It is no longer possible to dismiss American religiosity as an odd residuum of hillbilly culture. It is now a vivid and organizing force in a mobile America defined by McMansions and office parks. Indeed, the alliance of advanced capitalism and religious fundamentalism is the most remarkable feature of the landscape of American power today.
The superchurch and the televangelist are at least as integral to the current culture of American capitalism as Silicon Valley and Las Vegas. More clearly than ever, America has rejected the European understanding of Protestantism as the carrier of rationalization and secularization—as in Max Weber’s austere Calvinist capitalist.
How are we to understand the transubstantiation of the flinty Yankee, once the incarnation of American capitalism, into the casino capitalist or the indebted but born-again shopper?
The rise of the Sunbelt is of course a key component, but, within that larger transformation, the specific weight of Texas power is crucial.
The geographic axis of the transformation of American society is recognizable enough in the increasing political and economic clout of Sunbelt states, such as Florida and Texas, nicely encapsulated by the Bush family’s relocation from Connecticut and Wall Street to Midland, Houston, and Miami (home of Jeb Bush). The specific conjunction of oil and fundamentalist religion that has shaped Texas politics since the 1930s explains this familial migration. Oil brought the Bushes to Texas in the first place; the second generation has apparently taken the area’s religiosity to heart, providing the Republican Party with a symbolic accord between business and social conservatives. This is less a “Southern takeover” of American politics as described by Michael Lind than the result of a long-term convergence between Wall Street and the interests of Texas oil owners: not the revenge of the old plantation, but a new dynamic within American capitalism.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially in the 1920s (the time of the Scopes trial), commentators such as H. L. Mencken saw the central conflict of U.S. politics as one between a backward agrarian South and scientific modernity. This is no longer so clearly the case. Modernization in Texas and the South is locked into an embrace with its old adversaries, fundamentalism and right-wing populism, that is perhaps unique in advanced capitalist economies. Even modernist anomie is included in the embrace. Divorce rates are currently falling across the United States, but remain significantly higher in the Bible Belt than in the Northeast, which has the lowest rates (Massachusetts the lowest among all fifty states). I remember being told in the late seventies or early eighties that the area of Dallas around Greenville Avenue, by then a sea of apartment complexes and singles bars, could boast the highest rate of divorce in the country. This plausible claim has the virtue of making sense of the general profile of such neighborhoods: filled with the young and recently married, often arriving from the small-town South or Midwest, working in new service industries and technologies, and experiencing the relaxation of sexual and drug restrictions that were about the only parts of the youth agenda of the 1960s that made it to Texas. Twenty-five or so years down the road, the same cohort can be found raising their children in Old-Time Religion and Family Values. Even here, though, surveys indicate that born-again Christians have a divorce rate that is not noticeably different from that of the general population (and greater, for instance, than that of Catholics). As with the southern women who now “re-virginize” themselves with premarital periods of celibacy, the return to traditional values doesn’t reflect a coherent narrative of personal probity but rather a moral face-lift. The evangelical experience of being “born again” in American society accommodates itself to a new world of sexual morality in which “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” in contrast to the stringent self-examination characteristic of the older Protestant sects. Piety and charisma have long licensed sexual extravagances that remain at the heart of popular religious and political traditions: remember Billy James Hargis, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Bill Clinton.
Texas continues to experience a particularly acute version of the restlessness of modern American life. “Gone to Texas” was the old slogan of Texas as the end of the line for southern migrations. The addition of the fantastic possibilities of oil wealth transformed Texas from a relatively poor and agricultural state into the epitome of American capitalism. What are the contours and consequences of this transformation of hardscrabble Texas?
Although the southern agricultural system of slave production of cotton met an apparent geographic limit at the Great Plains, antebellum Texas was a predominantly southern state with a Spanish history. After the Civil War, the “redeemers” who ended Reconstruction in the state excoriated the “activism” of Republican administrations and pledged themselves to a limited and “responsible” government. In effect, the end of Reconstruction provided Texas and the rest of the South with the template for an ideal of limited, business-friendly government that has survived to the present. It has only been challenged when white distress has reached crisis levels: in the era of populism and the Great Depression. If that ideal has divested itself of overt racism and has changed alliances from the Democratic to the Republican party, its origins remain nonetheless clear in the history of the South, just as the enthusiasm for capital punishment in the South has its historical foundation in the violence used to police the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.
