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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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In the long-ago time of the mid-1990s, an earnest pair of radical British intellectuals named Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron surveyed the emerging, and deeply reactionary, dogmas of the Internet age. Barbrook and Cameron explained that this worldview, which they dubbed the “Californian ideology,” hinged on a curious blend of New Left and New Right orthodoxies: culturally tolerant, anti-hierarchical and experimental, it was also punitively neoliberal and profoundly antigovernment in expounding a rigidly libertarian vision of the global economy. “The Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism,” the authors observed.

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...

Also by the Author

Conservative religious thinkers and their intellectual crusades.

The Unwinding is a fine-grained account of economic collapse that runs aground on causeless abstractions.

Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital “Jeffersonian democracy”…. Although they enjoy cultural freedoms won by the hippies, most of them are no longer actively involved in the struggle to build “ecotopia.” Instead of openly rebelling against the system, these hi-tech artisans now accept that individual freedom can only be achieved by working within the constraints of technological progress and the “free market.”

Barbrook and Cameron’s critique of cyber-obsessed Golden State boosterism was prescient in many ways, as any long-suffering auditor of TED conference homilies or reader of the utopian prophecies of Wired magazine can attest. In a deeper sense, though, the hybrid character of this new ideology wasn’t as improbable or bizarre as the two critics supposed. California’s curious free-market orthodoxies are hardy offshoots of the classic fundamentalism of the religious variety that took root in Southern California in the early decades of the twentieth century. No less contradictory than the gospel truths of the California digerati, the dogmas of West Coast evangelicalism proved instrumental in acculturating an earlier generation of Jeffersonian golden dreamers to a life of abundance bolstered by government-driven subsidies and development policies that, over time, they came to despise with a righteous fury.

This saga forms the backbone of From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Darren Dochuk’s detailed and closely argued study of the rise of a distinctly Californian brand of evangelical belief among early twentieth-century transplants from the South and Southwest. These migrants are often identified with the Depression-era Dust Bowl refugees immortalized in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, but they began streaming into California decades earlier, spurred by convulsions in the agricultural economy and the mythical promise of a new life on the farthest edge of the American frontier. “Fighting Bob” Shuler, for example, a second-generation Methodist preacher from Virginia by way of Texas, settled in Los Angeles in 1920, and went on to lead a long series of moral crusades from his perch at Trinity Methodist Church. He organized a successful recall of the city’s mayor in the 1930s, and ran for the US Senate on the Prohibition ticket, while conducting a high-profile feud with the celebrity Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. McPherson, in turn, brought national prominence to a Pentecostal movement rooted in the homegrown Los Angeles “Azusa Street” revival, spearheaded in the first decade of the twentieth century by the African-American preacher William J. Seymour.

This new cohort of evangelical believers brought to California a political culture steeped in “an unwavering faith that conflated the doctrines of Jefferson and Jesus,” Dochuk writes. This religious-cum-civic heritage encouraged the transplants to think of themselves as “pilgrims burdened with the responsibility of evangelizing and civilizing, initially on the godless borderland of the western South, then in the dark, secular reaches of Southern California.” Their colonizing faith, like its historical forerunners, cultivated a sense of persecution to mobilize a heroic global mission. Hailing an antimodernist schism in the Western wing of the Baptist church, Shuler noted that while mainline Northern Baptists and Presbyterians presided over “large enterprises looking to world movements,” their pews on the home front were emptying out, and their observances had become “cold, lifeless, formal, dead.” By contrast, the “Pentecostals and others like them” were attracting “fiery prophets” and “building little churches everywhere.”

* * *

It helped that the region’s spiritual awakening coincided with a new generation of evangelical Southern transplants coming into prosperity. Possessed by much the same sense of mission, they set about creating institutions to sustain the theological agenda—and eventually the political one—of plain-folks evangelicalism. Auto-parts mogul George Pepperdine launched a Christian liberal arts school in South Central Los Angeles in 1937 with the conscious design of bringing the conservative tenets of Southern fundamentalist belief into direct engagement with a culture war that, in intellectual terms at least, the modernists appeared to be winning. In the wake of the 1925 Scopes trial, believers of a fundamentalist persuasion were in cultural retreat throughout much of the country. But figures such as Pepperdine and Shuler were galvanized by their embattled position in a benighted culture. Even as Los Angeles was becoming an entertainment capital, and was perceived as being a hotbed of proto–New Age fads and cults, the everyday spiritual tenor of the city, like that of its dominant business culture, was conservative, evangelical and Southern. In addition to Pepperdine, the city hosted McPherson’s famed Angelus Temple, the enormous downtown Church of the Open Door (featuring “the largest set of chimes on the Pacific Coast” and a pair of 30-foot neon Jesus Saves signs atop the building) and no end of major revivals, both homegrown and imported from the Southern interior.

