The story of American Religion is one of migration

The story of American Religion is one of migration, be it from immigrants from other countries or from the movement of Americans from city to city and from state to state. This is especially true of American Southerners who, during the Great Depression, moved out of their homeland and to the more industrial areas of the country like Detroit or Los Angeles. When these Southerners migrated to Los Angeles and Southern California, they brought with them their evangelical religious beliefs. In “From Bible Belt to Sun Belt,” author Darren Dochuk describes how that brand of southern evangelicalism initially shaped Southern California, and then US politics as a whole, through cultural clashes with the existing New Deal Democrats of the area, by creating a strong voting block that helped bolster emerging conservative ideals, and by ultimately turning their strategies to national elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan for president.
The Great Depression devastated Americans across the nation, and that economic devastation prompted people to move to find jobs in different, more urban cities. Dochuck states that fifteen million Americans, or 12 percent of the national population, moved to the west prior to World War II, a large portion of which were Southern. These Southerners brought with them two very strong beliefs in the doctrines of Jefferson and Jesus. These doctrines were shaped by the conservatism of the South, which did not allow for the separation of the Protestant faith and these people’s public and political beliefs, while also viewing the secularization of the American West as suspect. While most of these Southern transplants proclaimed themselves apolitical, they believed themselves to be the protectors of Christian beliefs and vanguards for a Christian Democracy.
The Democratic Party had long held a strangle-hold on the South, so when conservative evangelicals brought with them their party allegiances they ran afoul of the existing New Deal Democrats in the area. Initially the Southerners were seen as provincial and prejudiced by the Southern Californians, and they had “anti-Okie”measures put into place to stop migration. The Social Democrats of the area also saw the evangelicals as being against organized labor, and that their churches were trying to take down the Left. The Southerners saw themselves as “plain folk” that wanted to follow in the tradition of Huey Long’s Ham and Eggers, and not with the the radical left and the educated bureaucracy. These issues between the two coalitions came to a head during labor wars. The evangelicals used red-baiting tactics to disparage the labor unions, which had been a major part of the liberal contingent of the Democratic Party in California, and created coalitions against -isms, socialism and internationalism, that were at the heart of the New Deal.
Just as in The Second Great Awakening, evangelical preachers held their own post-war awakening to spread their beliefs, both religious and political, and to stoke the fire of their believers in California. The Southern Baptist Convention was the first Protestant denomination to start demanding national oversight of their clergy and was soon followed by other denominations. As these preachers came under the guide of national groups, they were strongly pushed to create “Cold Warriors”, a strong guard against the communist efforts both at home and abroad. These “Cold Warriors” started to become aligned with the conservative Republicans that were spearheading the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and running against the New Deal and Social Democrats. Evangelical denominations also started pushing anticommunist radio preachers who preached on personal wealth and interests over the previous ideals of community and helping society as a whole.
With the merging of evangelical religious beliefs and conservative political beliefs succeeding in California, conservative political leaders realized that the opportunity was there to use the same tactics on a national stage. After the failure to get Barry Goldwater elected in 1964, the religious right in California saw Richard Nixon as their candidate. Nixon aligned himself with Billy Graham and was seen as the political figurehead of the evangelical movement, or as Nixon called it, the “Silent Majority.” With Nixon’s election, conservatives turned their sights back to California, realizing that the growth of the Republican Party in California would be instrumental in growing nationally. As Nixon’s trouble with Watergate started, Ronald Reagan was pushing to political prominence with the newly-dubbed Moral Majority. The Moral Majority believed that welfare and big government, created by the Democrats, were the root of evil in America. Reagan was able to use the power of the evangelical vote to win the White House and push through legislation that was backed by the evangelical movement.
Dochuk draws a clear line from the migration of Southerners to Southern California that mirrors the movement from populist conservative Democrats to conservative religious right Republicans. He shows that over time, the influx of Southern evangelicals and the influence of Southern religious organizations create the base for the Silent and Moral Majority movements that brought into power conservative California Republicans. These groups still fight against progressive social movements and big government just as much as they did post-World War II using the same tactics and ideals, and their lasting effects can still be felt by Americans today.


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