Saturday, January 8, 2011

Darren Dochuk's "From Bible Belt to Sunbelt"

Darren Dochuk is a professor at Purdue University and a former Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, and reported the following:
Ever since Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter With Kansas in 2005, pundits have been asking a basic question: why do so many rank-and-file voters support a party that ignores their economic interests? Restated, why do the “plain folk” of Main Street, Kansas vote for a Republican Party run by the powerbrokers of Wall Street, New York?

My book was not written in response to Frank’s query, but it does tease out a few rejoinders. Most of these are embedded in a long narrative of change over time, making them difficult to pluck out, but an obvious one surfaces on page 99. In the lead-up to this page I describe how southern evangelical Democrats who moved to California during the Depression and World War II began reconstituting its politics. These sojourners (2.5 million southerners called California home by 1970) confronted a polarized political climate that seemed foreign and dangerous. Their fiercest adversaries were Social Democrats, left-leaning liberals who controlled California’s Democratic Party. Amid the tumult of post-war political adjustment, southern evangelicals attempted to assert their authority through a grassroots movement called Ham and Eggs. Ham and Eggs combined calls for Christian revival and morality with a critique of capitalism and economic injustice. This was William Jennings Bryan’s Populism reborn, and it scared Social Democrats, who believed that Ham and Eggs was less reform-minded and more reactionary, less of a cause and more of a conduit for intemperate, irrational religion.

These battling Democrats came to blows, literally on the streets of Los Angeles. On page 99 I describe the fallout of a particularly violent clash in late 1945, when fifteen thousand Social Democrats protested a Ham and Eggs rally attended by four thousand church folk.
To the dismay of city officials, the confrontations involving Ham and Eggs escalated in the coming months, galvanizing an alliance of right-wing opponents. Although not necessarily in agreement with the Ham and Eggs agenda…allies gathered from Republican groups, middle-class evangelical churches, and business associations had contempt for a common adversary. These groups had grown increasingly wary that communist radicals in government, mainline Protestantism, organized labor, and Hollywood were creating a new political establishment that wanted to extend the power of the New Deal state to extreme ends (99).
Ham and Eggs failed, leaving liberals in charge of California’s Democratic Party, but the tumult it stirred up left southern evangelical transplants troubled and faced with a hard decision: Had secularly-minded Social Democrats shifted Roosevelt’s Party—their party—too far to the Left? If so, where did that leave citizens who wanted to protect both conservative social values and a spirit of economic justice? As my book details in the chapters that follow, California’s evangelicals would ultimately decide that culture (conservative social values) trumped class (economic justice), and that the GOP had this overriding interest at heart. When Ronald Reagan roused them in the 1960s by saying “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party…[t]he party left me,” they responded predictably, therefore, by becoming his loyalist foot soldiers. For decades to come they would rally behind Reagan’s right-wing Republicanism as if it was their only option, leaving Thomas Frank and others to ask why.
Preview From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue