Crude Christianity – A Conversation with Darren Dochuk

dochukDarren Dochuk is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. In his new book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, Dochuk charts a partnership between Christian missions and oil exploration dating back to the Civil War, explaining along the way how fossil fuel evangelism created the American century–and may have inaugurated a climate apocalypse.

ECM: Since Christianity overlaps with everything in the United States, there is limitless potential for books that focus on Christianity and something. What prompted your focus on Christianity and crude oil?

DD: Christianity and crude oil each enjoy sprawling influence in American society, and perhaps that is why they have not yet been written about together. I wanted to see what I could learn about modern America by considering them simultaneously. While researching and writing my first book, I spent a lot of time in the Southwest and in California, where I noticed the overlapping prevalence of evangelical Christianity and oil production. Having grown up in Alberta, Canada—another land of oil and evangelicalism—I sensed there might be a story to tell.

Initially, I had planned to follow the money in order to see how oil capital has flowed into American Christianity and supported its institutions and missions abroad, as well as funded its cultural enterprises and political interests at home. We know about the Rockefellers and their generations-long support of liberal Christian philanthropy, and to a lesser degree about the Stewarts and Pews, whose funding of conservative causes made the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century possible and the “new evangelicalism” of the post-WWII period so powerful.

As I dug into the subject and did more research and writing, though, I found that there were many other connections to flesh out—points of deep contact that I had not imagined at the start. Ultimately, they proved to be more exciting finds. For instance, I found it fascinating how oil’s discovery during the Civil War seemed to guarantee both its mythological sanctity as a healing balm for a broken society and as a catalyst for its political, economic, and religious ambitions on a global stage. In the years that followed, missionaries and oilmen, statesmen and engineers, churches, and petroleum companies naturalized America’s imperial project as God-ordained, and—fueled by petro-dollars and a passion to win souls and discover more oil-rich soil—together helped make the twentieth century the “American Century.” The allegorical power of petroleum was pretty potent, in other words, and helped provide a narrative of American exceptionalism that would last until the energy crisis of the 1970s. Along the way, it transferred that sense of God-ordained, petro-fueled exceptionalism to other societies—like Saudi Arabia—as well.

ECM: Texas and Oklahoma are often referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Pentecostalism is traceable to Southern California, and there are other religious associations that fall within sectors of oil country. Did oil production help to shape the geography of Christianity in the United States?

DD: I believe so. One can ask which came first in each case. Did oil shape the values and beliefs of the tucked-away regions in which it was discovered, or did the values and beliefs of those regions impose themselves on the oil industry? Reciprocity was certainly in play. But I would argue that even when oil was discovered in regions where conservative faiths were already established, it accentuated certain aspects of local religiosity. In distinctive ways, it made religion at the regional level more pronounced, and over time it remapped religious belief on the national, even continental, level.

One of my claims is that the oil patch is itself a sacroscape—borrowing from Tom Tweed—that recreates and reinforces its own distinctive spiritual life. I show how the patch nurtures certain eschatological and theocratic tendencies. There, amid boom-bust cycles, Christians are attuned to a messianic time that promises cycles of societal rupture in advance of Christ’s sudden, salvific return—which is why the hunt for petroleum in these regions always transpires with an end-times feel. Amid jungles of derricks and refining fires, risk-filled labor and violent swings of fortune, oil-patch Christians embrace a cataclysmic view of the here and now and of life beyond, as well as a dependency on an all-powerful being who gives and takes and tests his people but is always there. A curiosity that I do not pursue entirely in the book is the comparative dimension to this—how the fleeting nature of oil and time, and belief in an omnipotent God, are theological hunches shared by oil patch residents around the world. Perhaps Oman and Odessa, Texas, are not as different as American oil patch residents would like to believe.

Another related aspect to this is the peculiar workings of Christianity and petro-capitalism in mapping out power in the oil business, in churches, and in politics. Of course, the relationship between Christianity and capitalism has been written about at length, especially in the last ten years. My project explores the multiple spirits of capitalism at work in the oil industry and ultimately in modern America. First, we have what I call the “civil religion of crude,” based in the major oil companies of the East—Standard Oil and its offshoots, especially—and represented by major oil’s founding clan, the Rockefellers. Illustrative of Max Weber’s vision of a Protestant bureaucratic outlook and quest to capture and organize the marketplace, the Rockefellers not only sought to rationalize their chaotic corporate world—and early oil was chaotic—but also to reform society and transform the globe with a social and technocratic gospel.

Running alongside and often opposed to that ethic is what I call “wildcat Christianity.” This refers to the Western independent oilmen who exhibited the charismatic and heroic qualities of capitalism that Weber thought would die out in modern America. I attempt to show how, in the oil business, this speculative, fiercely free-market, wildcatting ethic was remarkably sustained throughout the twentieth century and into the present. That has a lot to do with geography. Pushed out of Pennsylvania by the Rockefellers, these “warrior heroes” of oil moved West where, because of the surprising shift of oil production to California and Texas at the turn of the twentieth century, they were able to seize leverage, build their own empires, and ultimately fight the Rockefellers for control of their industry, of Western terrain and its subsurface riches, of Washington, Wall Street, the Republican Party, and ultimately of the pulpits and pews of the American church.

Scholars today are looking at our present neoliberal order and recognizing the degree to which, nationally and even globally, this wildcat ethic is flourishing. By tracing the long history of oil, I’m saying that it has always been there, and it is especially evident in the religious-political cultures of the West, where the tendency to take risks and pursue profits as if there is no tomorrow has always been strong—so, too, the tendency to hold tightly to a theology premised on the power of personal encounter with an active creator, the mysteries of an earth whose hidden riches enchant and elude reason, and the need to labor tirelessly, be it drilling or evangelizing, before time runs out.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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