Oil Patch Religion: How a Passion for Crude Shaped American Faith

By Eric C. Miller | June 18, 2019

(Getty/Education Images)

Americans began hunting for oil shortly after the Civil War, and by the turn of the twentieth century, the nation’s oil pioneers were exerting influence far beyond the oil patch. From East Coast patricians such as John D. Rockefeller to the risk-taking, anti-establishment “wildcat” explorers in the West, the oil barons’ competing views of Christianity and capitalism shaped American views on a range of issues, from workers’ rights at home to evangelism overseas.

In his new book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, University of Notre Dame historian Darren Dochuk recounts this narrative in sprawling breadth and striking detail. The author, previously, of From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, Dochuk comes to his subject with both expertise and a knack for storytelling.

Eric C. Miller recently spoke by phone with Dochuk about the book. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R&P: You note that, in the 1910s, Union Oil chief Lyman Stewart bankrolled much of American fundamentalism, while Standard Oil chief John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded much of American modernism. Are these dueling religious perspectives the product of dueling business practices?

DD: Yes and no. I want to present each of these dueling religious-corporate practices as organic wholes. In both cases I write about how the theological quest merged seamlessly with the business quest—how oil’s corporate imperatives mapped onto religious ones and vice versa. To try to parse out which impulse is driving the other is less my concern. But I think we are short-sighted if we look at the fundamentalist-modernist controversy narrowly as a clash of doctrinal emphases. The dogmas each sold for the church dovetailed naturally with the dogmas each sold for their particular oil sectors.

Enjoying the confidence of a major oilman with proximity to power and to all of the guarantees for future success that seemed to offer, John D. Rockefeller Jr. eagerly stepped up his support of liberal Protestantism’s and Big Oil’s international ventures. He felt he was charged with illuminating the globe and fueling the advancement of humanity toward some millennial splendor. Always vulnerable in his business sector, with Big Oil always threatening to undermine him, it is no wonder that Lyman Stewart gravitated toward a darker, cataclysmic world view—one increasingly shaped by his premillennialism—that pushed him to make and give money fast so that new markets and lost souls could be won before the end of time. Stewart did not have the privilege to be patient in the construction of a new world order.

R&P: In what ways did Christianity influence relations between management and labor in oil cultivation?

DD: As historians have turned to consider the relationship between Christianity and capital, more work has also been done on the relationship between Christianity and labor. I attempted to engage that scholarship and trace the long history of religion and labor in the twentieth century. I was also influenced by scholars Thomas Andrews and Timothy Mitchell, who examine the distinctive features of carbon-based “workscapes” and measure the possibilities and constraints of labor activism in coal and oil. Mitchell is particularly convincing in showing why coal workscapes offer more opportunity for labor responses to management than oil workscapes do. Oil creates work regimes that are at once highly diffuse and scattered, hierarchical and autocratic, and in which workers’ rights or dissent against power have little chance.

I was curious to see how this applied to oil workscapes, with religion mixed in. I found that if we look at the 1910s and 1920s, for instance, we see that organized labor was always hamstrung and that religion played a role in that. Certainly, at the ground level, religion provided a sense of community for workers and their families, who leaned on the church for sustenance. And because oil was a very dangerous business, local religion provided a sense of healing in this difficult world. At the same time, in its relationship with corporate capital, the religiosity that inhabited the oil patch tended to dissuade oil workers from fully embracing the union imperatives that were being championed more forcefully elsewhere—in coal country, for instance.

At the management level, meanwhile, oil’s executives proved to be successful—more successful than in any other industrial sector, perhaps—at imposing the welfare capitalism that the Rockefellers and the Pews together advocated on behalf of their own corporate interests. Conscious of the role of religion in the lives of their workers, the two families helped marshal faith in a movement, first, to stamp out unionism, and then to ease the burdens of workers with sufficient access to company towns in which church steeples were always present. So religion, again, is interwoven through this story in important ways, both enabling and restraining opportunities for worker empowerment.

R&P: Throughout the twentieth century, oil strikes coalesced with the Christian mission field—in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria, for example. Did one interest drive the other, or were they symbiotic?

DD: Here again, it’s difficult to say what takes priority or what drives the mission for crude oil and Christian influence. I’m working to show the truly overlapping, integrated interests at play here. As oil production moved into the Middle East, for example, it entered territory in which Christian missionaries had already been at work since the nineteenth century. Missionaries were already institutionally present and influential, with Beirut serving as one of their hubs. Yet they were having difficulty evangelizing Muslim populations, so they were forced to shift their strategies into education, medicine, and in some regard, economic development. Since oil companies arrived later, they were bound to lean heavily on the knowledge and access that missionaries could offer them. In that sense, it was the oil business that followed the missionary lead. Among my exciting discoveries were files housed in the British Petroleum archives that charted the reliance of company geologists on local missionaries in Persia and Mesopotamia. I also spend considerable time with men like William Eddy, the son of missionaries based in Beirut, who became a key emissary for the U.S. and for Aramco as it navigated the tangled religion and politics of the midcentury Middle East. Stories like this can—and are—told of missionaries offering this same type of help in South America.

