From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (review)
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From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. By Darren Dochuk. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 496. $35.00 cloth)

"Sweeping" and "ambitious" are two words that will appear in many reviews of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, and they both are appropriate. Dochuk, assistant professor of history at Purdue University, provides a meticulously researched and well-written narrative of the origins of the Religious Right. Both the title and subtitle, though, promise more than what the book actually delivers, as the focus specifically is on the role that two generations of transplanted evangelicals from the western South to southern California had in marrying religious conservatives to the Republican Party. In this story, Dochuk has identified a key element of the origins of the Religious Right and carefully documented its central place in creating the current shape of the modern Republican Party. [End Page 126]

Starting with the migration of Southerners to California in the Great Depression and ending with Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt contributes in many ways to understanding this era. For historians of the South, Dochuck fleshes out what James Gregory sketched in one chapter of American Exodus (1991) of the transplantation of southern religious traditions to a new place in the West. For historians of American religion, Dochuk demonstrates the way fundamentalists and evangelicals remained politically engaged during the 1930s and 1940s, reworking Joel Carpenter's assessment in Revive Us Again (1999). For those seeking to understand how Protestant conservatives became a part of the Republican base, this book suggests that the roots of this connection are not in Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority but in the southern California nexus of southern religious traditions and enterprising entrepreneurs. Finally, Dochuk adds a much-needed religious dimension to Rick Perlstein's analysis of modern conservatism in Before the Storm (2001) and Nixonland (2008).

Dochuk sometimes glosses over very real differences among southern California's evangelicals and so misses the way in which those differences may have hindered political cooperation. For example, he claims that "Demos Shakarian [founder of the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship] and Bill Bright [founder of Campus Crusade for Christ] led the way by effectively blending the priorities of evangelism within the new corporate structure" (p. 185). A casual reader might assume that Shakarian and Bright were on the same page theologically, but actually Bright was hostile to Shakarian's Full Gospel movement, forbidding Campus Crusade staff from participating in Full-Gospel practices. In some ways, the divisions among evangelicals are irrelevant to Dochuk; what matters is that Bright and Shakarian shared a similar vision of how their religious work would have political consequences. What emerges from Dochuk's narrative, then, is not the story of a large, albeit diverse, group marching in lockstep into the Republican Party, but one of a variety of groups moving in parallel to the same destination. Moreover, Dochuk does not explain very well the developments within the South or within [End Page 127] evangelical/fundamentalist churches and institutions in other parts of the country that took them on a similar journey to becoming a part of the core Republican constituencies.

These observations of what is missing point more to what research needs to be done rather than a failure on Dochuk's part. In sum, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt has established the base from which other research on the Religious Right will start and as such deserves a place in all academic and public libraries.

Wiliam R. Glass

Wiliam R. Glass is professor of American social history at the American Studies Center of the University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland. He is author of Strangers in Zion: Fundamentalists in the South, 1900-1950 (2001) and is currently researching the image of military authority in Hollywood movies.

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