But however advanced the infrastructure of Angeleno evangelical belief may have been, its political profile was inchoate. Many of the white Southern migrants who resettled in Southern California either arrived as or evolved into fervid champions of the New Deal. On the one hand, preachers 
such as Shuler and evangelical entrepreneurs such as Pepperdine promptly aligned themselves against New Deal liberalism as “communism in an embryonic state,” Dochuk writes. But many rank-and-file transplanted evangelicals, hewing to the strong Progressive strain in California politics, sought to extend the New Deal’s commitment to economic equity by forming a political alliance, the so-called Ham and Eggs movement, which sounds odd indeed to readers conditioned to equate evangelical believers with the antigovernment right.

As the Roosevelt era came to a close with the end of World War II, Jonathan Perkins, a self-styled Pentecostal prophet, resurrected a proposal that onetime divinity student and Huey Long acolyte Robert Noble had made in the 1930s—to introduce a fiat currency to pay $25 a week to every unemployed Californian over 50. In turn, the progressive Democratic economist Sherman Bainbridge lent this movement credibility, and its name: “We must have our ham and eggs!” he would say in speeches to elderly crowds. Perkins took a more strictly religious view of the movement’s principles and brought a preacher’s sense of conviction to the cause. “Ham ‘n’ Eggs’ plan [is] outlined in the Bible,” he insisted. “If the ministers can’t see this, or won’t, get some new ministers!”

Perkins’s devotion to the movement’s message clashed with the pragmatic messaging strategy of Willis and Lawrence Allen, opportunistic brothers who had leveraged the 1930s Noble plan into a power base within the state Democratic Party before its defeat in a 1938 ballot initiative. The Allens presented the Ham and Eggs plan, Dochuk writes, “as a patriotic, authentically American initiative based on democratic principles. They wanted to assure their evangelical followers that lobbying for economic reform was not the same as advocating collectivism.” Perkins’s appeal was more principled, and had more bite: “I don’t want Communism, but I don’t want the rich standing with their feet on the necks of the poor anymore either. We are being foolish to defend the rich against Communism. We have been fighting to protect the rich and not ourselves.”

But like the curdled populists of the South, Perkins had taken an ugly lurch into bigotry. At the same time that he was campaigning to revive Ham and Eggs, he published an anti-Semitic pamphlet called The Modern Canaanites or the Enemies of Jesus Christ. The turning point of his mid-’40s Ham and Eggs campaign came when he enlisted the help of former Huey Long ally Gerald L.K. Smith, one of the era’s most notorious anti-Semitic—and anti-Communist—political leaders. The intolerance of figures like Smith and Perkins aroused the concerted opposition of secular social democratic liberals, including journalist Carey McWilliams (later the editor of The Nation) and Hollywood activists such as Orson Welles. When social democrats mounted a successful, and long overdue, challenge to Los Angeles’s disgraceful history of racially restrictive covenants, the hostilities between the two camps intensified. The next turn of the screw was Proposition 14—a ballot initiative seeking to overturn a California fair housing law—which wedded more traditionally minded Southern evangelicals to the untrammeled defense of property rights, especially when they came bound up with a politics of racial exclusion.

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.”

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.

* * *

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.

More so than most figures in the modern evangelical movement, Aimee Semple McPherson, Southern California’s best-known Pentecostal prophet, exists in popular memory as a caricature: a celebrity-addled righteous hypocrite who parlayed an itinerant faith-healing franchise into a global media ministry, and ended her career trying to extricate herself from the fallout of a sex scandal. Even if we don’t actually know McPherson’s story, we feel as though we do—with minor variations, it’s the story of Jimmy Swaggart, Eddie Long and countless other televangelists caught up in sexual imbroglios. But as Matthew Avery Sutton argues in Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, McPherson was more than a punch line in the early twentieth-century culture wars. While she was not a theologian or an original thinker, her story of hardscrabble adversity and simple piety appealed to many other Angeleno transplants drawn to her ministry and grappling with the trials of Christian belief in the modern age. Her story also shows that the curious evolution of the righteous, rightward faith dispensation in the Golden State was not entirely foreordained.

