Where Jefferson Meets Jesus


Congregational Community Church in Sunnyvale, lindn

From The Nation:

In the long-ago time of the mid-1990s, an earnest pair of radical British intellectuals named Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron surveyed the emerging, and deeply reactionary, dogmas of the Internet age. Barbrook and Cameron explained that this worldview, which they dubbed the “Californian ideology,” hinged on a curious blend of New Left and New Right orthodoxies: culturally tolerant, anti-hierarchical and experimental, it was also punitively neoliberal and profoundly antigovernment in expounding a rigidly libertarian vision of the global economy. “The Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism,” the authors observed.

Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital “Jeffersonian democracy”…. Although they enjoy cultural freedoms won by the hippies, most of them are no longer actively involved in the struggle to build “ecotopia.” Instead of openly rebelling against the system, these hi-tech artisans now accept that individual freedom can only be achieved by working within the constraints of technological progress and the “free market.”

Barbrook and Cameron’s critique of cyber-obsessed Golden State boosterism was prescient in many ways, as any long-suffering auditor of TED conference homilies or reader of the utopian prophecies of Wired magazine can attest. In a deeper sense, though, the hybrid character of this new ideology wasn’t as improbable or bizarre as the two critics supposed. California’s curious free-market orthodoxies are hardy offshoots of the classic fundamentalism of the religious variety that took root in Southern California in the early decades of the twentieth century. No less contradictory than the gospel truths of the California digerati, the dogmas of West Coast evangelicalism proved instrumental in acculturating an earlier generation of Jeffersonian golden dreamers to a life of abundance bolstered by government-driven subsidies and development policies that, over time, they came to despise with a righteous fury.

This saga forms the backbone of From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Darren Dochuk’s detailed and closely argued study of the rise of a distinctly Californian brand of evangelical belief among early twentieth-century transplants from the South and Southwest. These migrants are often identified with the Depression-era Dust Bowl refugees immortalized in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, but they began streaming into California decades earlier, spurred by convulsions in the agricultural economy and the mythical promise of a new life on the farthest edge of the American frontier. “Fighting Bob” Shuler, for example, a second-generation Methodist preacher from Virginia by way of Texas, settled in Los Angeles in 1920, and went on to lead a long series of moral crusades from his perch at Trinity Methodist Church. He organized a successful recall of the city’s mayor in the 1930s, and ran for the US Senate on the Prohibition ticket, while conducting a high-profile feud with the celebrity Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. McPherson, in turn, brought national prominence to a Pentecostal movement rooted in the homegrown Los Angeles “Azusa Street” revival, spearheaded in the first decade of the twentieth century by the African-American preacher William J. Seymour.

This new cohort of evangelical believers brought to California a political culture steeped in “an unwavering faith that conflated the doctrines of Jefferson and Jesus,” Dochuk writes. This religious-cum-civic heritage encouraged the transplants to think of themselves as “pilgrims burdened with the responsibility of evangelizing and civilizing, initially on the godless borderland of the western South, then in the dark, secular reaches of Southern California.” Their colonizing faith, like its historical forerunners, cultivated a sense of persecution to mobilize a heroic global mission.

“Little Churches Everywhere: California’s Evangelical Conservatism”, Chris Lehmann, The Nation