I’ve been utterly fascinated by the rise of the religious right and its bizarre relationship to neocons.
The social and political transformation happened because of a specific migration pattern. It was made most famous by the Okies, but was part of a larger migration. Beginning prior to the Civil War, many waves and streams of migration went to the West Coast from the Western South, including Texas along with what some call the Southern Plains or the Southern Midwest. This migration slowed down around the 1970s and shifted direction. Like others who left the South for the North, many of these Southern Californians and their descendants headed back to Texas and the Southern Plains/Midwest.
Combined with other migrations from the East, California was transformed. Most significantly, as the North/South divide began to take shape in the East, it also nearly split the California in two with Northerners in Northern California and Southerners in Southern California (see: The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews, The Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson, and The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands). This set the stage for the 20th century migrations of Evangelicals.
What is interesting and truly strange is how vast the transformation was.
Even before the migration, these people were very religious, but it was a religion that was mostly grounded in rural farm communities. These people weren’t right-wingers. They were New Deal Democrats, labor unionists, socialists and other varieties of liberal and left-wing radicals. The region they called home was particularly a hotbed of agrarian socialism. The righteousness of their radicalism was born out of their religiosity.
They were on a moral crusade to save their way of life against corrupt capitalists and monopolizing industrialists, especially railroad tycoons. This began, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in the Populist Era in the last decades of the 19th century. These people were further radicalized by the Great Depression which was when socialism really took hold. Oddly, this was when a mass migration began to set their eyes on California, but their native ideological roots were left behind for the most part. They were uprooted and when they were replanted in California soil new fruits would come forth.
There are two reasons for this.
First, they were independent farmers back home, but in California they became laborers for massive farms the likes not seen often back on the Southern plains. Their populist rhetoric romanticized the farmer. This very agrarian ‘free soil’ rhetoric made it hard for them to see the Californian farming elite as bad guys, even as they were being taken advantage of.
Second, as time went on, more of them got factory jobs. They were living in an area that boomed because of the vast wealth pumped into it by the federal government’s military defense funding. These former migrants became middle class and respectable. Their entire way of life, including the vast wealth of their churches, was dependent on government funding and the Cold War that fueled it all. This formed a marriage between Evangelical Second Coming eschatology and Cold War patriotic propaganda, a marriage that gave birth to a deformed child of a corporatist military-industrial complex that saw its purpose as saving all of the world’s soul.
In American politics, this took shape as the Southern Strategy. Nixon, a native Southern Californian, began the Southern Strategy and used it to great success. Reagan inherited it and revved up this style of propaganda to levels maybe never before seen in American politics. He was a native Midwesterner with an easygoing personality of Midwestern sunny optimism which he brought to Hollywood. Allying with Southern Evangelicals, he was able to cross the boundaries between North and South in California and in America at large. He took the dark vision of Evangelical End Times and made it a capitalist salvific vision of unending progress and profit.
As the Cold War began to slow down and then ended, the migration pattern reversed. Many Southern Californians headed back to their cultural homeland. With them, they took their weird Californianized ideology and they Californicated Texas along with the Southern Plains. Former Democratic strongholds became Republican majorities. This was a new Solid South, but one with the most modern techniques developed in California.