Born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy to a pious Protestant family in rural Ontario, McPherson grew up playing “Salvation Army” in the schoolyards of her childhood, persuading playmates to fall in line behind her as she beat a drum and raised a red banner. Exposed to the writings of Charles Darwin in high school, she found her faith in the literal truth of the Bible sorely tested. But in 1907 she was converted at a Pentecostal revival and fell in love with a preacher named Robert Semple, whom she promptly married. Repairing to Chicago, the couple made plans to travel to China as missionaries; en route, McPherson experienced her own charismatic call to the ministry. She reported a vision in which God had selected her to combat the corrosive forces of cultural liberalism—represented by a group of men “clad in priestly robes and ministerial attire,” crowding out the “Book of light and wisdom” with vain “thoughts and theories.” Her charge, God informed her, was to “go forth, and clear away the debris and the contamination with which they have covered and obscured the light of My Word.”

When the couple arrived in China, however, divine favor seemed to have fled. Semple contracted malaria and died within months of their arrival, and the pregnant McPherson stayed on to give birth to a daughter, Roberta Star. After returning stateside she settled into an unhappy marriage with a middle-class businessman named Harold McPherson and gave birth to a son. But after a bout of seeming neurasthenia, she soon heard another prophetic call, and was miraculously healed from a series of undiagnosed ailments that physicians had treated with everything from an appendectomy to a hysterectomy. In her later account, a heavenly voice appeared to her when she was on the verge of death, demanding: “now—will—you—go?”

Go she did—taking the two children and abandoning her husband to launch an itinerant Pentecostal ministry, touring the country in a “Gospel Car” painted with the legend “Where will you spend eternity?” For McPherson, the answer was to be Los Angeles. In an early 1919 revival, a woman leapt up to report her own oddly specific vision of obtaining a tract of land in suburban Los Angeles to build a house for McPherson and her kids. Before long, McPherson was having visions of her home of the spirit—a temple in the Echo Park neighborhood that she funded via appeals at her sensational faith-healing revivals. Playing off the stock-market craze of the 1920s, the trend-savvy McPherson offered donors the opportunity to be “chair holders” in a new entrepreneurial temple devoted to mass salvation.

McPherson’s Angelus Temple was a gleaming white, blocklong edifice, variously described as resembling a megaphone, a baseball field and a piece of pie, which was encased by an enormous 110-foot-high dome. The interior, which could seat 5,300 people, was intended to mimic the feel of an open tent revival, with a splashing stream to symbolize the River Jordan and a designated room for disciples to attend the descent of the Holy Spirit. The theatrical setting was ideally suited to McPherson’s so-called illustrated sermons, which depicted many of her personal trials in the light of scriptural parables. When she famously hired an airplane that nearly combusted to expedite a trip to San Francisco so as not to miss Sunday services in Los Angeles, the incident furnished the basis for a homiletic set piece in the Temple, called “The Heavenly Aeroplane.” Even a mundane personal setback like an arrest for speeding became raw material for a sermon, replete with McPherson done up in an arresting officer’s outfit. (Sometimes, however, the dramaturgy could backfire, as when an Angelus production staffer rented a macaw to lend authenticity to a Garden of Eden skit, and the bird recited an inopportune gloss on the scene—“Aw, go to hell”—courtesy of its usual master.) Such performances might seem odd for a preacher called to defend the true faith against modern culture, but McPherson justified them in the same terms favored by earlier generations of mass revivalists. Like Jesus, she was meeting believers where they lived, and speaking to them in language that resonated in their everyday lives. “If Christ were alive today,” she announced, “I think he’d preach modern parables about oil wells and airplanes, the things that you and I understand. Things like being arrested for speeding.”

