Editor’s Note: Over the past few weeks, we published a series of responses to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America. The responses were first given during a roundtable discussion dedicated to Dochuk’s new book in April, and were revised for publication on this blog. In this post, Dochuk offers a response to the responses.
I’d like to thank Brittany Acors, Kathleen Flake, Matthew Hedstrom, and Kevin Stewart Rose for their generous and incisive comments about my book. And I also want to thank Chuck Mathewes, Paul Jones, and Evan Sandsmark for coordinating this exchange as well as the seminar discussion at the University of Virginia that preceded it. As always, my Charlottesville visit was both constructive and enjoyable, and it was really nice to be among friends.
The four responses to Anointed With Oil published on this blog are full of smart observations and inquiries, and while I’ll try to follow up with a few of my own replies, some of the curiosities they raise will go unaddressed. But I hope they’ll serve as valuable prompts for other scholars.
First, a brief word about audience: as Kathleen correctly deduces, I wrote this book with the intent of reaching scholars and an informed general public. In order to speak to a wider readership, I set out to craft a character-driven narrative running from the Civil War to the present. That strategy came with some payoffs, but also a few challenges.
One area in which the payoffs and challenges are pronounced concern the cast of characters itself. Oil culture is full of illustrious personalities, so to be able to profile many of them was a real pleasure. Kathleen is “glad to have met Patillo Higgins, ‘Columbus Dad’ Joiner…Daisy Bradford,” and other protagonists in my book; I hope that other readers will feel the same. The challenge, however, was to keep the cast of characters contained. Kathleen notes, “the book is not unlike a Russian novel, both in the number and dramatic appeal of its players” (my Russian relatives will appreciate that characterization, my Ukrainian ones less so). Still, even though the list of players is long, it could have—and perhaps should have—been a bit longer; many subjects and stories that emerged from my research were eventually banished to the cutting room floor.
In her smart assessment, Brittany rightly notes that the white male executives, geologists, roughnecks, pastors, and politicians who populated the industry and animated oil patch religion for the past century and a half dominate my story. As I show, there is no more “white” an industry in the U.S. than the oil industry. A parallel point can be made for its gender composition: in both function and form, U.S. petroleum has always been a hyper-masculine domain. By focusing on male heads of prominent oil families such as the Rockefellers and Pews (as a way to bind together my decades-long chronology), my text accentuated that point.
I did my best, however, to extend the biographical treatment of the women I did feature—journalist Ida Tarbell, for instance, but also industry players like Louisa Harriet MacKinnon, the overseer of her family’s tar company in Trinidad. In the case of the latter, I originally included several pages on her fascinating life, but because of a bloated word count I was forced to whittle her story down to a paragraph. That was an unfortunate pattern repeated elsewhere. Had I more time and space, I would have pursued the angles Brittany raises, pertaining not just to women but—relatedly—to farmers as well. I was struck by the crucial role farm women played in managing the oil royalties their families collected from the derricks and pumps leased out on their acreage. With more sustained research I might have been able to provide a fuller picture of how men and especially women in the U.S. heartland managed their oil wealth and weathered the boom-bust cycles of petrocapitalism that disrupted their land and way of life (and worship).
A second area in which the payoffs and challenges of my narrative approach are pronounced concern the book’s organization. Kathleen notes that in some ways, my book offers a “very traditional account of 19th and 20th century Protestants”; that it “overlays onto the history of oil extraction the history of the two main ecclesiastical divisions of U.S. Protestantism”: mainline liberal v. evangelical conservative. This “overlaying” grew out of two impulses.
On one hand, there was the matter of familiarity: just how much oil history could I expect historians of religion to (and want to) understand, and just how much religious history could I expect historians of oil to (and want to) understand? By attaching my narrative to recognizable pivots and categories in religious and petroleum history, I hoped to occupy a middle ground.
On the other hand, the overlaying was a deliberate effort to show how deeply synchronized U.S. church life is with the petroleum business. There is good reason, of course, to write U.S. religious history on its own terms, with pulpits and pews and seminaries front and center. Yet throughout my research I was struck by how seamlessly corporate oil’s interests and influences were grafted onto the nation’s pulpits and pews and seminaries (and vice versa). In adopting a seemingly traditional and familiar chronology of American Protestantism’s ecclesiastical developments, yet lining it up with American petroleum’s prerogatives, I hoped to demonstrate the degree to which American Christianity itself has lived on oil time.