The Civil War also marks the beginning of the politicization of southern religion. The latitudinarian Anglicanism of the Southern planters lent itself to an enlightenment skepticism, embodied most clearly by Jefferson. In faraway Texas, Anglo settlement was originally supervised by a Catholic Mexico that only feebly enforced its requirement that settlers practice the state religion. The early Anglo-Texans acquired a reputation for religious slackness. One observer complained in 1831 that Texans spent the Sabbath “visiting, driving stock, and breaking mustangs.” The state never completely lost its early irreverence, despite the rapid development of Protestant congregations after independence. By the Civil War, however, Texas and Southern religious laxity was already on the wane, as southern churches began to rally around the increasingly threatened institution of slavery. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries, meanwhile, made particularly strong inroads among both poorer whites and slaves. The crucible of these denominations was the Civil War, when southern churches formed separate organizations, which the Southern Baptist Convention still maintains with strident energy.
Reconstruction and Jim Crow forged a southern version of the American “civil religion”—what the historian Charles Reagan Wilson has called “the religion of the Lost Cause.” Unlike with the civil religion of the rest of the United States, however, the South found itself with no national state to celebrate; the Lost Cause was the ghostly emblem of a romanticized antebellum South. It was, then, distinctively backward-looking rather than future-oriented, unlike the boosterism that characterized the rest of the country in the same period. Partly because the American nation and state were seen as inimical to the identity of the South, religion loomed larger in the rituals of the Lost Cause—and significantly defined them in opposition to a modernity identified with the triumphant North. Southern religion now only dimly remembers this aspect of its own history (at least partly because of its uncomfortable associations with slavery and Jim Crow), but it has no problem connecting its most recent foray into politics with the recapture of an “old-time” religion threatened by “secular humanism.” The self-conscious return to the past, however, masks what is genuinely new about this development: a recharged American populism that is now simultaneously allied with a new form of American capitalism based in the Sunbelt, but particularly potent in Texas.
Reactionary politics and politicized religion name the common inheritance of Texas and the rest of the South. But this is not the complete story. Popular religion in the state often provided explicit or tacit support to movements of farmers and workers. Such movements were, moreover, often creatures of the Middle West and South. The populist movement originated in Texas as the Farmers’ Alliance in the 1870s and 1880s, and it formulated its most far-reaching platform at Cleburne, Texas, in 1886, which included not simply the “soft” money program that would be taken over by the Democratic Party of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, but an innovative plan that would have involved the federal government in helping to manage the annual problems of overproduction and low prices. The program hoped to reduce the dependency of tenant farmers on the bankers and landlords who kept most of them in perennial debt; it anticipated the New Deal agricultural reforms of forty years later. Texas was consistently at the center of the development of the Farmers’ Alliance, as well as the People’s Party that later incorporated it and attempted to unite rural and urban voters. (As early as 1886, the Texas Farmers’ Alliance had supported the Great Southwest Strike against Jay Gould’s Texas and Pacific Railroad.) The participation of Texans in the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party was stronger than almost anywhere else in the country: newspapers, clubs, camp meetings based on religious revivals, and so on. The hostility of the populists was largely directed at the railroads, Wall Street, and the trusts—pitting an economically underdeveloped South and Midwest against New York capitalists. Even in the time of Franklin Roosevelt two generations later, the Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb could write a populist tract, Divided We Stand (1937), which set South and West against Wall Street. The residue of this populism is present today, even if it is now directed against the cultural capital of East Coast liberals rather than against the captains of capitalism.
