American Christianity and oil: A conversation with Darren Dochuk

Author: Peter Cajka

Dochuk Bookcover

Darren Dochuk is the Andrew V. Tackes College Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he serves as director of graduate studies for the Department of History and as a member of the Cushwa Center’s advisory board. His research addresses U.S. religion, politics, and culture in the long 20th century. His most recent book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic, 2019), won acclaim in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times (UK) to Publishers Weekly, Christianity Today, and National Catholic Reporter. In March 2021, Anointed with Oil will be the subject of the Cushwa Center’s semiannual Seminar in American Religion, with commentary from scholars Melani McAlister (George Washington University) and Andrew Preston (University of Cambridge). Peter Cajka recently corresponded with Dochuk about the book.


Peter Cajka: What you call “wildcat Christianity” is at the heart of Anointed with Oil. Why has this outlook been so influential in the modern United States?

Darren Dochuk: “Wildcat Christianity”—the fiercely libertarian “spirit of capitalism” that defined the way countless independent oilmen approached their faith and their labor, their church and their corporate realm—does rest at the heart of my book. It occupies that space because of the outsized role it has played in the development of modern American religion and political economy. Driven out of oil’s first frontier of western Pennsylvania by John D. Rockefeller, independent oilers shifted their exploration to the North American West—first California, then Texas and Oklahoma. Imbued with the “charismatic” qualities classical thinkers identified with preindustrial capitalists (Max Weber designated them “warrior heroes,” a dying breed), their modus operandi was to drill discovery (“wildcat”) wells on untapped land; their prevailing wish was to act alone, be it on the oil field or before their God. Eventually their doggedness paid off in the form of spectacular oil strikes. Amid the subsequent boom-bust cycles that settled over their western oil patches, they held tightly to a theology premised on the power of personal encounter with an active Creator, the mysteries of an earth whose hidden riches enchanted and eluded reason, and the need to labor tirelessly—be it drilling or evangelizing—before time ran out. Godly people, they believed, were to ride the whims of oil rather than try to discipline them. That impulse informed their charity: in their minds, money was to be made and spent to convert souls and minister to the saints here and now, before their oil wells ran dry and the world collapsed. Always the speculators, willing to assume risks for a higher calling, they had little patience for elaborate foundations of the kind Rockefeller funded, which seemed to diminish the sacred in their quest to rebuild society.

So why has this outlook and theology been so influential? Well, there’s the money involved: over several generations, countless numbers of these independent oilmen—many of whom were devout evangelicals and Catholics—used their extensive wealth to spread their “gospel” of faith and capital via the sponsorship of schools, churches, and missionary agencies, as well as the construction of media empires and political lobbies. That expansive influence remains with us today, witnessed most obviously, perhaps, in the wildcatters’ considerable leverage within the Republican party, derived from their century-long influence in a region of the country that has been so crucial to the rise of the modern American economy.


PC: Yet wildcat Christianity is only one side of the story. You also trace the development of a social gospel of crude, a domestic and international dynamic, from John D. Rockefeller to William Eddy. You argue that the interplay between wildcat Christianity and this civil religion makes America modern. Tell us about these “sparring spirits of capitalism,” as you call them.

DD: If wildcat Christianity represents one side of the battle between warring spirits of capitalism, the “civil religion of crude” represents the other. It was the Rockefellers and Standard Oil, of course, which seized control of western Pennsylvania’s oil fields in the late 19th century. When Rockefeller arrived there, he saw chaos and waste because of a legal system that allowed any industrious man to drill, drill, drill. And so he sought to dull the excesses of oil’s rule of capture, centralize authority over its dizzying operations, and rationalize the industry. Rockefeller’s was a bureaucratic outlook in keeping with Weber’s more familiar Protestant ethic, which assumed godly capitalists would honor the principles of efficiency and control. That ethic naturally fused with his efforts as a churchman. A refiner of the tallest order, Rockefeller was also a towering reformer who propagated a social gospel that called on Christians to construct a better society. Over time, that gospel inspired him and his son and grandsons to pursue a revamped scientific philanthropy. Frustrated with the limits of a charity that focused exclusively on personal matters of the soul, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (“Junior”) built a foundation that stressed modernization on a massive scale and that intended to eliminate root causes of social and economic inequities rather than (in his mind) offer people mere palliatives. Though not as outspokenly religious as their grandfather and father, the third-generation Rockefellers were just as eager to use the family’s petropower to ensure the nation’s place at the head of a new international order of capitalist, technological, and humanitarian exchange.

