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Electric Churches and Dogs Catching Cars (Sunbelt #3)
The loss of reproductive rights was part of a multi-decade religious crusade that defined the Sunbelt Movement
ROCKLIN, CA, U.S.A. - OCT. 13, 2021: The main entrance to Destiny Christian Church. The controversial church offers vaccine exemptions, and has been accused of violating IRS non-profit rules. In America, many argue that megachurches like this have become more business and politics than faith and worship.
The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973. The roots of this moment are within political structures that empowered America’s religious right-wing during the consolidation of Republican majorities in previously one-party states run by conservative Democrats or in states with booming suburban populations. A major factor in these changes was the influx of people from states that featured more competitive party politics - thus opening up Republican gains in the traditional South. Another factor, however, was the injection of military-industrial spending which created jobs, homes, and infrastructure that attracted more businesses to previously dormant regions.
As modernization occurred across all of America’s Southern Rim, the rise of the Religious Right acted as a galvanizing force for Republican politics in the years following the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
That is until recently.
From Sleepy County to Aerospace Suburb
The long economic boom in Western nations after the end of World War II was centralized in the United States of America. A major consequence of this time was population surges and movements. One central feature of these population changes was the demand created by wars which became massive federal spending projects. Most famously, World War II gave the federal government the necessary impetus to go into localities and convert old warehouses into factories for the American military effort. This was nowhere clearer than the Lockheed Corporation’s impact on Cobb County in Georgia during and after the war years. Jobs were created and thus spending money to juice the engines of further economic activity.
After World War II, the warring Korean states garnered international attention as the Soviet Union supplied the northern People’s Republic of Korea. Now being viewed as another turf for the Cold War and with neighboring China recently being consolidated by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, the United States was soon creating more instruments of warfare in an attempt to secure its ideological and economic interest (and possessions) in East Asia.
Matthew D. Lassiter describes the growth of Cobb in these years in Big Government and Family Values: Political Culture in the Metropolitan Sunbelt:
The outbreak of military conflict in Korea turned Cobb County into a thriving hub in the national military-industrial complex, a microcosm of the Cold War’s dramatic effects on proto-Sunbelt landscapes from California to Texas to Florida.
Later he writes:
By the end of the decade, Lockheed-Georgia employed 15,000 people, fully half of Cobb’s manufacturing workforce, with 45,000 more dependents living in “Lockheed families” and another 10,000 hired by subcontractors.
The boom didn’t stop there. Cobb eventually was able to diversify its economy and attract migrants from economically stagnant regions to continue sustained growth into the modern era. The population tripled between 1960 and 1980.
Faith and Sunshine
As part of a larger trend in these years, the increasing reverence of the population set social patterns. (Even if some of that reverence was obnoxiously performative.) Church building increased as postwar American communities sprouted out of the earth. Across this nation was this growth in faith demonstrations - especially in the young Sunbelt economies. In his book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Darren Dochuk writes about an “Electric Church” that formed out of The Melodyland Theater (to become Melodyland Christian Center) during the 1970s as Southern California’s evangelicals began forming major political designs and were rising to power.
Pentecostals had the opportunity to stay close to Disneyland and attend Melodyland Christian Center, Ralph Wilkerson’s twelve-thousand-member church-in-the-round, located just across the street; or, they could make their way to the Orange County Worship Center – nearby, in Santa Ana.
He continues to express what Melodyland said about the times:
At Melodyland, just two blocks away, large crowds, multimedia, and plenty of glitz were combined into perhaps the best example of evangelicalism’s new power: the “electric church.”
Though not as prominent as their southeastern counterparts, the rise of Evangelicalism in Southern California tracks with a larger rightward swing in the region throughout the middle of the 20th century.
As the SoCal sprawl was being solidified and developed, so were reactionary religious groups. Dochuk uses the aesthetic of Christian Rock and Roll and alternative church services (that often featured spectacle and flashy entertainment gimmicks) to explain the modernization of traditional practices. The energy was utilized by Richard Nixon, and later Ronald Reagan, to build a loyal and socially conservative coalition within the Republican Party.
It was also a major part of what the author appropriately redefines as Nixon’s “Sunbelt Strategy.”
Still, the grand unifier for Christian and Catholic groups was a new abortion law in California. It energized the faith walkers – as it would soon do around the nation.
In 1967, a California state senator proposed a law called the Therapeutic Abortion Act. The law allowed for abortions in California in the case of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is threatened. Though the law succeeded, it lit a fire under Southern California’s religious communities and established unprecedented unity between various traditions and previously divergent denominations. Though the law succeeded in passing due to Governor Ronald Reagan’s hesitance, anti-abortion forces had not organized to the extent to which they have in the modern-day.
But, from that point forward, religious organizations in Southern California were on the offensive. Following the abortion law was a campaign to limit the proliferation of pornography. The newfound strength in SoCal’s religious forces was premiered in this fight. The group “Hollywood Community Against Pornography” was formed by conservative activist Pat Boone and the churches were the central distribution mechanism as pastors spread literature and messaging within their services. Proposition 18 was part of ongoing attempts to police pornography after the failure of Proposition 16 in 1966.
However, in 1972, the landscape was changing.
Governor Reagan expressed support for Proposition 18 and the Committee for Yes for Proposition 18 received endorsements from the state Chamber of Commerce and the California District Attorneys Association. There was a large grassroots effort including door-to-door outreach. With all of this, the proposition still failed.
Conservatives attributed it to a well-financed smear campaign cultivated by the economic interests of pornography:
Boone attributed the loss to a ‘massively financed campaign of smears… [by] commercial interests who gain so much from pornography,’ Reagan suggested that Hollywood liberals had misled voters to believe that Proposition 18 meant censorship. In truth, even some of Reagan’s closest conservative friends in Hollywood saw the initiative as an attack on free speech and voted no.
