No idea is more fundamental to the American religious ethos than the separation of Church and State. But to the movement known as Catholic integralism, one expression of our larger postliberal moment, no idea is more repugnant. Catholic integralists such as legal scholar Adrien Vermeule, the philosopher Thomas Pink, and other contributors to the conservative Catholic journal First Things insist on a public role for religion and indeed special privileges for it in the eyes of the law. They maintain that their convictions, founded as they are in biblical truth and natural law, cannot simply be ranked as one viewpoint among others.
Some postliberals sympathetic to the movement, such as Matthew Brendan Dougherty of National Review, defend integralism on humanist grounds, attempting to link the integralist worldview to that corpus of virtue the founders claimed was necessary to a free republic. But integralist hopes for a privileged place in the public sphere make any claim to the republican tradition tenuous. They much more closely resemble 19th century Ultramontanes, particularly of the French variety. The Ultramontanes favored the absolute supremacy of the pope over national authorities, thus deadlocking Catholicism and liberalism in a zero-sum game for political survival.
Lay activists also led the 19th century Ultramontane movement, most notably the French polemicist, Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), editor of the conservative Catholic newspaper, L’Univers. Veuillot did not respect the separation of the political and the religious under the constitutional July monarchy of King Louis Philippe. He raged daily against the tyranny of legal indifferentism towards the one true faith. Leading a movement that was “lay, proletarian, and Roman,” this self-taught son of a cooper brilliantly marshaled the resentment of the French lower clergy against the clerical elite of the French Church, which he described as spinelessly kowtowing to their liberal puppet-masters. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Veuillot and other 19th century malcontents looked “beyond the mountains” (hence ultramontane) to Rome and the papacy as the necessary counterweight to the bourgeois democracies then overturning the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Together they longed for the imagined theocratic ideal of the Middle Ages, with its ranked society of mutually beneficial orders.
There is a family resemblance between the old world of L’Univers and the new one of First Things, where Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of the New York Post, recently published a manifesto entitled “Against the Dead Consensus.” Signed by a number of postliberal intellectuals and activists, that text, with its critique of global capitalism, led to a major crack-up on the right, pitting libertarians against a coalition of conservative religious actors. The signatories insist that though the alliance of liberalism and conservatism was necessary to win the Cold War, the destructive forces of free market economics are now too flagrant to ignore. In a subsequent First Things piece entitled “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari takes aim at the civil discourse of National Review writer David French whose purportedly naïve belief in rational argumentation is panned as an inadequately muscular response to this (knives out?) stage of the culture war.
One might expect that the inspiration to abandon civility in politics for more drastic action would result from a proportionately momentous event: Catholics being jailed for their beliefs, or silenced in the press, for example. It turns out that the jumping off point for Ahmari’s bellicose turn, at least in what concerns his critique of French, was a drag queen story hour held at a public library in Sacramento, California. Ahmari’s disproportionate response to a seemingly innocuous event should raise a number of red flags in even the most casual reader of history. In that piece, he issues a somewhat sinister call for a “re-ordering” of society to “the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” He speaks about defeating his “enemies,” a “politics of war and enmity,” and a righteous commitment to “enforc[ing] our order and our orthodoxy.” If civil discourse is not the means by which to do that, Ahmari lets it be inferred that violence is at least on the table.
Veuillot was ruthlessly effective in humiliating opponents willing to work within the liberal system. Ahmari does not have Veuillot’s polemical verve. Even his takedown of French, conceding French’s amiability and grace, is Frenchian in its restraint. “It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French.” Veuillot’s tongue did not speak of the “guileless public mien” of his opponents, but rather eviscerated those David Frenches of the day who dared to do business with the liberal order rather than rejecting it out hand. But the difference between the two figures is that Veuillot could rely on the pope, whereas even if the integralists wanted to restore the temporal power of the Papal States, they could hardly rely on Pope “Who Am I to Judge?” Francis to carry out their agenda.