The one significant legacy of populism in Texas itself was the Texas Railroad Commission, established after the election of the quasi-populist Democrat James Hogg in 1891 to regulate the monopoly rates railroads were able to charge farmers. Hogg disregarded demands from the People’s Party that one of its members be named to the three-member commission, thus setting the tone for future years: the commission mostly protects the business interests it was meant to regulate. The discovery of large quantities of oil in the state gave the Railroad Commission a new function: the regulation of the oil and gas industry. This became particularly important after the discovery of the massive East Texas oil field near Kilgore in 1930. This find was the result of the inspired hucksterism of Columbus M. “Dad” Joiner and the mountebank “geologist” and serial bigamist A. D. “Doc” Lloyd, who drilled the ultimate “poor-boy” rig (getting local farmers to work in exchange for shares in the well—the shares ultimately adding up to well over 100 percent) in an area dismissed by the major oil companies. Oil money in Texas was always distinctly populist in orientation. The wildcatter “poor-boy” rig was and is a central part of the mythology of the Texas oil patch. Where the Old South and its legatees lionized the image of the antebellum Southern planter and his cultural achievements, the Texas oil millionaire was culturally indistinct from his roughnecks and roustabouts—and this was the source of a certain pride on both sides. In fact, much of the remarkable esprit de corps of Texans, which can make other Americans look phlegmatic by comparison, owes its existence to this widely shared populism, which extended all the way to a shared distaste for the bankers who made life miserable for Texas farmers. “My daddy hated bankers,” the daughter of a Fort Worth oilman recalled in Sally Helgesen’s Wildcatters: A Story of Texans, Oil, and Money. “He said they never took risks, only bet on a sure thing. Once, he went over to Dallas to see a man at the Republic National Bank building about a loan, and while he was there he ran into another vice-president or something who’d lent him money before. The man said, ‘I’m going to collar you before I let you out of here, Fred, and make you pay back what you owe us.’ But my daddy just told him to go to hell—said he’d come there to borrow more, not to pay anyone back.” Cultural capital was foreign to this world, and Texas political culture did not produce the usual southern spectacle of local elites glancing with mild distaste at the antics of “cracker” politicians and vigilantes. The pretenses to cultural capital were already thin enough, and were pretty well swept away by oil.
The poor-boy rig and its beneficiaries (independent oilmen, but also farmers and ranchers who struck it rich) shaped oil populism in Texas. Because the majors were slow to pounce on the East Texas field, it became the site where great independent fortunes were made—most notably that of H. L. Hunt, who kept Joiner holed up in a Dallas hotel negotiating the sale of his leases while Hunt’s own people awaited the drilling of a new well that would verify their immense value. East Texas became the realm of poor-boy operations in competition with the majors, and the conflict developed into the sometimes violent Hot Oil War of the 1930s. Poor-boy rigs relied on the right of capture (the absolute ownership of underground mineral and water rights) enshrined in English common law. In oil field practice, this meant that a well punched into the ground close to another lease could drain off the oil and gas beneath the adjoining lease. The premium, then, was on quick extraction, which led to overproduction and rapid price deflation—another version of the problem of overproduction that farmers had confronted in the late nineteenth century. The majors and some of the larger independents (including Hunt) begged for government intervention, leading Governor Ross Sterling (one of the founders of Humble Oil, the stalking horse for Rockefeller’s detested Standard Oil of New Jersey, later Exxon) to declare martial law in the field. Federal law eventually outlawed interstate shipments of hot oil. The stabilization of the East Texas oil field by the majors and the Roosevelt administration effectively enshrined the power of the Railroad Commission to regulate production, and this became the ironic gift of populism to oil wealth. Although the majors had the clearest interest in the success of the Commission, its regulations were carefully structured to benefit Texas wildcatters as well.
FROM THE 1930S onward, oil eclipsed cotton as a source of wealth and thus established the state’s distinctive blend of Southern and Western. The image of the wildcatter oilman is that of a latter-day cowboy (James Dean’s Jett Rink in Giant), even though most of the early discoveries were in cotton and timber country. But there was some justice to the oilman’s western image. The new fortunes made in the Texas oil fields often had their beginnings in East Texas, but they were best represented in the symbolic world of the cowboy. Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson started off in horse and cattle trading. H. L. Hunt won his first oil leases at the poker table. Horse trader and gambler were in their element at the frenetic trading in oil leases that always accompanied the discovery of a new field. “Free ass, free grass, and to hell with the herd laws,” the old rallying cry of the cowboys in opposition to the closing of the open range, seemed appropriate to the Texas wildcatters as well. Elites in Dallas and Houston that had originally come together around the cotton trade were forced to accommodate their emulation of plantation wealth to the raucous enthusiasms of new oil money.
At the same time, the affiliated industries that spun off from oil development were decisive for the future history of Texas: Texas Instruments (a high tech company and defense contractor that began life as Geophysical Services in the oil fields), Hughes Tool (the source of the fortune that launched the extravagances of Howard Hughes, Jr.), Halliburton, Dresser Industries (the company, now merged with Halliburton, whose cozy connection to Prescott Bush originally brought George H. W. Bush to Texas), and Schlumberger (which brought the French De Menil family to Houston and ultimately the Dia Foundation for the Arts to New York). Texas produced an infrastructure of oil and gas development that remains in place long after the state’s own oil reserves have dwindled. Where there is oil, there will be Texans.