Although geared towards a wider readership, my book seeks to make a few “interventions” in the fields of U.S. religious and political history. I won’t take the time to detail these here, as Matt has kindly alerted readers to the “discursive footnotes” that outline these interventions in full.
My use of the categories “wildcat Christianity” and “civil religion of crude” point to one of the book’s intended contributions. Much, of course, has been written about the history of religion and capitalism. Anointed With Oil attempts to build on this exceptional literature by charting the lifespans of these two different and dueling “spirits of capitalism,” and by examining the deep connectivity of Christianity and capitalism in relation to one of modernity’s most important commodities. Matt suggests that my use of these “fresh categories” “take us beyond the often-stale categories we so often…default to in religious history,” and I hope that is indeed the case.
Of the two categories, wildcat Christianity immediately struck me as a useful descriptor of a type of experiential religion that was rooted in the peculiar capitalist ethos and extraction zone of the oil patch itself. Again, Matt quotes one of my definitions of this spirit of capitalism, so there’s no need to be redundant; but I saw this label of wildcat Christianity as more flexible and inclusive than the more familiar (if also problematic) “evangelicalism.” Oil patch evangelicals of a fiercely libertarian bent are chief protagonists of my story, but in their engagement with and handling of their cherished natural resource and the booms-busts of political economy that accompanied that enterprise, they found plenty of reason to unite with oil-patch Catholics of a fiercely libertarian bent (see, for instance, William F. Buckley, Sr.). Shared corporate initiatives, political interests, environmental ethics, and notions of time and place were bonds that united oil patch Christians beyond denominational lines. I thought that wildcat Christianity captured that essence well.
I thought that “civil religion of crude” captured the essence of the other capitalist ethos at work in my story—though, to be honest, I was never entirely satisfied with the term.
To Matt’s question about process: while the wildcat category supplied me with the coherence needed to write about oil hunters and oil patch people, I wrestled with how best to describe the Rockefeller wing of petroleum and Protestantism—that which endorsed centralization and rationalization of business and the church, saw virtue in corporate and churchly ecumenism, and desired to spread a social gospel of economic and cultural uplift through oil and oil monies on a global scale. Eventually I settled on civil religion of crude to describe this cosmopolitan and temperamentally moderate (“civil”) spirit of capitalism, as well as offer explicit linkages to notions of civil—nonsectarian, state sponsored—religion with which scholars are familiar. I also liked the play on words with “civil” seemingly clashing with “crude”; in fact, though, there was no stark disjuncture. The Rockefeller wing of petroleum and Christianity was equally coercive or “crude” in its desire to extend its religious and economic and political prerogatives abroad.
While the dueling spirits of capitalism offers “dramatic tension” in Anointed With Oil, other aspects of the history I tell always interested me more; put differently, while I hope the book contributes something fresh to the literature on religion and capitalism, I’d be particularly excited to see it help forge other scholarly connections and conversations.
One of these has to do with the “new religious geographies” Matt mentions. As with my first book, here I continue to see the value of foregrounding geography—place and space—in our renderings of U.S. religious history. I mean that in terms of region, and “mappings of American faith” (Matt’s words) that take seriously distinctive regional variances of belief and practice; but also in terms of ecology—the ways in which particular landscapes and the political economies to which they are attached (be it mining or forestry or farming) frame particular contexts of belief and practice, and encourage certain theological outlooks on the here and now and life beyond.
Perhaps this gets (partly) to Kathleen’s parting query about “whether…this book has something to say about religion.” When I set out to write this book I envisioned it as a “religious biography of oil.” My intent was to signal oil and religion’s reciprocity and collective impact in a few different registers: individuals animating the oil sector with their Christian commitments, as well as bringing their influence to bear on church and charity; oil companies aligned with biblical logics of stewardship and service, and modes of witness and outreach; communities—and the nation itself—envisioning its future and imperial project in religious allegories of petroleum-fueled, divinely sanctioned progress. But I was also interested in exploring—if only in suggestive fashion—how, as a material form and economic pursuit, petroleum nurtures its own peculiar type of “religion”—a system of sacred rituals and practices, ideas and institutions, moral vision and eschatological expectation that differs, say, from what one might find in the wheat-belt of Nebraska or coal country of West Virginia (the latter of which Richard Callahan brilliantly analyzes). I’ve thought about probing this further, perhaps even on a global, comparative stage; but religious studies scholars likely have much to offer on this score.
