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Claiming California for God: The Great Southern Migration

Review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism (ISI, Dec 2010) ISBN: 978-0-393-06682-1. Hardback, 520 pages; $28.99.

Southern evangelicals that, beginning in the 1930s, left their towns and farms for the fresh optimism and opportunities of Southern California transformed a region, molding it into their own. Darren Dochuk's account From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism tells the story of the vast Depression era migration of those who not only sought better economic opportunity but showed up ready to win souls and influence the culture. In 1969, "At the moment Billy Graham appeared in Anaheim to lead his ten – day revival, more Southern-born residents, 2.5 million, lived in the Golden State than in any other single nonsouthern state," says Dochuk.

At that revival, Graham spoke of the second coming of Christ. Graham, a lifelong Democrat, also offered another word about the growing leviathan of centralization and bureaucracy:

You see, we've built such a bureaucratic machine in this country and a monster, nobody can control it. It's feeding upon itself and growing by leaps and bounds and it's become like an octopus reaching into every home and life in America . . . It's out of hand.

Southerners steeped in the New Deal ethic would ultimately abandon that form of progressivism for a newfound freedom. New Deal activism was increasingly viewed with suspicion as it embodied secular language and a secular practice. What's more, Californians played a influential role in bringing the Southerners they left behind out of their New Deal leanings, and together they created a brand of conservatism characterized by an appealing, sunny optimism.

The evangelicalism of the Sun Belt would also mainstream the cultural and political sides of the movement and, as Dochuk tells it, "Southern evangelicalism could no longer be dismissed easily as a provincial religion for a parochial people." Evangelical culture was now coast-to-coast and it drew freely from the deep well of Southern California's vibrant economy, skilled entrepreneurs, and tech-savvy population.

This religious Sun-Belt coalition successfully shed some of the old obstacles from empowering a movement previously weighed down by racist or anti-Semitic tagalongs, not unlike what William F. Buckley would do with National Review.

Dochuk notes these transplants embraced a "mandate to make their religion count—to be champions of a cause, not the victims of circumstance." To them, their faith stood in stark contrast to the progressive onslaught. Centralized power threatened private money for ministry and a freedom of worship. While government assistance was warranted in times of crisis, it was not a way of life, and a return to limited government was a primary worldview that was grounded in their faith and daily experience. The transplants of Southern California and the rising conservative influence would ultimately coalesce behind the 1980 election of their champion, Ronald Reagan.

Southern transplants provided a boom to faith-based charities. Now off the farm, neighborhoods provided churchgoers opportunities to organize food pantries and anonymously stock the homes of people in need. As the author points out, "For the Shahan family, the intimacy of the country church often idealized by those from the South was a reality not enjoyed until after arriving in Southern California."

With roots firmly tied to the American South, they built evangelical mission minded schools like Pepperdine University in Malibu. Pepperdine not only reflected the conservative theology of its supporters, but the economics department was rooted in free-market principles. "By imbuing young people with faith in the free market, a new South would emerge, primed for economic advancement and ready to lead the nation away from the precipice of collapse," says Dochuk.

Churches also mirrored the conservative theology of its members. The dominant denominations of the South popped up all over Southern California. Southerners flocked to colonize the culture of the Golden State and received a push back from liberal progressives such as big labor and mainline pulpits. For them, "Southern evangelicalism promised damnation for their region, not its salvation."

While Dochuk spends plenty of time highlighting Reagan's rise and his affinity for the evangelical Sun-Belt coalition, it is also described as the pinnacle moment of its force in American politics, at least for California. After Reagan, many of the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of the original Westward migration began leaving California, many returning to their roots in the South, which now promises greater economic freedom and professional opportunities. Texas has benefited especially from a jobs boom, and in a clueless manner, a delegation of California lawmakers visited business-friendly Texas this year to study the reasons for its economic success.

Dochuk splendidly tells the story of the great Westward migration and the tale of a region that was not just caught up in an evangelical wave, but founded an empire of churches, colleges, and religious friendly businesses that was widely influential in changing evangelicalism and American politics. These transplanted Southerners brought a new vibrancy and entrepreneurial spirit to the region that helped to transform California into the eighth largest economy in the world. If their opponents believed the unleashing of Southern evangelicalism would cause "damnation for their region," it will be interesting to see the reverse effect on a future Southern California that becomes more and more secularized and continues to impose regulations and shed jobs at an alarming rate.