Here is how Darren Dochuk describes it in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Kindle Locations 7783-7806):
Many Southern California evangelicals found the South’s new suburbs promising as well and played a direct role in populating (and politicizing) them. Indeed, as much as evangelicalism’s repositioning within Southern California dulled some of its power, a fourth force of change— more migration— blunted it altogether. This time, the migration was outward-bound. During the 1980s and 1990s, Southern California’s political economy underwent dramatic restructuring as a once spectacularly strong defense sector began to lose government contracts, its fight against inflation, and, generally, its luster. A declining tax base (exacerbated by Proposition 13) coupled with rising costs further tore up local neighborhoods. Orange County— once the epitome of California’s cold war boom— went bankrupt, marking a very real end to decades of unimpeded prosperity. Cold war defense suburbs that ringed Los Angeles County suffered similar burdens of adjustment, as did the evangelical communities that had banked their livelihoods on this economy. In reply, countless evangelical citizens and their institutions picked up and went east. Some , like James Dobson and his organization, Focus on the Family, were enticed by boosters and cheaper living to a newer defense community tucked away in the Mountain West: Colorado Springs. More often they simply returned to the place from whence they came: the western South. In a dramatic reversal, California began losing southern migrants in the 1980s, Oklahoma and Texas reclaiming them. Retirees, job seekers, and the homesick now steered their automobiles east on Interstate 10. Writing about this rising trend in 1983 that was remaking the Texas “oil patch,” social scientist William Stevens declared that the “great surge of post– World War II westing migration” had “bounced off the West Coast and ricocheted back to Texas.” He added that “both money and people” were making the trip. 13
This reverse migration was also primed to “Californiaize” Texas political culture and Republicanize Texas politics, pundits noted. To be sure, they overstated the case for the former, since Texas political culture was always protective of its character. And by the 1980s, Texas and the entire western South boasted a political and cultural authority that the rest of the nation now envied. This was the new epicenter of the new political economy , a home for NASA, Texaco, and Wal- Mart, emblems of the Sunbelt’s high-tech, resource-based, service economies and financial clout. In the late 1930s, Houston politician and philanthropist Jesse H. Jones had given an impassioned speech to students at John Brown University in tiny Siloam Springs , Arkansas , imploring them to take control of their region by applying a frontier mentality to its development. It was time, he said, for the western South to become strong and independent of northern industrialists’ grasp. Thanks to the work of educator-entrepreneurs like John Brown, George Benson, and R. G. LeTourneau, two generations of Christians had internalized this message and, with the aid of federal funds and venture capital, helped turn the western South into the colonizer rather than the colony.
Thus, the Great Amnesia took over American politics and the American populace. It was as if the Populist and Progressive Eras had never happened. Ignorant of the past, Americans became puppets whose strings were pulled by a plutocracy that had nearly all former restraints removed. They didn’t need democracy for they had Capitalism and God… or rather they had a Capitalism that was their God… along with some culture war issues to prettify his divine visage.
As Thomas Frank sums it up (What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, p. 5):
… the Great Backlash [is] a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protests of the late sixties. While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues-summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art-which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements-not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars-that are the movement’s greatest monuments.
The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and deunionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver and their “New Economy” collapses. It makes possible the policy pushers’ fantasies of “globalization” and a free-trade empire that are foisted upon the rest of the world with such self-assurance. Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.
The Great Backlash has made the laissez-faire revival possible, but this does not mean that it speaks to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary; the backlash imagines itself as a foe of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end. That its champions today control all three branches of government matters not a whit. That its greatest beneficiaries are the wealthiest people on the planet does not give it pause.
In fact, backlash leaders systematically downplay the politics of economics. The movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern-that Values Matter Most, as one backlash title has it. On those grounds it rallies citizens who would once have been reliable partisans of the New Deal to the standard of conservatism. Old-fashioned values may count when conservatives appear on the stump, but once conservatives are in office the only old-fashioned situation they care to revive is an economic regimen of low wages and lax regulations. Over the last three decades they have smashed the welfare state, reduced the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy, and generally facilitated the country’s return to a nineteenth-century pattern of wealth distribution. Thus the primary contradiction of the backlash: it is a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people.
The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. The culture industry is never forced to clean up its act. Even the greatest culture warrior of them all was a notorious cop-out once it came time to deliver. “Reagan made himself the champion of ‘traditional values,’ but there is no evidence he regarded their restoration as a high priority,” wrote Christopher Lasch, one of the most astute analysts of the backlash sensibility. “What he really cared about was the revival of the unregulated capitalism of the twenties: the repeal of the New Deal.
This is vexing for observers, and one might expect it to vex the movement’s true believers even more. Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining. _____
Backlash theorists,(as we shall see) imagine countless conspiracies in which the wealthy, powerful, and well connected-the liberal media, the atheistic scientists, the obnoxious eastern elite-pull the strings and make the puppets dance. And yet the backlash itself has been a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of stringpullers would have had trouble dreaming it up. Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up cutting the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.
Like a French Revolution in reverse-one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy-the backlash pushes the spectrum of the acceptable to the right, to the right, farther to the right. It may never bring prayer back to the schools, but it has rescued all manner of rightwing economic nostrums from history’s dustbin. Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.