By paying attention to the ecological distinctiveness of oil and oil patch religion, I also hoped to bring issues of energy and environment to the fore in U.S. religious and political history. In light of our current moment—with climate change and environmental deregulation capturing headlines—it seems evident to me that historians of American religion should have more to say about how, for instance, the oil-funded evangelical right has always seen the politics of resource management as part and parcel of a longstanding campaign against the federal state and on behalf of Christian nationalism. Certainly if we look back at the 1970s and 1980s, when the religious right was ascending, oil patch Christians saw the energy crisis alongside “secular humanism” as twin threats to their way of life. In Ronald Reagan they saw a politician who would fight for their family and fuel values; he would shore up the conservative social values of their pioneering yesteryear and deregulate and open up western lands so that they could drill, drill, drill—and save America from its dependency on the oil of foreign (Muslim) others.
In trying to draw attention on the interconnectedness of matters of faith, energy, and environment in the oil patch, I also hoped to introduce other potential agents in the histories we write. Here I refer to Kevin’s thoughtful response. Kevin points out a slight hesitancy in Anointed With Oil. He writes: “I wonder if oil itself, as a material thing, can help us account for the conditions that drive this story”; “does Anointed with Oil suggest that we should acknowledge oil itself as an agent in this history? The book’s prose at times seem to allude to this possibility.” As a student of the “energy humanities,” I have come to appreciate the enveloping aspects of any energy regime; be it coal or oil, nuclear or electric—a community’s proximity to energy production of one sort or other shapes its culture in profound and all-encompassing ways. And in the age of oil, American culture as a whole has been consumed with and by the black stuff. I hope that my work will contribute to this evolving conversation by demonstrating how oil not simply determines how we work, live, and play in this era, but—near oil’s extraction and refining zones especially—how we worship as well.
All that is to say “yes,” oil itself should be approached and understood as another agent in our histories of religion and culture, and it was my intent to make that point transparent and clear.
In that frame of mind, I attempted to show how oil created “universal conditions” (to borrow from Kevin) that among other things set the tone and the terms of its labor system, which was fiercely decentralized, anti-collectivist, and anti-union. Religion played a vital role in the establishment and management of this system; while gospels of health and wealth and personal access to scripture and Christ informed its workers, and redoubled their willingness to resist collective action and go it alone, no matter the cost to their well-being, the faith-based welfare capitalism of the Rockefellers and Pews proved to be highly effective (more effective in oil than any other industrial sector) at assuaging workers and dampening organized labor’s resolve.
I also tried to show how—by virtue of their close proximity to oil’s production zones—wildcatters and residents of the oil patch assumed a different material relationship with oil and by extension embraced a different set of corporate and churchly sensibilities. But Kevin rightly notes that my analysis of the materiality of oil and its direct effects on the sensibilities of “civil religionists of crude” is less explicit. The materiality of oil mattered to them as well; civil religionists like Thomas Barger could not help but wax eloquent at the sight of gushing crude in 1930s Saudi Arabia, as if the oily liquid was tangible proof of a world being remade according to his Christian internationalist values. Yet in general the book does not delve as deep as it might have into the physical and tangible nature of oil as inspiration for civil religionist’s “bureaucratic elaboration” and sprawling institutional structures in business and the church.
So as a whole, Kevin’s lines of questioning is on the mark: what I may have ended up only “alluding” to—the agency of oil—certainly deserves more careful dissecting and defining. It could be that my caution on this score stemmed also from my desire to tell interesting stories about so many interesting people, and the resulting false sense that they—not the oil that possessed them—could determine their destinies fully on their (and their Lord’s) terms.
To close, I’ll just say that I’ve found the journey through religion and oil both fun and rewarding, but as one of my colleagues aptly put it a short time ago: “it’s time to cap the well.” That advice helped me finish a book that almost got the better of me. Each book is different, of course, both in terms of the range of research that is required and the backing (financial, institutional) and time that is needed to pull it off; the “toll and the rewards” (as Matt queries) are different as well. I knew that a study of religion and oil—two sprawling entities on their own—might be tough to pull together. But I was fortunate to have considerable support from my employers and colleagues (and editor), and a spouse who said go for it. At no point did I get bored with the topic; and throughout the process I felt that there were some timely things to say. All that amounted to a desire to keep hunting for and through archives. Still—the well has been capped, in another sense. The next book will be different in scale and kind; maybe a microhistory?
