turn conservatism into a majoritarian force in California, therefore, was to create what Dochuk calls “a new gospel of wealth that identified threats to pristine capitalism in big government.” This doctrine, a “blend of libertarian ideas and new Christian teachings on wealth,” converted the evangelical scene’s ministries into “forums for economic thought while its flourishing churches morphed into informal action committees ready to advance the interests of a conservative movement now breaking through at the state level. On a national stage, all of these developments heralded a striking transformation: Southern evangelicalism was no longer the poor person’s religion.”

In spelling out the implications of this shift, Dochuk, like other recent chroniclers of modern evangelical history such as Jeff Sharlet and D. Michael Lindsay, also tracks the parallel flight from consensus liberal thinking in the arenas of politics and culture. Dochuk, a former student of George Marsden, a pioneering historian of the fundamentalist movement, well understands the pivotal role religion plays in shaping America’s cultural self-image, and like Sharlet and Lindsay, among others, in this book he breaks with a long tradition of historical writing that has monolithically depicted evangelical believers as backward-looking prophets of cultural reaction.

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Armed with the nationalist certitudes of the anticommunist faith and the pieties of libertarian economics, the postwar breed of Southern California believers grew ever more secure in apprehending a divine hand in their newfound affluence. “During the labor wars of the late 1940s and the local anticommunist campaigns that followed, conservatives of all stripes had bonded out of fear of a common enemy,” Dochuk writes.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, however, shared impulses cohered into more substantive demands for the future of American political economy, especially in the region’s newest suburbs, where citizens began constructing a network of free enterprise organizations. Middle-class housewives now gathered regularly to read and discuss libertarian tracts they had acquired via mail or at one of the Southland’s right-wing bookstores. College-aged men and women read classic treatises by Friedrich von Hayek and Russell Kirk, or recent hits like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged…. And in Orange County, free enterprise economics grew into a pastime for the entire family to enjoy. In the country’s “hub of happiness,” tourists visited Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland, where they were whisked through a future promising the perfect union between technology and economic freedom.

Thanks in part to this economic and cultural backdrop, Southern California furnished the brain trust for Barry Goldwater’s doomed yet influential 1964 run for the presidency. But whereas the Goldwater insurgency helped midwife a national electoral victory for the newly religious right four cycles later, in 1980, California conservatives had to wait only two years for their moment of deliverance, when Ronald Reagan won the governorship in 1966. Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign was in many respects a test run for his successful 1980 presidential bid, refashioning the once-fringe platitudes of movement conservatism for mainstream and independent voters. It was conservative Baptist preacher William Steuart McBirnie who coined the libertarian conception of the market-driven “Creative Society” that Reagan adopted as his mantra on the gubernatorial campaign trail.

But as the history of the latter-day Christian right shows, the evangelical alliance with conservative political power has stopped well shy of deliverance. By the time of Reagan’s elevation to the presidency in 1980, GOP strategists, quite rationally, treated the evangelical base as a captive constituency, granting them lavish lip service on the campaign trail but prosecuting their culture-war causes halfheartedly at best, because unresolved family values issues are far more effective in arousing crusading true believers than settled matters of policy could ever be. On the evangelical side of the ledger, Dochuk notes that by the early 1980s “there was ample reason to believe…that Southern California evangelicalism had let its unbridled boosterism go too far,” with McBirnie caught up in a fraudulently funded megachurch project and Ralph Wilkerson, a key Pentecostal entrepreneur of the postwar era, likewise discredited in a scandal involving misdirected funds in his Orange County Melodyland empire—a ministry and seminary founded, fittingly enough, on the site of a former musical theater. Other conservative evangelical leaders on the national scene, from Jim Bakker to Ted Haggard, have of course sacrificed their moral authority in similar fashion, to either the false idols of free-market power or carnal snares.

Long sundered from anything resembling a true social ethic, evangelical conservatives could sustain their sense of mission only by retreating further into their strident free-market prophecy belief—and by following its most ardent acolytes into the suburban periphery. The Church of the Open Door repaired to the wilds of Glendora, while Pepperdine shuttered its original downtown campus—which because of its South Central location was having trouble attracting the kind of well-heeled white conservative students it needed to meet expenses—and consolidated its operations in idyllic newer digs, on the site of a former ranch near the sea in Malibu. A visionary young Baptist pastor named Rick Warren saw opportunity in this new social geography, and prevailed upon the Philip Morris Company, then launching an enormous planned community in the Orange County outpost of Laguna Hills, to set aside a prime parcel of land for his pet project, the Saddleback Valley Community Church. Part of Warren’s appeal hinged on the consequences of the antigovernment dogmas that constituted the new California ideology. Proposition 13—the law endorsed at the behest of grassroots anti-tax activist Howard Jarvis, and enthusiastically backed by the state’s evangelical elite—had recently bankrupted the Laguna Hills school district; Warren reasoned that Saddleback could provide a private Christian academy for the community’s new transplants. The conservative evangelical faithful, in other words, were finding fresh new errands in the exurban wilderness, even as they were heedless of their own movement’s role in abetting the wider social ruin that left their institutions (which in time would include the megachurch) the only infrastructures standing.

As Dochuk notes, even though the broader political momentum on the national evangelical scene was shifting back to the South (the land of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) and the Southwest (which would later engineer the George W. Bush risorgimento), innovators like Warren were still pursuing what George Pepperdine had long ago christened the “Head, Heart, and Hand” model of cultural proselytizing, and bringing their power to bear on nearly the entire inner structure of Southern California life. “If one makes a big challenge, one gets a big response,” Warren pronounced. “When I talk about a twelve-year Christian school, a family life center, multipurpose ministries—well, people get excited and it’s not just business as usual!” The California ideology was ripe for appropriation by the lifestyle liberals of the Silicon Valley set, yet its basic coordinates—a profound sense of economic entitlement, a prophetic vindication of a new suburban Americanism before the bar of history, a bone-deep instinctive distrust of government—had been inscribed in the landscape of the new Southern California by evangelicals. As for the boundless material contradictions undergirding this new exurban empire—a sprawling cold war aerospace industry founded on massive subventions of government spending, and an inland agricultural empire created almost entirely from Congressional water and crop subsidies—these were some of the many recondite paradoxes crafted into a higher synthesis by a God for whom truly all things are possible.

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