The generations-long battle between these two corporate and churchly foes (independent oil vs. major oil, wildcatters vs. the Rockefellers) would have profound effects on the life of modern American petroleum and Christianity. The Rockefeller-inspired civil religion of crude would filter through major oil’s most ambitious projects at mid-century, including the most ambitious of all: Aramco. The conglomerate of U.S. oil companies (with Standard roots) that built this corporation in Saudi Arabia would, by the 1950s, boast earth-shattering discoveries and supreme importance in the emerging realm of Middle Eastern crude. Within its managerial classes operated powerbrokers who held fast to the faith-based notions of international brotherhood that Junior and his sons espoused. Especially for Aramco’s “Arabists” (champions of Arab national interests, many with missionary roots in the region), the Rockefeller vision fed their expectations that the Saudi oil venture would be a vanguard of human advancement and post-sectarian exchange for the world’s postwar era. Skewed by its innate western prejudices, this vision was, nevertheless, a powerful one that compelled Arabist-Aramco envoy William Eddy and his allies to see Aramco as something more than a drilling and refining operation. While they eagerly sold its business enterprise to the world as a model of benevolent capitalism, they also marshaled support for philanthropic campaigns in the region that aligned with the Rockefeller agenda. The Near East Foundation and Catholic Near East Welfare Association benefited from their commitment to programs of holistic and humanitarian focus (geared to Palestinian refugees, for instance), as did a variety of regional development programs tied to President Harry Truman’s Point Four agenda.


PC: Historians of American religion will immediately grasp the importance of writing a “spiritual biography” of a natural resource. Can you expand on why offering a spiritual analysis of a commodity (and a means of production) is important for understanding the history of the modern United States?

The new “history of capitalism” is a flourishing field in U.S. history, thanks in no small part to the scholarship of Sven Beckert, whose global study of one particular commodity—cotton—was utterly groundbreaking. Much scholarship too has been produced by historians of American religion, who have sought to draw the insights of Beckert and his cohort in the history of capitalism together with the study of modern religion. As a result, the history of Christianity and capitalism is its own flourishing field, boasting a bibliography too large to cite here. My goal in writing a “spiritual biography” of oil was to build on both literatures, as well as to locate other linkages.

On one hand, my hope was that historians of American religion would extend their analysis of faith and capital to include the most basic materials of our modern world—natural resources that have quite literally fueled modern development in ways that elicited (and still elicit) fantastical, spiritual, otherworldly yearnings for the future. Here I took as inspiration the work of scholars like Richard Callahan, whose study of Kentucky coal mines foregrounds the deep connections between the worlds of labor and worship, and charts how local religious institutions, idioms, and practitioners across denominational lines were shaped by the subterranean workings of those who scraped away at the earth in pursuit of carbon riches. 

. . . my hope was to encourage historians of oil and capital, energy and environment to take seriously the hold that faith has long had over so many of the people who have stamped the industry, the oil patch, and ultimately the nation with their convictions.

On the other hand—and this was a tougher task—my hope was to encourage historians of oil and capital, energy and environment to take seriously the hold that faith has long had over so many of the people who have stamped the industry, the oil patch, and ultimately the nation with their convictions. During the recent presidential election, Donald Trump warned Texans that the Democratic Party would undermine the essentials of their wellbeing: God and oil. In a way, he articulated what my book seeks to articulate, that being the stark degree to which work, play, and daily life in this nation’s oil regions are shaped existentially and theologically by proximity to and possession of crude—that the black stuff is not simply a material form but a lens through which locals view their world and the world beyond. Historians, even those with little patience for religion, would do well to appreciate that fact, as it helps explain why political battles over this resource and this commodity are so morally charged and fought with such life-or-death intensity.


PC: Anointed with Oil offers a story full of incredible characters (William Eddy, Ignatius O’Shaughnessy, Robert Kerr, Ernest Manning) that is global in scope (Canada, South America, Africa, the Middle East). Do you have a favorite character in the book? Is there a location that is particularly meaningful to you?

DD: This book took a while to research and write, but it was, from beginning to end, a labor of love (though I was certainly happy to see the end arrive). One of the slight frustrations for me was that in order to keep the story somewhat coherent I needed to lean more heavily on the multi-generational goings-on of major corporate families like the Rockefellers and Pews. The clash between them and their corporate faiths had to serve as the glue; yet this meant more focus on white male executives than I would have preferred, and more time spent in the boardrooms of oil’s elite. A lot of other characters, those representing a greater diversity of life in oil, ended up cut from the book or relegated to the margins. Which is why the characters that I appreciate most in the book are those that don’t fit the dominant mold: Methodist muckraker Ida Tarbell, for instance, whose intellect and courage and activism took down Standard and the Rockefellers. There’s also Jake Simmons, the African American wildcatter whose work in Texas and Africa helped open up new oil fields, make him rich, and allow him to channel funds into civil rights and churchly causes. And Ignatius O’Shaughnessy was a great find as well, as his impressive dealings in mid-continent oil production and refining (he was known as “King of the Wildcatters”) allowed me to integrate (at least to some small degree) Catholic voices, and draw new connections with Notre Dame’s own past. 