But for now, a simple “thanks!” to Brittany, Kathleen, Matt, and Kevin for taking the time to read and digest and critique this text.
Darren Dochuk is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final response to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, the subject of a roundtable discussion held at UVA in April 2019. The other three responses are by Brittany Acors, Matthew Hedstrom, and Kevin Stewart Rose, and Dochuk offered a response to the responses as well.
Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil deserves all the praise it is going to get. I hope it receives the interest it deserves too. Dochuk’s book is a properly imaginative and trenchantly analytic contribution to the growing body of work on religion and capitalism. It will, no doubt, rise to the top and outlast many of its competitors for our attention.
The book seems written for a general audience, or in any case it could be appreciated by a general audience. In some ways, it is a very traditional account of 19th and 20th century Protestants as they have been portrayed historiographically from new and old lights (speaking theologically), to mainline and evangelical (speaking ecclesiastically), and liberal and conservative (speaking politically). In other words, this book brilliantly overlays onto the history of oil extraction the history of the two main ecclesiastical divisions of U.S. Protestantism.
Dochuk’s contribution to that historiography is to extend it, through socio-historical methods, to a population heretofore neglected: small-town, heroically dreaming capitalists. But his account also includes commonly neglected geographical regions and religions: Oklahoma, California and Texas wildcat Christians with Pentecostal habits and the social gospelers among them, for example. True to his promise, Dochuk has shown how Protestant interaction with oil illuminates the “wider permutations of religious experience, identity and belonging [when] tied to . . . notions of and encounters with land and its resources.” In this respect, he validates Sidney Mead’s insight (also neglected) that “time was not the most significant element in the development of the American way” (The Lively Experiment ). Anointed by Oil shows how ideas (including religious ones) and people and events are shaped by space and territory, land and even earth.
One of the book’s more poetic reflections comes from a mediation on the sublime features of the earthiness of oil, its “primordial” qualities and the “fantasies of a new age.” This poetry is not unrelated to the book’s master narrative about capitalism in relation to environmental concerns. But there are others better prepared to speak to that dimension of the project. I will simply observe that these reflections show something is at work here besides what Dochuk calls “evangelicalism’s fiscal values.” There were also romanticist and spiritualist conceptions animating the extraction of “black gold.” These conceptions add depth to what otherwise would be simply another Weberian history articulated in the language of modern American capitalism.
Buried in the notes is Dochuk’s most concise statement of his purpose; namely, to connect “the neoliberal strain witnessed in modern evangelicalism to the unique fantasies and functions of one particular commodity” (p. 579, note 2). This will, he wagers, show what is distinctive about oil as an extractive form of capitalism and reveal why oil production was easily accommodated by evangelicalism’s fiscal values. Thus, by tracing the history of oil extraction in the United States, he hopes to reveal “a Christian capitalist ethic that defies overbearing calculation and order and harbors a remarkable capacity—indeed hunger—for risk” (Ibid.). In other words, the “work ethic” of both “wildcatter” and “major oil” Protestants was informed by a desire for risk that defies Weberian definition. But, it seems to me, that desire was also religious because it was inspired by oil’s earthy sublimity and the promise of power wrested from the earth. This is a Promethean story and tells us something about the nature of religion, not merely its history.
To focus as I have on the analytic aspect of the book can obscure many of its literary virtues. Dochuk offers us a brilliant narrative with a memorable cast of characters and corporations. The book is not unlike a Russian novel, both in the number and dramatic appeal of its players. Notwithstanding its seriousness, there is wit throughout. I am very glad to have met Patillo Higgins, “Columbus Dad” Joiner (the Patillo Higgins of his generation), and Daisy Bradford. Given its subject, it is predictably a manly book about manly men and women. But rather than complaining that there are so few women, I hope reviewers appreciate how any at all were found engaged in this enterprise, and that the ones found are featured in the story. Race, too, is accounted for in the actions of derrick-owning Indian tribes and multiple depredations against and lynching of African American oil workers.
The book is never dull; even its illustrations are not merely decorative but extend the text’s argument. Neither is the book ever really about the past. The present is very much in view whatever decade is being discussed, especially in the final chapters on oil’s role in American foreign policy and diplomacy. I need hardly say Dochuk’s book is a compelling story of America’s fortunes and misfortunes, economic and moral. Still, “crude-oil religion” is more assumed from social context than defined. It is hard to tell whether the “majors” and “wildcatters” were actually religious or whether they merely spoke its language, as the lingua franca of their day. I am not asking if they were sincere. I am asking whether, for all that we learn of oil’s mystery and marketing, this book has something to say about religion? But to ask this question may be to ask for a different book. So, let me conclude with the observation that Anointed with Oil is such a sophisticated history that it invites a variety of disciplinary questions. For that, too, I thank the author.