While McPherson—by all accounts one of the most charismatic figures of 1920s America—seemed all but divinely appointed as a Southern California prophet, in other respects her ministry marked a striking departure in conservative Protestantism. In a religious culture still steeped in Victorian notions of gender and family, she was a scandal—a divorced woman who had built a successful media empire, including radio broadcasts and motion-picture deals with major Hollywood studios. While her performative self dominated the Angelus pulpit, McPherson’s church displayed a degree of racial tolerance and social outreach that far surpassed that of most mainline Protestant denominations of the era. In some ways, this was a natural posture for a house of worship so close in time and space to the original Azusa Street Pentecostal revival; in other ways, it was an extension of the Salvation Army–style social activism practiced by McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, who continued to live with her daughter and to help manage her business interests throughout much of her adult life.

However, as Dochuk shows, many midcentury successors to McPherson in the house of California Pentecostalism wasted little time in distancing themselves from the religion’s poor and nonwhite origins in the West. It’s true that Angelus set up separate and segregated areas of worship for black and Hispanic parishioners, and that in McPherson’s later career, the Ku Klux Klan would count itself among her defenders. Nevertheless, mainline faiths like the Baptists and Methodists experienced schisms on the question of racial inclusion, so by the standards of rival denominations, worship at Angelus was racially enlightened. Unlike many mainline white religious leaders of the age, McPherson pushed to reintegrate worship at her temple, hailing in one 1936 sermon the original Azusa Street revivals and “the strange sight of black faces intermingled with white”—a reminder, as she put it, that “Saints who were once smelted together in the fires of Pentecost are being re-united, re-welded, and rejuvenated.”

The Angelus Temple also engaged with gender issues at a far deeper level than the mere symbolism of McPherson’s ministry. When most respectable Protestant denominations shunned unwed mothers, McPherson would seek them out after her sermons—and took at least half a dozen such women into her home, where they shared her daughter Roberta’s bedroom. When the pregnancies came to term, McPherson would provide the mothers with lodging and childcare assistance, ingeniously pairing them with “lonesome” widows in her congregation. What’s more, Sutton notes, “never bringing attention to her actions, the evangelist also helped women struggling with issues of rape, incest, and physical abuse,” struggles that went all but unspoken of at most mainline denominations of the era.

The reformist strain of McPherson’s ministry—and much else about Angelus’s role in the community—would soon be overshadowed by the media sensation around her alleged kidnapping in 1926. On May 16, McPherson had adjourned to Venice Beach in the company of her secretary, Emma Schaffer. After the women had checked into the Ocean View Hotel, McPherson worked on a sermon and then swam in the ocean, trying to goad her employee into joining her. Schaffer declined, and periodically scouted the water for her boss as she sat in a beach chair, reading her Bible. Late in the afternoon, however, she couldn’t see McPherson in the surf and alerted the hotel staff to her disappearance. The initial wave of frantic media speculation assumed that McPherson had drowned, though some newspapers also suspected foul play because she had recently waged a high-profile (if unsuccessful) campaign to ban dancing on Sundays in Venice’s music halls. As the speculation mounted, an earlier rumor about McPherson’s alleged romantic involvement with her married radio engineer, Kenneth Ormiston, began to gain traction—but the leading female journalists in Los Angeles closed ranks to denounce it, citing the high profile of Angelus within the community as something too valuable to waste on a sordid affair.

The media sensation was just beginning. A little more than a month after disappearing, McPherson resurfaced in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, with a wild tale about being kidnapped. She claimed that a man and woman had approached her at Venice Beach with a story about a sick child, and that when they took her to their car, they knocked her out with an anesthetic. There were three kidnappers in on the caper; they detained her in a shack in the Mexican desert and threatened to sell her into white slavery at the behest of a shadowy villain named Felipe if the Angelus Temple didn’t meet their ransom demands. McPherson claimed to have used the ragged end of a tin can to cut through the rope binding her wrists when her captors left her alone—at which point she leapt out a window and trekked across the desert to Agua Prieta.

No one ever has, or likely ever will, determine the truth of the whole affair. Once efforts to locate the alleged kidnappers came up empty, McPherson’s detractors—including Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes, who sought to indict McPherson on criminal charges—alleged the kidnapping was a hoax concocted to cover up a romantic getaway with Ormiston. The ensuing grand jury hearing featured inquiries into the question of whether McPherson sported her hair in a bob cut—a telltale sign of loose, flapper-esque sexual morality—and whether she had spent $2,500 on luxury undergarments (a charge that surfaced courtesy of Alameda County district attorney and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren). McPherson was cleared of the charges, mainly because the prosecution’s chief witness, who claimed that McPherson was the mysterious “Miss X” spotted in the company of Ormiston, who had left his wife for an impromptu Carmel vacation at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, was mentally unstable.