The lure of oil money, moreover, created early alliances between Texas and Wall Street: Gulf Oil was created by the Mellon family, Humble Oil and Magnolia Oil served as Rockefeller proxies, and Dresser Industries was closely connected with the merchant bankers Brown Brothers Harriman. Ivy League graduates such as George H. W. Bush swarmed to the Permian Basin field in West Texas after the Second World War, leading the locals to refer to them generically as “the Yalies.” Conversely, the Texas oilman William F. Buckley, Sr., directed his company’s activities in Venezuela and Cuba from New York. He had been a vehement opponent of the restrictions on American capital in the Mexican oil fields and was expelled from that country after he supported the insurrection of the warlord Manuel Pelaez, who ran protection for American and British oil interests in Tampico. Buckley’s son, William F. Buckley, Jr., later put the stamp of New England patrician hauteur on the revivified New Right; his family background, however, suggests the genuine source of its power.
The politics of oil pried the state loose from the pure politics of the Lost Cause, already weaker in Texas than in the rest of the old Confederacy, and produced a rich-boy populism that continues to define the state. If populism in the rest of the South came to mean circling the wagons of white supremacy, the Texas variety possessed financial resources and political connections of an entirely different caliber. At the time of the New Deal, the new Texas constellation of oil wealth probably looked like a political wild card. At least some part of the new wealth accommodated itself to the government largesse of the New Deal and the Second World War. Houston financier Jesse Jones headed Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and George and Herman Brown of Brown and Root financed Lyndon Johnson’s political career—in exchange for government contracts. Johnson, a consummate political operator, believed that it was possible to satisfy both oil money and New Deal political goals. In the years between the New Deal and the Great Society, his political genius managed to keep the state’s Democratic Party at least nominally aligned with the national party. In return, the state was showered with federal largesse in military and, later, NASA spending. The oil industry made a healthy down payment on the Texas Congressional delegation, whose members were nearly unanimous in support of the oil depletion allowance, perhaps the most generous tax loophole in American history. Greater dissent was allowed over the hot button issue of racial integration than oil depletion: Texans Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough were among the only southern senators who supported civil rights legislation.
Even Johnson’s extraordinary career cannot obscure the larger political trajectory of Texas capitalism in the period of the New Deal and its aftermath. While Texas oil wealth graciously accepted New Deal contracts and the regulatory powers of the Railroad Commission, it became increasingly implacable in its hostility to New Deal social welfare programs. Many of the homegrown millionaires were vociferous opponents of the New Deal, often promoting an intransigence that went well beyond that of the Republican Party. Independent oilmen strongly supported East Texas Congressman Martin Dies, the founder of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the political career of the “hillbilly” radio broadcaster William “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” Lee O’Daniel. War mobilization aggravated matters. Military reliance on Texas oil was, of course, beneficial to Texas oilmen, and the oil pipeline from East Texas to the East Coast was one of the most important domestic projects of the war years. However, the National War Labor Board, which enabled the widespread unionization of Texas industries, including refineries, infuriated the oil industry. O’Daniel, by then a senator, led the “Texas Regulars” in the first concerted break from the national Democratic Party in 1944. Although the Regulars failed to convince a majority of Texans to break with Roosevelt’s Democrats, this was a decisive moment in American political history: the organization of a committed and well-financed opposition to the New Deal. If the Regulars’ platform, including “Restoration of the supremacy of the white race, which has been destroyed by the Communist-controlled New Deal,” is no longer palatable, the conjunction of oil money with vehement opposition to the New Deal legacy endures.
With Pappy Lee O’Daniel, Texas oil money began to co-opt the tradition of Texas populism to create a formidable political apparatus that was at first relatively marginal in American politics. During the postwar period in which American political elites and Wall Street largely accommodated themselves to labor unions, Texas reactionaries developed a ferocious anticommunism, which translated into a war against the unionization of oil refineries, racial integration, and the threat of a secular society. The “right to work” was first articulated on the editorial page of the state’s leading newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, in 1941, and thereafter endlessly elaborated, becoming the litmus test for a Texas politician with statewide ambitions. Johnson himself was able to mobilize conservative money and support in his crucial 1948 Senate race only by agreeing to denounce unions from the radio pulpit normally occupied by Pappy O’Daniel and controlled by the Dallas reactionaries who ran the Texas Quality Group Network. (If Houston was the exuberant center of the oil business, buttoned-down Dallas tended to do the ideological heavy lifting.)