Kathleen Flake is the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four responses to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, the subject of a roundtable discussion held at UVA in April 2019. The other three responses are by Kathleen Flake, Matthew Hedstrom, and Kevin Stewart Rose, and Dochuk offered a response to the responses as well.
Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil reads like a biography of American oil. Oil’s origin story, its relationships, its entanglements, and its losses are on display as the reader becomes engrossed in its narrative and increasingly aware of how much this character has affected our daily lives. The questions of land and labor, time and technology, and politics of geography and place with which the book grapples reveal the history of a natural resource that is so deeply engrained in American life that it is impossible to imagine what the world would look like if it had never been discovered.
Much of the story of oil, like so many stories in American history, is intertwined with religion, which Dochuk illuminates through accounts of the Rockefeller’s liberal Christianity, “wildcatter evangelicalism,” and a number of philanthropic missions. He also highlights the manufacturing of a tri-faith ideal. When Islam began to play a more significant role in the life of oil as focus and resources move towards the Middle East, Christian oilers tried to expand their religious conceptions to include this third branch of Abrahamic religion. However, as power shifted and Saudi Arabia took control of its own supply, a renewed sense of American exceptionalism and hegemony seized the oilers and the government, resulting in a stronger civil religion and sense of American morality as the ultimate Truth-with-a-capital-T.
Anointed with Oil covers any topic you could imagine having a relationship with the oil industry, and some you couldn’t. Political conniving plays a major role, as several of America’s presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan to the Bushes, had close ties to oil money and evangelical sponsorship. Environmentalism takes a stand in the final two chapters, mapping onto the cultural climate of the 1960s and 1970s. While some oil companies invested in ecological renewal due to their religious convictions that prioritized stewardship of the Earth, others claimed to be making efforts to help the environment (whether they were or not) more to have plausible deniability when something went wrong than out of anything driving faith. Still others denied that their operations had a negative impact at all, instead viewing their assault on the land as divinely inspired and a human right and responsibility. Race relations are another major player in the history of oil, from the early twentieth century, when Texas oil companies reigned, through the Civil Rights era and beyond. As with any play for power and the American dream, African-Americans were often barred from entry, subjected to the worst conditions, and left behind. Women, too, are largely omitted from the story. Even their typical role as the religious heads of household, which they maintained in early Petrolia, is relinquished to the powerful men Anointed with Oil highlights as time goes on.
No summary of Anointed with Oil can quite capture its incredible depth and breadth. From the quirky Patillo Higgins to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the story of oil is inescapable. Rather than try to reduce this book any more than I already have, I’d like to flag a few areas that left me with lingering questions. Several women, like Ida Tarbell and Rachel Carson, contribute to the story of oil, but how else did women play a role, whether as major activists or as behind-the-scenes actors whose husbands publicly ran companies and philanthropic projects? Although labor unions have a chapter, I would be interested in learning more about the effect of the oil industry’s rise on farm workers and migrant laborers and their associated unions and protests. Texas and the Midwest were largely agricultural when the oil boom began, and some areas continue to be today—how were they left behind, and how did the entanglement with religious organizations, well-documented throughout the book, play a role here? Finally, I wonder if some of the racial issues covered by the book could be linked to the whiteness with which religious studies and history paint Christianity. How did the religious conviction of the people of color in the oil industry play into their struggle to attain fair treatment and equality?
Brittany Acors is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four responses to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, the subject of a roundtable discussion held at UVA in April 2019. The other three responses are by Brittany Acors, Kathleen Flake, and Kevin Stewart Rose, and Dochuk offered a response to the responses as well.
I first heard about this book, I think, 11 years ago when I saw Darren toting a massive volume on the history of oil around the halls of 5 Ivy Lane in Princeton, where we shared offices as postdocs. Though he was still finishing From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Darren was already planning this book, his own magisterial history of oil. I am thrilled now to see that work come to fruition, and astonished at what Darren has accomplished.
