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Saved by Christ, Sanctified by Crude:
With the help of two illustrative films, this talk will explore the relationship between Southwestern petroleum and Cold War evangelical Protestantism. Led by Reverend Billy Graham, American evangelicalism entered the 1950s eager to sell citizens an empowering doctrine of free market capitalism, Christian patriotism, and family values that came packaged in modern mediums such as film. Graham’s organization led the way by producing “Mr. Texas” (1951) and “Oiltown U.S.A.” (1954), movies that tapped America’s obsession with the “Texas Rich” to sell a message of spiritual rebirth that could be internalized by individuals and marshaled by the nation as a weapon against secularism and the Red Menace. Viewed by millions, both movies tracked the lives of excessively rich oilmen who, upon hearing the old-time gospel, turned their lives over to Christ and their money over to ministry. Texas oil was, in this way, “saved.” But Texas crude offered something in return. Since the 1920s, “fundamentalist”
Protestants had been relegated to the margins, ridiculed for their “backward” beliefs and lack of polish. Graham’s sophisticated fundamentalism sought a way into the mainstream, and Texas oil provided the means. Besides giving Graham a ready-made redemptive narrative that reconnected Americans to a pristine past of frontier initiative and Christian morality, Texas’ petro-patriarchs also lent the preacher’s “New Evangelicalism” the resources it needed to become an imposing force. As this talk will demonstrate, the byproducts of this reciprocal relationship would endure for the last half of the twentieth century, leaving a record of political and cultural engagement that we still see evident today.
Dochuk is an associate professor of humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame. His is spending the spring semester 2013 at the Clements Center revising his manuscript Anointed with Oil: God and Black Gold in Modern America for publication.
Image: Christian Church in So. Ill. Oil Fields,"Photographed by William Sturm, Chicago Sun, July 17, 1942.