- Plain-folk California Dreamin'
Jim Casey was a preacher, a plain-folk man of God. "Tell you what," he recalled, "I used ta get the people jumpin' an' talkin' in tongues, an' glory-shoutin' till they just fell down an' passed out. An' some I'd baptize to bring 'em to. An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time."1 Unable to control his sexual urges, he eventually abandoned his ministry. Then the Depression hit. Casey, along with thousands of others, left Oklahoma for California. In the Golden State he was radicalized. He worked as an organizer and agitator, and he defended the rights of the working class until his actions got him killed.
Casey was, of course, the literary creation of John Steinbeck and served as a Christ-type in Grapes of Wrath. Purdue University historian Darren Dochuk is also interested in plain-folk preachers from Oklahoma who journeyed to California. His preachers, however, most often bedded only their wives. Rather than conspire with "reds," they were more likely to partner with the rich and the powerful. Rather than unionize, they fought the Congress of Industrial Organization. Instead of using their religion to organize the poor and the oppressed, they used faith to help build the modern conservative movement. Their Jesus was more Ronald Reagan than Jim Casey.
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt beautifully narrates the story of three generations of Southern migrants who carried a particular expression of Christian evangelicalism to Los Angeles. There they slowly reshaped the faith and then sent it back to the South in the hopes of redeeming their native land. In the process, they transformed modern American politics and the relationship between faith and activism. Dochuk's superb book describes the ways in which "southern plain-folk religion—uprooted and relocated to the West Coast by monumental social changes begun in the late 1930s—reoriented Southern California evangelicalism toward the South by the late 1960s." Furthermore, it "tells the analogous story of how transplanted southern evangelicalism, itself [End Page 313] revitalized and recreated in the Golden State, moved from the margins of the southern Bible Belt to the mainstream of America's first Sunbelt society" (p. xv).
Southern evangelicals brought to the West Coast a firm commitment to the fundamentals of the Christian religion, a love of charismatic preachers, and a pragmatic approach to spreading the faith. While they labored to transform their adopted homeland, Southern California transformed them. The region "imposed itself on southern evangelicalism" by "compelling it to trim some of its harder-edged tendencies—its racial views, for instance" (p. xvii). The result was a new synthesis. The encounter of what Dochuk dubs "Texas theology" with "a Southern California style forged a vigorous cultural force, one that melded traditionalism into an uncentered, unbounded religious culture of entrepreneurialism, experimentation, and engagement—in short, into a Sunbelt creed" (p. xviii).
The Sunbelt creed included a strong political dimension. "Southern evangelicalism's ascent on the West Coast," Dochuk writes, "coincided with the beginning of a conservative revolution that gathered momentum in Southern California during the early cold war period before breaking through nationally in the 1970s." Evangelicals played an important role in "constructing a political counteroffensive" aimed at bringing down the New Deal establishment, and they helped usher Ronald Reagan into the White House (p. xix).
To illustrate his arguments, Dochuk begins with the "southern errand," the mass migration of men and women from the western South (especially Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Louisiana) into Southern California during the 1930s and 1940s. These men and women carried with them a Jeffersonian reverence for democracy, individual liberty, and the redemptive power of land. And they brought their faith too, forming a political culture that conflated Jefferson and Jesus. Migrant preachers had multiple goals. They wanted to "save" Southern California from sin and, cognizant of...