The first aspect of Anointed with Oil I want to acknowledge is the research. More than anything, what stunned me about Darren’s first book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, was the depth, extent, and creativity of the archival research, and Darren’s capacity to corral that material into narrative and argument. This new book takes that same doggedness and creativity, ambition and energy, to a much vaster and even more complex stage.
Research at this scale is its own kind of resource extraction—both from the archives, but also extraction of time and financial and institutional support. As someone who aspires to work in similar modes, I’d love to hear Darren’s reflections on what working in this way, at this scale, requires, both the toll and the rewards, if he has the space and inclination to indulge us with these scholarly details in his response.
Most substantively, what strikes me most about this book, for the field of American religious history, is what I am tempted to label the “new religious geographies” or “new religious cartographies” it offers us. I mean this in two senses. On the one hand, the topic—oil—demanded of Darren a reach in space and time that far exceeds the usual in our field, moving across centuries and even more significantly across regions and nations. And indeed, the book simultaneously illuminates distinctive regional histories—western Pennsylvania, Texas, California—while also telling us about the nation as a whole, and then even further about the nation in relation to other nations, the nation in the world. Like Melanie McAlister’s recent international history of evangelical missionary work, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders—but like too little work in US religious history—Darren’s book moves through and across these various geographical registers, and does so deftly, at the narrative level, and with great intellectual payoff.
But secondly, Anointed with Oil provides us with new religious cartographies, new angles of vision that flow directly, I think, from the topic itself. “The civil religion of crude” and “wildcat Christianity” take us beyond the often-stale categories we so often, too often, default to, in religious history: liberal and conservative, evangelical and mainline, premillennial and post-millennial.
This new religious cartography, these new mappings of American faith, do not in Darren’s hands, to be clear, supersede or replace the old categories, but shade and complicate them, and even more draw our attention to previously un-surveyed outcroppings and depressions on the landscape.
This is what fresh categories and new vocabularies do, as well as damn good narrative writing—they help us see behind the categories to the humanity that is the only thing that makes meaningful what we as humanists do. Darren’s categories, civil religion of crude and wildcat Christianity, come not from theology as such, though of course they are theological, but from the material world of political economy. From life, in other words. From history.
I was thinking about this as I read the book, and then found the wonderful discursive footnotes on pages 578, 579, and 580 in which Darren spells this out himself. Readers can look forward to fascinating discussions even beyond the book’s main text.
Regarding evangelicalism, he writes: “While evangelicalism is a key component and protagonist of wildcat Christianity, the latter category speaks to wider permutations of religious experience, identity, and belonging tied to the peculiar capitalist structures, notions of and encounters with land and its resources, and concepts of time and space nurtured in the extraction zones of the oil patch—arrangements and forces that Catholics encounter and process as well. In this regard, I am also interested in the degree to which my subjects’ encounters with the soil and its subsurface materials suggest an environmental ethic that was more syncretic, esoteric, and dynamic than most histories of evangelicalism and environment suggest.”
Which makes me wonder: what other conceptual pathways might parallel intellectual projects open up, now that Darren has shown the way? In his response, I’d love to hear Darren’s thoughts on that, but also any further reflections he might share on his categorical innovations, civil religion of crude, wildcat Christianity: when in the process these came to light, and how he sees them in relation to the standard categories in the field. Certainly in my own work, currently on the UN and the religion of “one-world,” I’ll be consumed with these question, and I am sure I am not alone.
A generation of historians in American religious history, I am certain, as well as in other fields of cultural, intellectual, and political history, will read this book and think, “I want to write and think like that.” I congratulate Darren on this monumental achievement.
Matthew Hedstrom is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four responses to Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, the subject of a roundtable discussion held at UVA in April 2019. The other three responses are by Brittany Acors, Kathleen Flake, and Matthew Hedstrom, and Dochuk offered a response to the responses as well.
How did so many American Christians in the twentieth century come to be seen as natural allies with the politics of free enterprise? Over the last decade, the field of American religious history has puzzled over this question. Occasionally the literature suffers from a conspiratorial tilt: Some industrialist or maybe an economist comes along and realizes they need, say, evangelicals on their side—maybe as loyal right-wing voters, maybe as pliant laborers, maybe both—if they’re going to succeed in their business ventures. So, they conspire to convince their audience that the gospel and small government go together. The result, time and again, is a bunch of evangelical Kansans seemingly tricked into voting against their own interests.
