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Oil-patch evangelicals: How Christianity and crude fueled the rise of the American right

Fuel-and-family politics remade the GOP in the 1970s and 1980s.

An oil refinery in Deer Park, Tex. (Gregory Bull/AP)

As President Trump’s populist appointees continue to deregulate the mineral-rich lands of the American West, approve pipelines and diminish oversight of fracking, the region’s independent oil and gas producers are riding high. Reliant both on their capacity to set down discovery wells on untapped land — a practice in oil known as “wildcatting” — and on a federal government that prioritizes domestic exploration over foreign resources, these risk-taking impresarios see Trump’s “America First” energy agenda as a godsend. Self-made entrepreneurs and organizations such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America are quite literally laughing at their good fortune.

The White House has eagerly courted this constituency. “We’re putting American energy first,” Vice President Pence beamed in mid-April while touring an independent energy company’s new rig in Texas. There, he heralded the “three pillars of American greatness”: faith, freedom and “vast natural resources.” Pence promised that “developing the vast, natural, God-given resources that we have” will make America great again.

By invoking God, Pence tapped this oil patch’s homegrown religiosity: a blend of fervent libertarianism, “traditional” family values and religious nationalism that fuels the Republican right. This mingling of oil and faith in a fiercely individualistic wildcat ethos has long extended beyond the realm of business to shape a distinctive strain of American Christianity, one that the White House seeks to marshal for political gain.

Roots of this strain stretch back in Texas to the “Gusher Age” of the early 20th century, when independent oilers, freed from John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s monopolistic control over the industry, gained leverage both in the business and their church. Empowered by the petroleum sector’s ascent, subsequent generations sponsored churches — none larger than First Baptist Dallas — powerful preachers including evangelist Billy Graham and sprawling nondenominational religious networks that espoused their dogma: a muscular evangelicalism that utterly rejected the Rockefeller-sponsored liberal, ecumenical (in their eyes, “monopolistic”) Protestant establishment in the East.

In the face of the Rockefellers’ progressive way, Texan oilers championed a theology of personal encounter with scripture and an active Higher Being. They heralded church autonomy and gospel teachings about prosperity and end times, a message that anticipated the violent disruptions of the oil age and the need to save souls and reap God’s — and the earth’s — riches before the world’s end.

It was during the energy crisis of the 1970s that this belief system fastened itself to a culture-warring agenda at the national level. To reduce U.S. reliance on foreign (“Muslim”) oil, drillers and devout evangelicals ⁠ — often one and the same ⁠ — demanded that Washington let them tap Western lands and recenter God and black gold as America’s going concerns.

Always at odds with the multinational oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron that spawned from the original Standard conglomerate, independent oilmen marketed themselves as the answer to the nation’s weakened global standing, which they pinned on the majors’ misguided vision.

They also pledged oil money for religious-right initiatives that promised to bring their fuel and family values to the White House and restore the nation’s founding (“Christian”) roots. Besides suffering from an energy crisis, America, in their eyes, was also plagued by a secular drift away from the rugged, conservative ideals they had always lived by — a drift that seemed to be tolerated by the liberal Protestant establishment and Rockefeller legacy.

One of the biggest boosters of evangelical oil culture was the Hunt family of East Texas. H.L. Hunt’s son Bunker was unmatched in his giving. He endorsed Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ, which proposed a $1 billion venture to proselytize youths, and wrote checks for Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer, whose 1979 manifesto “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” sparked evangelicals’ antiabortion crusade.

But nothing triggered Hunt and his peers’ rage more than the fuel-and-family politics of President Jimmy Carter. The president’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights infuriated them. Carter’s infamous “Malaise” speech, delivered 40 years ago today, was equally damning in their eyes. In this dour homily, Carter bemoaned the nation’s high-energy consumption and lack of conservation. The attack on oil, made not only in economic but in moral terms, was the final straw.

Over the course of the next year, Ronald Reagan inflamed their anger with his hard-driving quest for the presidency. Running on the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again,” Reagan won the hearts and minds of the American oil patch. “[We] must remove government obstacles to energy production,” he declared when he announced his candidacy. “It is no program simply to say ‘use less energy.’ ”

Malaise had no place in Reagan’s vocabulary. Exuding an audacity that the oil patch embraced, he traveled to Texas and mingled with preachers and petroleum kings, promising them that the nation would be great again as soon as Washington bureaucrats let rugged wildcatters open up new frontiers of extractive wealth and God-fearing pioneers raise their children in communities calibrated to the morals of an honorable past. In the pulpits and pews of the Southwest, Reagan’s calls for Washington to protect local oil producers’ rights to drill, drill, drill were a potent and effective rallying cry that has since become a staple of the Republican Party.

As they look ahead to 2020, Trump and his running mate know that they have to nurture that same spirit. In his recent Texas swing, Pence headlined fundraising dinners in Dallas and Midland. Filling seats and Trump Victory Committee coffers were independent oilmen such as Kyle Stallings, whose career started with Hunt Energy in 1979, and West Texas evangelical wildcatter Tim Dunn, who in one pundit’s estimation is utterly determined to push “the Republican Party into the arms of God.”

As deep-pocketed independent oil and gas producers like Dunn continue to ratchet up their defense of domestic extraction, thwart environmentalists and champion the right’s social agenda, for the moment, at least, it appears the wildcatters have won.