Oil populism was not the only factor in the transformation of the political landscape of Texas in the early and middle years of the twentieth century. In the same years, southern religion, Texas-style, largely abandoned the Lost Cause in favor of the upbeat Church of Jesus Christ Salesman. It was an odd combination of rigorous opposition to modernity and the incipient transformation of the old revival circuit into “motivational” seminars. The early years of the twentieth century appears to be the watershed for this development, and the figure of William Jennings Bryan moves across the period in symptomatic fashion: from populist paragon to fundamentalist opponent of Darwinism. These were also the years in which American fundamentalism came to appear essentially southern and rural. As George M. Marsden points out in Fundamentalism and American Culture, British and American evangelicalism had once been “part of a single transatlantic movement.” It was, moreover, at least as much a northern as a southern phenomenon—Dwight Moody in Chicago leading the revivals, the Princeton Theological Seminary providing theological weight. It was only after the Scopes trial that, as Marsden remarks, fundamentalism took “solid root in other, less conspicuous areas.”
The career of the Baptist preacher John Franklyn Norris (1877–1952) illuminates what was happening in one of these less conspicuous areas. Norris began his career in the church as a populist preacher in Dallas, turning to fundamentalism (then a newly coined term) in the 1920s. Norris’s newspaper, The Searchlight, became The Fundamentalist in this period, helping to create the “fundamentalist” identity in American Protestantism, and Norris broke with the Southern Baptist Convention and its affiliated university, Baylor, over what he considered to be insufficient militancy against the forces of theological modernism. Norris’s fundamentalism was partly animated by his hostility to Harry Emerson Fosdick, the well-known liberal Baptist clergyman whose career was supported by John D. Rockefeller at New York’s Park Avenue Baptist Church. Fundamentalism thus resumed the battle lines originally drawn in the conflicts between Robber Barons and populist farmers and workers but, in Texas at least, with a new level of opulence and ostentation. A sometime supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and a strident anti-Catholic, Norris built a massive church in Fort Worth that included a five-thousand-seat auditorium, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool—all topped by a revolving electric sign and a spotlight. Norris is now a forgotten figure of American cultural history, even as an innovator of the superchurch, but a student at his seminary, John Birch, a missionary and intelligence agent killed by Chinese communists, is still remembered, at least in the society that bears his name. Norris himself later moved away from his more primitive origins as anti-Catholic racist to vigilant anticommunism and premillennialist support of Zionism. Dispensationalism, the belief that this is the last age of human history, which will conclude with the conversion of 144,000 Jews and the return of Christ to the throne of King David, demands a militant Israeli state. Its adherents still rely on the biblical interpretations of the Scofield Reference Bible (1910), written by Cyrus Scofield, who preached in Dallas for much of his career. The Dallas Theological Seminary, now one of the largest Protestant seminaries in the world, was founded by students of Scofield in 1924 and continues to elaborate his doctrines. Ignored by most of the mainstream culture, these theological developments were generally left to grow in relative obscurity during the years of apparent fundamentalist retreat.
In Texas, however, pulpit and oil patch converged on a radical right-wing program by no means unique to Texas, but uniquely well funded there. Texas wealth was an almost limitless resource for the purpose of rolling back the New Deal at home and communism abroad. Jesse Jones, once a Texas New Dealer, became a supporter of McCarthy after leaving Washington. H. L. Hunt spent the McCarthy period funding the right-wing broadcasts of Life Line and Facts Forum and self-publishing the utopian novel Alpaca, which advocated that votes be weighted according to income. Hunt was also a strong supporter of W. A. Criswell’s First Baptist Church of Dallas, for many years the largest church in the country and an important power base in the fundamentalists’ struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention. The significance of such figures for the later revival of a hard-core right wing in the United States has not been fully appreciated. It is too often reduced to something along the lines of The Beverly Hillbillies. A well-known contemporary assessment of Hunt (by a Dallas newspaperman) was that “he would be dangerous if he weren’t such a hick.” Dwight Eisenhower appears to have shared this assessment: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt . . . a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” It now appears that Eisenhower’s judgment might be reversed. Perhaps we should rather say that the Beverly Hillbillies’ trajectory to some version of social respectability, southern California–style, mirrors the trajectory of oil money and fundamentalism into the centerpiece of Sunbelt capitalism and the mainstream of American life.