Darren Dochuk’s work has consistently sought to tell more complicated stories about these relationships. In both From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Anointed with Oil, the people enmeshed in webs of religious, political, and economic relationships are never mere dupes, convinced by some wealthy conspirator that their faith necessitates assent. Rather, Dochuk’s work gathers together more complex sets of dispositions, aspirations, and concrete experiences that help account for the way various religious communities have entered into partnership with capital and its political allies.
So, while many existing narratives in the history of American Christianity use the evangelical/mainline binary as their basic starting point, Dochuk’s practice of drawing together a more complex set of regional, religious, political, and economic aspirations and associations helps generate less reductionistic categories. In Anointed with Oil we’re introduced to the significantly more capacious categories of “wildcat Christianity” and the “civil religion of crude.” The civil religion of crude is best exemplified by the Rockefellers of Standard Oil, whose preference for order and bureaucracy was reflected both in their brand of ecumenical Protestantism and the integrated supply chains of major oil. Wildcat Christianity’s best exemplars are the Stewarts of Union Oil and the Pews of Sun Oil, who preferred to act alone in unmediated encounter with God and oil alike, reflecting their evangelical piety and the chaotic world of independent prospecting. Throughout the book, the triangulation of oil, wildcat Christianity, and the civil religion of crude casts new light on many familiar episodes of American religious history, like the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, Christian Zionism, and the rise of the Religious Right. On this latter point, more conspiratorial tellings focus on those evangelicals who were convinced of free market virtues by videos about pencils dreamt up by the Chicago Boys. Thanks to Dochuk’s efforts, we must reckon with the way those same ethics of individual free enterprise and minimal government intervention were being worked out by wildcatters in the oil fields a century prior.
But how exactly does this work? If in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Dochuk’s subjects mix a regional identity (plain-folk southern whiteness) with a material experience (their dramatic upward social mobility) and this results in important political outcomes (the evangelical alliance with the New Right), then what precisely are the factors at work in the intimate relationship between oil and religion presented in Anointed with Oil?
Here, I wonder if oil itself, as a material thing, can help us account for the conditions that drive this story. It creates networks of stakeholders. It shapes the way they imagine both how they might enrich themselves and how they might save the world. And it is precisely what fuels those efforts. In this way, oil lets us add a concrete, material basis to these deliberations, helping us move beyond the more immaterial categories of discourse and language in our own efforts to understand the forces that structure the political and religious possibilities of modern life.
So, my central question for this book is: does Anointed with Oil suggest that we should acknowledge oil itself as an agent in this history? The book’s prose at times seem to allude to this possibility. Its own unpredictable movements and actions, with the experiences it produces—the fortunes, the injuries, the chaos—seem to drive much of the action. And beyond the prose, historical details regarding the origins of the rule of capture—English laws governing the hunting or capture of animals that cross property lines—suggest that states, at the very least, were well aware of the way that oil has a mind of its own.
I think this raises two related questions. First, how do the specifics of the differing material relations with oil, those of wildcatters prospecting in the untamed oil fields and those of civil religionists of crude overseeing complex supply chains from the comfort of the board room, create slightly different outcomes? I think it’s easier to see how Wildcatters’ material relations with oil—as it gushes from the earth with no warning, covering workers bodies in black crude—shaped their sensibilities, but what about civil religionists of crude? Does their bureaucratic elaboration of these systems separate them from the material power of oil itself, or is it just a slightly different set of relations?
And second, are there conditions that oil creates universally, across the spectrum of wildcat and civil religion? Throughout the book, we see several points where oil seems to produce consensus across the divide, but the one that stands out most to me is the steady anti-collectivism and anti-unionism that characterized both major and independent oil. Most readers may be familiar with the violence carried out on the Rockefellers’ watch at the Ludlow massacre in 1914, but the Tulsa Outrage three years later will be new to many. (It was to me.) The image of J. Edgar Pew and his friends dawning black robes and hoods, abducting 17 Wobblies, and silently torturing them with a cat-o’-nine tails is now forever burned into my memory.
In short, the spirit of anti-unionism, anti-collectivism, and anti-socialism that unites wildcatters and civil religionists at multiple points in the story is where we seem to see the most abiding consensus. Here, I wonder if reading Anointed with Oil with the possibility of crude’s own agency in mind can help us consider the way in which oil itself has helped confine the possibilities of religious and political change; our dependence on crude may end up protecting capital’s privileges of unfettered accumulation at all costs, even when it demands grotesquely violent means.
Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.