But while McPherson was vindicated in court, she floundered in the balance of her public career. The kidnapping scandal soon became the stuff of pop-culture fable. Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry features a hysterically repressed yet sexually manipulative preacher clearly modeled on McPherson—and its composition before the kidnapping just made Lewis seem prophetic to his secular liberal readership. Upton Sinclair’s California political potboiler Oil!, also published in 1927, did feature an evangelist staging a mock kidnapping to cover up a sexual dalliance, but Sinclair, who had campaigned with McPherson on behalf of Prohibition, made the preacher in question a man.

McPherson returned to her duties at Angelus, and had a final short and unhappy marriage to an actor named David Hutton, who’d been cast in the part of Pharaoh in an opera McPherson composed about the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt, The Iron Furnace. She grew increasingly estranged from her mother and became besotted with the trappings of a Southern California celebrity lifestyle, investing in a secluded suburban manse, high-fashion attire and—so reports had it—plastic surgery, which together with an apparent new diet and exercise regime made the formerly zaftig preacher resemble a willowy starlet in the Louise Brooks or Gloria Swanson vein. She also was reportedly in discussions with major studios to produce a movie based on her life story—including, of course, the infamous kidnapping episode.

* * *

With the onset of the Great Depression, however, Angelus redoubled its social work activism, converting a former Yellow Cab warehouse into a downtown soup kitchen and commissary. McPherson also resisted a county ordinance forbidding publicly funded charities from giving assistance to either out-of-state migrants or Mexican immigrants. But not even McPherson could ward off the contradictions convulsing the wider dreamscape of Southern California—the preaching of a primitive Christian faith against the backdrop of a mogul-dominated oil, agriculture and entertainment economy; the desire to manipulate a celebrity-obsessed media culture toward some higher meaning; the honorable effort to assert a unified cross-racial humanity in the face of the Los Angeles region’s bitterly class- and race-segmented residential and labor markets.

Much like the later cohort of evangelical conservatives chronicled in Dochuk’s study, McPherson sought to resolve these contradictions in the higher synthesis of a dogmatic Americanism. Whereas the early career of McPherson and her church combined a conservative theological outlook with a striking commitment to social gospel–style activism, the sense of a moment of national reckoning in the face of a looming war—reinforced by America-centric readings of biblical prophecy—turned McPherson into another crypto-racist preacher of a nationalist gospel. “By the late 1930s,” Sutton writes, she “no longer concentrated simply on rooting out theological subversives, who were most often elite white men, but instead began to focus on non-Protestant immigrants, many of whom were darker-skinned Catholics and Jews, as potential agents of the Antichrist.” As World War II approached, McPherson’s preaching took on a raw, xenophobic edge: “We have no room for a communistic, Moscow-led people in the United States of America. We have no room for any ism but Americanism.” In the grip of a mounting distrust of the fallen outside world, McPherson asserted a forceful identification of the national interest with the handiwork of the church militant: “America will carry the gospel to the millions,” she pronounced. “The flag of America and the church stand for the same thing…. They stand or fall together!”

McPherson died abruptly in 1944, of an apparent drug overdose, so there’s no way of knowing how fully her career would have fallen in line with those of her fellow Southern California conservative Protestants during the cold war and afterward. As Sutton notes, however, McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel movement continues to go strong—defying the celebrated Max Weber stricture about the ritual ossification of a faith after it survives its charismatic founder. Breaking with hard-core evangelicals, former Foursquare president Jack Hayford has aired some public doubts about overenthusiastic prosecution of the culture wars during the Clinton years, even going so far as to apologize to Bill Clinton for the excesses of his peers. Meanwhile, Pentecostal devotees of the “prosperity gospel” such as Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar have capitalized on the celebrity side of McPherson’s legacy in order to peddle a grotesquely complacent and materialist gloss on the hardscrabble, experiential traditions of the Azusa Street faithful. Today’s Pentecostal scene bears few discernible marks of McPherson’s career, save one: it’d make a hell of an illustrated sermon.

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