Of the three large economic powers of the Sunbelt realignment of American wealth—California, Texas, and Florida—Texas was anomalous for the strength of its commitment to political reaction. California oil money was generous to both Nixon and Reagan, but the state never fully renounced the progressive tradition that once made it a national leader in education. Florida’s elderly population provided a reliable block of voters supporting New Deal programs. The internal displacement of American capital from the fixed infrastructure and union wages of the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt—partially facilitated by federal spending, especially on the military—created the richest possibilities for a new ideological alignment in the primitive backwater of Texas. The state’s initial reliance on oil industrialization produced, after the Hot Oil War of the 1930s, a solid and unified business class. In fact, the conjunction of recharged fundamentalism and the free flow of oil-based capital turned out to be a propitious recipe for turning back the New Deal and turning American liberals into the new Eastern elite.
Before its full success in the era of Reagan and Bush, however, the Texas branch of this political alignment would experience many years in the wilderness, powerful enough in local politics, but generally marginal nationally. George H. W. Bush was a long-suffering member of the Texas Republican Party in an era when it won hardly any elections of note, and his Republicanism was really of an older establishment variety, hardly comfortable with what would emerge as a recharged Republican Party. This was, of course, understood in Texas, and Bush was never elected to any statewide office before his election as president. His son clearly suffers no such difficulties in his home state, where he is completely accepted as a native Texan, a category of some importance that is understood to be an inoculation against patrician airs. He brandishes Texas oil populism, telling Texas Monthly before his first presidential campaign how much he resents people coming around his hometown and looking askance at his good-old-boy buddies there (presumably the good-old-boy oil millionaires he grew up among). The Bush family romance, especially in the thinly veiled hostility of the son to the father, thus exemplifies a larger transformation of American capitalism and power. At one level, this is the integration of Wall Street and the oil patch. Enron, for example, could trace its history back to John Henry Kirby’s Houston Oil Company in the first Texas oil boom, but the Enron of spectacular recent memory represented the financialization of the energy industry—the development of a market in energy futures. An American economy increasingly addicted to speculative bubbles reached a fever pitch at Enron, with Harvard MBAs working old cons that would have been familiar to Dad Joiner and Doc Lloyd. The oil patch in its heyday had always been a gamble. The narratives of Texas fortunes are often stories of money won and lost. The distinctive aspect of Enron was the synthesis of the old oil patch with the Clintonesque New Economy, united in a concerted assault on one of the pillars of progressive-era reform: the regulated public utility.
Education, meanwhile, became a major issue at about the same time as the realization hit that oil would no longer suffice as the engine of the state’s economy. Ross Perot chaired a special state committee that took on the holy of holies in small-town Texas life—Friday night high school football—creating a rule that players who underperformed in a class could not participate in athletic events. Education reform, George W. Bush’s major claim to substantive achievement when he was governor, devolved into endless standardized testing and the reduction of teaching to preparing for these tests—a bureaucratization of learning that might at first appear inimical to swashbuckling figures like Perot and Bush.
The trumpeting of education signals the synthesis of right-wing populism and high-tech/finance capitalism underlying an increasingly familiar American suburban and exurban landscape: technological parks side by side with superchurches, schools that are expected to produce a high-tech work force while downgrading the scientific status of evolution. The evangelical and fundamentalist denominations are as attuned to the world of the box store as the mainstream Protestant churches were to the age of Main Street.
The superchurch provides this world a sort of all-in-one community center that can replace the dispersed forms of association in older American communities: one is, in effect, either bowling alone or bowling in the church league in the newer Sunbelt suburbs. Evangelical and fundamentalist sects offer these communities slick combinations of piety and salesmanship of the sort pioneered in the business world by Dallas’s Zig Ziglar; their pews are often filled with technologically and professionally trained congregants.
As a result, the theological antimodernism of the newer churches is at least as much “postmodern” as it is “premodern,” and attacks on “secular humanism” come from the centers of the new economy as well as the disenfranchised margins. Where the Christian right has also supplanted the old populism, its impact is baffling: how can the working poor consistently vote against their own interests?
In the affluent suburbs of Dallas and Houston, on the other hand, what emerges is a different and crucial aspect of the rise of the Christian new right: a theology of winners.
The coherence and durability of the new Christian right comes from its ability to reactivate populist sensibilities while speaking from new centers of wealth and power.
Oil money made it possible for Texas to pioneer this terrain; the rest of America is still catching up.