The truth is that, despite their hostility to free trade, integralists do long for a lost American consensus. Their aristocratic critique of capitalism defends the interests of working people not on grounds of equality but out of paternalist nostalgia for an organic society of orders. They look back to a time when a patrician WASP elite dominated high finance and culture, a Catholic civil service controlled city politics in the northeast, and women safeguarded the moral integrity of the home and its children. It was a time when gay men married “beards,” and gay women lived with their “roommates” in “Boston marriages,” and everybody accepted that African-Americans made up the permanent underclass. In those days, cultural norms were self-enforced under the sign of “community standards,” but now that that the ordered society of pre-1960s America has come undone, the type of blue laws or decency codes that the Catholic right longs for are destined to die in the courts. Or are they?
The place of Catholicism within a republic is the central question that American Catholics have been litigating since the founding. In 18th century America, the Catholicism of John Carroll and John England was remarkable for its capacity to reinvent the faith of feudal Europe. Its defense of religious freedom and conscience rights made American Catholicism uniquely adaptable to the liberal order. Liberalism allowed American Catholicism to thrive not because the liberal framework is an ideology but because it is primarily a legal mechanism designed to prevent competing religious actors from killing each other.
The “siege mentality” of a subsequent Catholic generation rejected this republican brand of Catholicism, leading many American Protestants to suspect that Catholics accepted democratic norms out of convenience rather than conviction. The integralist movement revives these justified fears and threatens to reduce Catholic Americans to a stereotype they labored heroically to reject. As to its impact on conservative politics, to quote Charles C.W. Cooke, “the one way to create division on the right is to start talking as though you want to impose a Catholic monarchy.”
Maxwell Pingeon is a PhD student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia specializing in civil religion in France and North America.
Sohrab Ahmari will face David French in a debate tonight (Sept. 5th) at Catholic University of America. The debate is from 6 to 7 PM, and will be moderated by Ross Douthat. The event is free to the public, but for those unable to attend in person, the event will be live-streamed.
Religion and Its Publics’ own Evan Sandsmark recently reported a story for Sacred & Profane, a new podcast produced by the Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab at the University of Virginia. This episode explores the “problem of democracy” through the story of an Iraqi refugee seeking asylum in Austria.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the British press – and the people they serve – are divided. Of course, British newspapers have always been partisan; whether one buys the Mirror or the Mail says a lot about one’s political leanings and probable voting intentions.
But rarely have these divides been more apparent than in the age of Brexit. Research carried out in the referendum’s wake, for example, concluded that media coverage of the vote was the “most divisive, hostile, negative and fear-provoking of the 21st century.” Three years on, these divisions are ever more entrenched (and ever more acrimonious).
Still, there are occasional moments of unity. One such moment occurred earlier this year, in February 2019, when London’s Old Bailey was the site of an historic first: the successful prosecution of the crime of female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision. It might seem a stretch to link female circumcision with Brexit, but when the country is as divided as it currently is, one has to dig deep to find any point of agreement. The British people do not agree on much, but they do agree that FGM is bad.
Although a criminal offence since 1985, trials for female circumcision in the United Kingdom have been few and far between. In this sense, the mere fact of prosecution – let alone conviction – rendered the case exceptional. Yet this was not its only unusual aspect. Alongside this “modern” crime, which many Britons associate with recent rises in immigration, the case tapped into a centuries-old anxiety indigenous to the British Isles: a fear of (and fascination with) witchcraft and the occult. The defendant, a Ugandan woman in her thirties found guilty of “deliberately cutting” her three-year-old daughter’s genitals, was alleged to have used spells against the social workers, doctors, and police officers involved in the investigation.
National newspapers of all stripes highlighted this aspect of the case. The left-leaning Guardian’s coverage, for example, featured a picture of a partially defrosted ox’s tongue, into which nails had been screwed, as well as “forty frozen limes containing spells aimed at silencing police, social workers, officers, and lawyers” (pictured above). Both the tongue and the limes had been stored in the woman’s freezer. Readers of the more conservative Telegraph were shown a handwritten “spell” calling for the mouths of those targeting the defendant to be frozen shut. Journalists, activists, and political commentators breathlessly mingled descriptions of spells and hexes with sensationalist accounts of (what they framed as) barbaric, culturally-mandated violence, combining sixteenth-century Europe’s fear of witchcraft with nineteenth-century social evolutionism.
