Anointed with Oil – Darren Dochuk Responds

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.