. . . the characters that I appreciate most in the book are those that don’t fit the dominant mold . . .

My research took me to several archives around North America (and Europe), and I loved visiting so many tucked away locales—from the piney forest of East Texas to the hills of western Pennsylvania. But my favorite journey, of course, was back to Alberta, the place where I grew up. As I acknowledge in the book, I’m a product of the 1980s Canadian oil patch, a dark time for the province and my community—and this book allowed me the chance to revisit that personal history and place it in a much broader context. It was deeply rewarding not only to conduct research in Edmonton but also to return to give several public and academic talks upon the book’s release.


PC: You draw upon sources from several different types of archives, including presidential libraries, museum collections, the library of congress, university archives, and historical societies. Where did you have that crucial “a-ha moment” that helped you to see the importance of Christianity and crude in American history? Is there a particular source that stands out?

DD: There were a few “a-ha” moments, and they came at key junctures when I thought a line of inquiry had dried up. The first came while conducting some last research for my previous book. I decided to take a break from a Barry Goldwater collection held at the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas and check out an oral interview (transcript) of Patillo Higgins, something I stumbled upon. Higgins was the eccentric character known as the “Prophet of Spindletop” for predicting where Texas’ epic oil boom of 1901 would take place. Once I began reading the transcript, I knew that this wildcatter, who saw himself doing God’s work in discovering liquid riches, was my entry into a bigger tale of God and black gold. A short time later, while conducting research in the J. Howard Pew papers I learned of Pew’s partnership with Alberta Premier Ernest Manning to create the Great Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. in Fort McMurray—the first major enterprise in the oil sands region. Both gentlemen were close with evangelist Billy Graham. All of these personal connections, nurtured through the evangelical church, underscored the real, tangible impact that matters and networks of faith had on the oil business itself. And just when I had had enough of the wildcat side of my research, I came across the papers of several former managers and executives at Aramco—the Arabists who sought to bring an ecumenical sensibility and internationalist politics with them to the Saudi Arabia desert—men like William Eddy, Tom Barger, and William Mulligan. This was my entry into the mid-20th-century’s civil religion of crude on a global scale.


PC: The “thick connectivity” of religion and oil is on full display in your book: you trace how oil intersects with missions, diplomacy, company towns, philanthropy, high politics, media, lobbying, and parachurch ministries. Can you offer some advice for historians who are trying to connect religious and secular realms?

DD: I do strive for that “thick connectivity” and have done my best to write histories that incorporate multiple scales of vision and that use thick detail and colorful stories to get subtler points across. It could be that this is why the first words of response out of my friends and family typically reflect mostly exhaustion: “this is a long book.”  

Whatever the case, one of the best books I have read is J. Anthony Lucas’ Common Ground, which looks at the Boston busing crisis in the 1970s from the perspective of three different families (African American, white working class, white liberal middle class). It may not necessarily be a model I’ve been able to follow, but Lucas’ commitment to diving deep into the mundane lives of these families, revealing hidden dimensions of large-scale political battles while also keeping big picture developments and significance in mind, has always been an inspiration for me. I’d like to think that some of my work does the same by showing how, in the dense circumstances of their everyday existence, people navigate their work, worship, and play in tangled ways that don’t always line up neatly, categorically, in secular-religious binaries of identity and action and power.

. . . what we assume to be a “secular” activity like puncturing the earth to draw up oil might, in many cases, also be considered a sacred act, the result of a pursuit or response dictated by very personal encounters with what is perceived to be the divine.

In this sense, I guess I derive a good deal of my energy (no pun intended) from trying to reveal to non-religious historians and a wider public especially just how it is that what we assume to be a “secular” activity like puncturing the earth to draw up oil might, in many cases, also be considered a sacred act, the result of a pursuit or response dictated by very personal encounters with what is perceived to be the divine.