Despite Proposition 18 failing, the grassroots religious effort won the day by having stricter obscenity laws as Reagan’s second gubernatorial term came to fruition. The Supreme Court even offered a surprise decision in Miller v. California on June 21, 1973, and it concluded that obscenity was not covered under the First Amendment.
At this point, the foundation for evangelical political action in Southern California had been set. Even Southern Baptists were jumping onto the “Right to Life” train despite their official platform then being okay with exceptions for rape and incest.
It turns out that abortion was the lightning rod, but the cosmic flames came from something deeper in the culture of reactionary and conservative midcentury America.
Faith-based television stations, Christian rock-and-roll spectacles, grassroots suburban organizing, and even research conducted at Melodyland Christian Center itself (that began around interfaith counseling and would easily lurch into family politics) created the infrastructure for a detached moral universe guarded by reactionary and politically religious people on the American Right. The role of morality became central to the contemporary political culture of this major Sunbelt center.
Today, the ghost of Melodyland is on Disney Way, formerly West Freedman Way:
Family values and fiscal responsibility designed for maximum returns, all delineated in a rationale of republican virtue and sacred order. This was the Sunbelt doctrine that Baptist and Neo-Pentecostal, evangelical and Catholic wives and their husbands now sanctioned together.
Getting the Devil Out of Georgia
Similar trends occurred later in the Southeast as economic development was a little less diversified and also hampered by social concerns while Southwestern Sunbelt centers rose out of the desert sand. Cobb County Georgian towns, like Marietta, developed a political ethos that boasted self-reliance (as evident in the corporate suburban dream being built) however, that meant repudiating federal policies – no matter how much federal policy contributed to the backwater’s development in the first place. A major source of this cultural cohesion came unsurprisingly from the church.
The Roswell Baptist Church near Marietta, the seat of Cobb County, was transformed into a megachurch as Sunbelt dollars were being pushed into the state of Georgia. At its height in the 1970s, Roswell was the fastest-growing megachurch east of the Mississippi. Today, its congregation shrinks.
Matthew Lassiter describes it in Big Government and Family Values: Political Culture in the Metropolitan Sunbelt:
The Roswell Street Baptist, located near Interstate 75 on the outskirts of Marietta, became Cobb County’s largest and most influential house of worship during the Sunbelt boom that accelerated dramatically during the 1970s. The Reverend Nelson Price, who arrived from Louisiana in 1965, oversaw the transformation of Roswell Street Baptist from a mostly blue-collar congregation of 1,900 to a prosperous megachurch of 10,000 members three decades later.
Price railed against what he viewed as the permissiveness caused by the Sixties generational gap. Apparently, the church marketed Price standing in front of a church sign congratulating Lockheed employees for contributing to Cobb County’s economic boom. More marketing literature from the 1980s and 90s shows the church telling newcomers from other states to “get off of lonely street” and join the church community. At the end of the day, Price may have foreseen that the region’s economic surge and the use of Christianity as an organizing force outlined a great opportunity to build a faith-based business - with all that entails.
Gracefully, Lassiter tracks how despite church leaders’ potent attempts to impose a moral universe on regular citizens, there were still underlying inconsistencies that often thwarted those same leaders’ public image of moral security or even supremacy.
On one hand, Roswell Street Baptist sought to buttress the traditional nuclear family through internally focused programs that provided marriage counseling to forestall divorce, a broad array of wholesome activities for youth, and alternatives to abortion such as a pregnancy counseling center and a home for unwed mothers. Despite the provision of such social services by multiple suburban churches, public health studies in the 1980s and the early 1990s revealed that Cobb County led the metropolitan Atlanta region in teenage abortions per capita, along with high rates of divorce, underage alcohol consumption, and marijuana use in high schools.
Lassiter describes the attempt by a Christian Right organization to provide an abstinence-only curriculum in public schools which failed when 90% of Cobb families chose to participate in opt-in sex education courses. The most prescient example was a reaction to the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy and an Atlanta law that recognized domestic partners. Reverend Price (a recurring character by now) and the Commissioner at the time presented a “traditional lifestyle” resolution to much public backlash.
The longtime publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal argued that most Cobb residents were “embarrassed” by the controversy because they were “mainstream people. Balanced budgets and cuts in taxes are their issues, not gays or school prayer.”
The resolution even inspired two new groups in Cobb to form, a grassroots gay rights organization called Cobb Citizens Coalition and a confederation of liberal-based congregations in the Marietta Interfaith Alliance. Eventually, the county commissioners did not continue with the resolution.
Lassiter reflected on the events by writing:
Whether viewed as an “anti-gay” or a “pro-family” measure, the Cobb resolution revealed that political efforts to restore the suburban consensus of the post-World War II era had backfired, by exposing the impossibility of defining uniform moral values in an increasingly diverse county of more than 500,000 residents.
Today, Cobb County has over 750,000 people in it – it is roughly the same size as Baltimore, Maryland in 1980.
The Dog that Caught the Car
The recent Supreme Court ruling overturned protected reproductive rights that had been on the books for over a generation. It left it up to predestined states - some salivating at the chance to criminalize abortion. I can’t help but reflect on what happened in Cobb County with the “traditional lifestyle” resolution. Sure, people like security and shared values, that’s what makes us a human community.
However, it goes too far when the dictates come off like the maladjusted thoughts of a revanchist senior member rather than a thoughtful legal interpretation. That is what Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion read like as they took rights away from women while making life itself harder for impoverished Americans.
I can only hope that a radical religious dog has caught a car and that it will help Americans see the alienating path right-wing forces are taking this nation down.
As always, I look to historical examples for cold comfort.
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