December 5, 2011

Book of the Month:

Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt
review by Tisa Wenger

Editors' note: Today we kick off a new feature on the blog -- the Book of the Month. On the first Monday of each month, we'll have a review of a new or not-so-new book that is pertinent to the study of religion in the American West. We begin today with Tisa Wenger's review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

Most of you will already have heard about Darren Dochuk’s widely acclaimed new book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2011). This book is already accumulating richly deserved awards: the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians; and, just announced last month, the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, named every other year for “the best book on any subject pertaining to the history of the United States.” Congratulations, Darren!

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is chock-full of colorful characters and new historical insights that will be of interest to readers of this blog. Dochuk describes the migration of southern evangelicals to California (a move that began during the Depression and accelerated in the 1940s), their conversion to conservative political activism, and their importance in the subsequent emergence of evangelical conservatism nationwide. He does not present the convergence of evangelicalism and conservatism as inevitable in any way, and in fact he shows how volatile and varied these migrants’ political commitments were when they first arrived in California.

Sara’s last post described the discussion at the seminar meeting about whether are or should be making any claims of regional distinctiveness. This question has haunted the seminar, and every time we face it we seem to feel the need to justify our existence, to justify our focus on the West within the field of American religious history. I think Darren’s book helps us move beyond that question simply by demonstrating so well the value of attentiveness to region and to local regional cultures. Indeed he helps us understand not only Southern California but also the “western south” (Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas) where many of these migrants originated, and in far more detail than previous accounts he also shows how important these grassroots conservatives and these regional cultures were for the “religious right” that came to national prominence with Reagan’s election in 1980.

All this raises another one of our seminar’s perennial questions, which does not involve justifying a regional focus, but what seems to me the more substantive problem that there is in fact no single “West.” California is not Utah is not North Dakota is not Texas, and none of these states can be taken as a unitary entity in themselves. There are multiple regional cultures and subcultures within the purview we’ve claimed, and the question is whether bringing them together within the rubric of “Religion in the American West” obscures more than it illuminates. I could ruminate much longer on all this, but I fear I’d be testing your patience as well as moving even further away from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. So I’ll stop here with a single piece of advice: if you haven’t yet read Dochuk, yourself a favor, and read it. NOW.

More notes from the Editors: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Quincy D. Newell reviews Gregory Smoak's Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 2006).

No comments: