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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.”

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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.

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