At the same time, once oil arrived in the Middle East and elsewhere, there is no doubt that a power shift occurred. Once both entities were active on the ground, they worked together to propagate a notion of Christian civilization, to use the extractive potential of oil to uplift these local societies, and to make sure that Christian faith would take root in the region. Missionaries initially cheered on the economic development projects that companies like Aramco envisioned, in the belief that these would both increase its profits and guarantee the advance of a “benevolent” capitalism and an international “brotherhood of man.” But for some missionaries, oil’s advance became highly problematic as well, with the bald hunt for profits now seeming to work against the education and uplift of the Muslim societies they encountered.

R&P: How have oil and Christianity interacted in the political sphere?

DD: One glaring absence in our histories of modern American politics and religion is that of energy and environmental concerns. Typically, the rise of the Christian Right is told through the lens of social politics—abortion, reproduction, gender—and all of that is absolutely vital. What strikes me, though, is the way in which energy concerns—fuel and family values —have always operated at the center as well.

In the process of writing the book, I was struck by how many key political turns in the life of the nation occurred because of the fused interests of faith and energy and the competing sectors of petroleum that animated modern life. For instance, when we talk about the South’s turn to the Republican Party in the post-WWII period, I wonder why we haven’t foregrounded the Tidelands battle of the late 1940s and early 1950s, during which Washington tried to seize control of offshore oil in Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere. Rallying Texas churches and oilmen behind the states’ rights platform, figures like Billy Graham and Sid Richardson declared the Tidelands struggle one for “family values” and the protection of state control of oil riches that were being used to fund public education. They also helped recruit Dwight Eisenhower to run for the GOP ticket in 1952 on a platform that included state ownership of offshore crude. We know the rest of the story: Eisenhower’s win was a first step in the Republicanization of the South.

Or similarly, I don’t think we can properly understand the rise of the evangelical right in the 1970s without foregrounding the energy crisis. Pairing premillennialist understandings of time with fears of peak oil, Arab Muslim control of foreign oil and the threat to Israel, and the decline of American power, evangelicals in the Southwest’s oil and church associations asserted that it was the patriotic independence of the U.S. oil patch that could save America from its dependency on foreigners and from its slide into godlessness. Wildcatting oil’s warriors funded Christian Right initiatives and did their part to ensure that their fuel and family values won the White House—which they did, in 1980. So my goal here was simply to bring energy and environmental concerns more broadly—land use, regulation, struggles over the control of minerals—to the heart of our understanding of modern religion and politics. I think those concerns are very much at the heart of our current politics—a moment when Trump appointees from the West are doing their part to deregulate their region and open up opportunities for independent oilmen and their religious fervency. One could say that wildcat Christianity has won the day.

R&P: Since apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism is so entangled with oil production, and since oil production is such a major driver of climate change, is it fair to say that these “end times” prognosticators may have played a role in ushering in something like the end times? Is the climate crisis a self-fulfilling prophecy in action?

DD: I think to a degree that’s right. This is an eschatology that relies on crisis, that thrives in a crisis mode, and so perpetuates crisis as well. In the mid-1970s, evangelicalism was largely “green” in its sensitivities to environmental issues. Francis Schaeffer’s breakout book, after all, was about the dangers of pollution. But then the energy crisis happened, and fears shifted to the Saudis’ and OPEC’s control of oil, along with the dangers they posed to Israel. Oil-patch [writers] like John Walvoord and Hal Lindsey stepped up and wrote popular books about Armageddon. These books once again foregrounded, among other things, the need for America to be energy independent, for America to stall the impending catastrophe by letting domestic producers work the untapped lands of the West and Alaska, show the nation what free, enterprising wildcatters could do to strengthen its resolve, and re-center petroleum as the going concern. In the years that followed, wildcat Christianity would play no small role in generating some of the alternative pedagogies that deny petroleum’s negative effects on nature and the atmosphere. So it was instrumental in creating the conditions for climate crisis, and today it continues to motivate those who reject climate change as a political priority.

R&P: Do you see the faithful playing a role in the shift to renewable energy? Will a future historian write the history of Christianity and solar? 

DD: I hope so! I have two thoughts in response. First, in charting this long history of the deep embeddedness of religious belief, practice, and concern within the interests and imperatives of oil, I’ve tried to show just how difficult it’s going to be to extract ourselves from that energy regime. It will be especially difficult for those wildcat Christians who live in the oil patches and regions and who depend on oil production for their livelihood. It is a system that has not only provided them with employment and income, but has in many ways defined their very existence for a century and a half. As I argue in the book, oil is an imprint on the American soul, and that is particularly evident in the oil patch.

Second, there is also a story of dissent that runs throughout the history of Christianity and oil, illuminating possibilities for resistance and for charting a different path. From Ida Tarbell to Bill McKibben, religious folks have long used their beliefs and commitments to call for better stewardship of the land and to recognize possibilities beyond our carbon-based energy order. Whether that’s solar or other renewables, I’m not sure. Even within the oil patch, over the last generation we’ve seen young people awaken to fears of climate change, championing new ways for Christians to apply their beliefs to better land and energy management. So perhaps there will be opportunity for historians to write the history you suggest. But I’m a historian, not a prophet.

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