One of the books on my reading list for my Theology of Ministry class at Lipscomb is From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, by Darren Dochuk. I had high expectations for the book, because my teacher introduced it by stating that it was a pivotal work that provided an answer to a question that has puzzled scholars for years. It is a work that the academic cannot ignore. Below is an adaptation of my review and critique of the book for class.
First, a summary. Dochuk seeks to provide an explanation and historical analysis for the rise of evangelical conservatism as seen in American politics, most notably in the Republican party and organizations like Falwell’s Moral Majority.
The thesis of the book is that this movement was forged in the unique marriage of southern religion and Western migration. During the depression in the late 1920s through the 1930s, those in the South and Mid-West abandoned their homes for employment opportunities in Southern California. This situation provided a unique climate for the melding of religion and politics.
The transplanted southerners first struggled with basic domestic issues like housing, the location of church buildings, and the terms of employment. Rallying around their common heritage and beliefs, they built momentum as a group through churches and grassroots organizations. They attacked their problems with a sense of mission, serving a divine errand to bring their beliefs to this new territory. In the ensuing decades, conservatives united in their opposition to the threat of religious liberalism and communism. As they begin to address subjects of national interest, they gained a larger hearing and vied for political prestige. Their religious and populist beliefs became fused with American ideals of freedom, family values, capitalism, free enterprise and democracy.
Now, for my reaction to the book. In a sense, Dochuk traces the American version of the Constantinian shift, the transformation of a persecuted minority on the fringes of society into a people entrenched within positions of power and drivers of mainstream society. The acquisition of power mimics the effects of the 4th century church. As such, the theology of modern day evangelical conservatism in the United States bears many of the same critiques.
The quest to gain prominence often comes from pure motives of seeking to give the sacred message a greater hearing and degree of acceptance within society. However, the transition inevitably alters the message. Christianity is a counter-cultural message that crucifies its heart and soul when it becomes couched in notions of respectability. Constantinian Christianity produces several shifts in key components of the message. First, the subjects of interest and concern change; Christianity’s prevailing witness become fused and co-opted by the interests of the state. Second, the means of influence subtly shifts from persuasion to coercion, from faithful living in the face of suffering to political maneuvers, legislation and military force. Third, primary identity transitions from the kingdom of God to a kingdom of man in the form of the national government, which is accompanied by transference of trust. This change in primary identity leads to a weakened sense of discipleship and a provincial understanding of Christianity.
A few examples will illustrate the point. Throughout Dochuk’s book, American evangelicals seemed to adopt certain issues that became integrated within their gospel. Some of these issues include rugged individualism, free market capitalism, decentralized government, and patriotism embodied in support of American defense spending and foreign wars. These matters become fused with their religious beliefs and take on an importance that is not paralleled in Scripture.
While the importance of some issues becomes inflated, others issues of importance are minimized. For example, American conservatives were slow to address the systemic evils of racism. They preferred to relegate this issue to an individual matter where the hearts of people should be changed. Economics was worth addressing systemically to maintain its purity, but race did not qualify for such reform. Yet, the Bible suggests that
injustice occurs at the individual and system level, and both need to be addressed. The OT prophets identify both personal and entrenched societal injustice.
In American conservatism, coercion often replaces persuasion as the main vehicle
of influence. Foreign wars receive support, often in the name of Christianity. Since communism promotes atheism, conservatives argued for the validity of a strong national defense and offensive wars to eradicate the problem. In domestic concerns, confidence is placed in the ability to legislate moral affairs.
Finally, it should be noted that while American conservatism fuses its primary identity with the state, the gospel calls upon its hearers to find their primary identity in the kingdom of God. Constantinian Christianity conflates God and the state, ultimately putting trust and security in the state. Christianity becomes located within a particular political system within a particular nation, which leads to a religion that is more provincial than universal.
Overall, I thought the book was a fascinating read, and I had a difficult time putting it down. One of the things that I found to be interesting was the role that churches of Christ play in Dochuk’s assessment of the rise of the political right. Men like George Benson, George Pepperdine, Bill Banowsky and Pat Boone were credited with shaping and progressing the movement. I’d like to do another post on churches of Christ in the book, but half of my ideas don’t actually make it into the blog.
It is probably also clear from my remarks that I see a danger in the marriage of politics and religion. Politics and nationalism are powerful forces in this country, and they are having an increasing influence upon Christians. I am reminded of the need for the church today to continue the message of the first century: Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.