While female circumcision is a crime, witchcraft is not. (Well, no longer: England’s last witchcraft trial was in 1717.) Why, then, did the accused’s use of limes and ox tongues, which might otherwise have been described in terms of religious practice, form such a significant part of the coverage of the case? What work did this “witch talk” do?
In a divided nation, it’s helpful to have something (or someone) to unite against. With “Leavers” and “Remainers” unable to agree on Britain’s future, the case of the frozen limes allowed the resurrection of a unifying trope from the recent past: that of Christian Britain’s civilizing mission. By highlighting the accused’s use of witchcraft and sorcery, the press relied on a familiar colonial rationale in which protestant-secular Britain stands for justice, modernity and rationality in relation to its alleged opposite, the (post)colonial heart of darkness signified by those (still) in need of its paternalistic, civilizing care. For regardless of the kind of magic inferred (that is, whether it conjures images of the fifteenth-century Malleus Maleficarum or contemporary “African religion”), Christian Britain views witchcraft as a marker of pre-modernity.
Binaries of civilization vs barbarity, Christianity vs witchcraft, are familiar enough to be almost banal. Yet they remain highly effective in a country increasingly divided by debates on religion, multiculturalism, and immigration. Given uncertainties over Britain’s future and place in the world, many are keen to affirm the protestant-secular state as the only means of achieving civilized modernity. This takes on a particular moral weight as regards the welfare of children and symbolic innocents.
Why is this reaffirmation necessary? One reason, I suggest, is austerity Britain’s abject failure to discharge its obligations to society’s most vulnerable – including, of course, vulnerable children, who have been hard hit by the government’s economic cuts. A result of efforts to shrink the deficit in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, Britain’s austerity policies have been decried by outside observers as cruel and Dickensian for pushing thousands of children below the breadline. Indeed, one recent study found that there were over a million more children living in poverty in the United Kingdom in 2018 than in 2010. The results have been so extreme that a 2018 report by Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, described the policies leading to these outcomes as “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, his report was rejected by the Conservative government.)
In this context, high-profile cases focused on racial and religious minorities are a useful instrument for a state seeking to (re)affirm its credentials as a civilized (and civilizing) force on the global stage, deflecting attention from the forms of violence perpetuated by government policies to those carried out by the religiously unruly. In this sense, the media’s response to the case of the frozen limes reflects the politics of empire: “One of the basic paradoxes of British imperialism is that even as it relied so fundamentally on violence, it insisted on presenting itself as opposed to violence, indeed as dedicated to stamping it out.”
To be clear, I am not seeking to justify or relativize the serious harm that can be caused by female circumcision. Rather, I hope to highlight the ways in which such comparatively rare cases are used to – quite literally – demonize minority traditions, reworking colonial norms in an age of multiculturalism. From this perspective, the legally irrelevant fact of witchcraft becomes a potent politico-theological force: both a synecdochic means of distinguishing pagan barbarity from Christian progress, and evidence of the enduring appeal of Britain’s civilizing mission. And given the new Prime Minister’s penchant for spewing racist invective in defense of British colonialism (he once suggested that “the continent [of Africa] may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”), it seems the specter of empire won’t be exorcized any time soon.
Méadhbh McIvor is an Assistant Professor in Religion, Law and Human Rights at the University of Groningen.
Photo credit: Metropolitan police
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. The series begins with a piece by Kevin Stewart Rose, who provides helpful context for Dochuk’s book, and suggests that oil itself is a sort of agent at work in the text. The next response is by Matthew Hedstrom, who did a postdoc with Dochuk at Princeton. He dives into the scholarly details behind Dochuk’s work, and assesses the scope of his achievement. The third response is by Brittany Acors, who conceives of Dochuk’s book as a “biography of American oil,” and highlights some of the voices that a biography of this nature overlooks. The fourth and final response is by Kathleen Flake. Flake focuses on the potential audiences the book might reach, and how that shapes the emphases and contours of Dochuk’s narrative. The series concludes with a lengthy essay by Dochuk, who extensively engages with each roundtable participant, offering a “response to the responses.” Collectively, the series offers a deep and multifaceted analysis of Dochuk’s groundbreaking new work.
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.