On a more practical level, I would add that in order to accentuate the connectivity between religion and oil I found myself forced to engage secondary literatures I hadn’t anticipated or wasn’t familiar with—books in the energy humanities, for instance. Drawn from anthropology, geography, sociology, and cultural, environmental, and literary studies, practitioners of this new field are refocusing our attention on how different energy regimes and the spaces they inhabit produce unique cultural apparatuses and how, in turn, these regimes are understood, legitimated, and politically reinforced by them. Most of these scholars make little room for religion, yet by reading in both religious history and energy humanities, light bulbs began to go on; how might American religion—its variances of belief and practice—be remapped when oil is included in the mix? How have the physical and moral geographies of crude determined the regional as well as national development of this country? And to what benefit for the oil industry itself, or detriment to those who want a different path forward?


PC: From the theological focus of independent Texas oilmen seeking oil, to the ideas of the mechanical gospel, oil has been a focal point connecting God and nature. What can this tell us about the theological and moral dimensions of ongoing political battles around environmental issues?

DD: One of my goals in writing Anointed with Oil was to demonstrate how and why our current battles over energy and environment are so heated. The ongoing political struggles over pipelines and oil sands touch on religious and moral sentiments that run deep in our histories, and I wanted to show how—in relation to oil, at least—that is indeed the case. 

On one hand, for instance, we have champions of the wildcat way—independent energy companies and evangelicals in the Southwest—continuing to espouse an “America First” energy platform that demands fewer federal regulations over western lands and drill sites. Ronald Reagan won the hearts of the oil patch in 1980 by running on a platform of “Let’s Make America Great Again.” “We must remove government obstacles to energy production,” he declared. “It is no program simply to say ‘use less energy,’” here referencing President Jimmy Carter’s energy program. Reagan traveled to Texas and mingled with preachers and petroleum executives, promising them that the nation would be great again as soon as Washington bureaucrats took a back seat and 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. It is that very same charge that has animated Donald Trump’s administration and his supporters across Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, and the American oil patch.

At the same time, we also see a fervency that is equally potent on the anti-oil side of the political spectrum. Recent battles over energy and environment have exposed dissent in America’s oil patches over the efficacy of the wildcat imperative. At odds are stalwarts of the old order and young dissenters who demand different handling of “God’s garden.” Countless children of the oil patch are locking arms with environmentalists and joining environmental movements to protest some of wildcat religion’s creations—like the Keystone Pipeline and Alberta Oil sands. One young evangelist for the carbon-free gospel states it simply: “many people see the pipeline as a political or an economic issue, but I see it as a moral issue.” Invoking Charles Finney, another proselyte promises a “power shift” brought on by revival on behalf of the planet.

If we want to make sense of our current moment of political struggle, I would suggest we need to foreground a longer history of religiously-motivated and charged contestation over the way Americans—particularly those who inhabit our energy frontiers—encounter, inhabit, manage, and possess land and its resources.


PC: What is in store in the future for the wildcat ethic?

DD: Well, as suggested above, one can look at the recent presidential administration and say that the wildcatters of crude and Christianity have won. In spring of 2020, Mike Pence visited West Texas and, on one occasion, stood on a new oil rig to reaffirm the three pillars of American greatness: “our faith,” “our freedom,” and “our vast natural resources.” The task before his audience, Pence asserted, was to keep drilling expeditiously; the pledge from Washington was that they would be helped in that endeavor. Sarah Palin once chanted, “drill, baby, drill”—and those words still resonate across the American oil patch today, suggesting that the wildcat ethic will continue to shape the future. At the same time, it will likely be channeled elsewhere as well: towards the pursuit of alternative, clean energy, a pursuit that has enlisted some of the same type of entrepreneurs that have long populated the oil business. That ethic continues to shape other economic sectors as well—see tech in the Silicon Valley, for instance.

. . . the wildcat ethic will continue to shape the future. At the same time, it will likely be channeled elsewhere as well: towards the pursuit of alternative, clean energy, a pursuit that has enlisted some of the same type of entrepreneurs that have long populated the oil business . . .

That said, the wildcat ethic in oil and gas will likely face continued challenges. 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. Even the Rockefeller and Pew families have joined in; both families’ philanthropies are now on the same side, fighting the Canadian oil sands together and in so doing challenging not just the wildcat ethic but trying to correct some of their own dynastic legacies.


PC: Tell us about what you hope will happen at the Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion in spring 2021. We have some excellent commentators lined up to discuss this important book.

DD: I am thrilled that Melani McAlister and Andrew Preston will be joining us! Both are wonderful colleagues and friends, and authorities in fields my book seeks to engage. While I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they don’t expose too many failings where that engagement is concerned, I’m excited to hear where they think I could have drilled down further, tapped other sources, or capped the well sooner and more efficiently (groan). Most of all, I’m just looking forward to a good discussion with everyone about how we can continue to thread religion into our histories of American society and anticipate next steps in making energy and environment central to the story.

Peter Cajka is assistant teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.