Oil is like manna from heaven for the individuals to whom it brings fabulous riches and the states that gain geopolitical and economic strength. It is only natural, then, that societies who have oil believe that they have been blessed from above.
This ethos is laid plain in a fascinating new book about America’s connections with oil, religion, and history itself: Darren Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic Books, 2019). These connections are not ephemeral or imaginary – they concretely shaped the way Americans acted both at home and abroad. Dochuk, a historian at Notre Dame University, spent eight years producing what he calls a “religious biography of a natural resource with outsized—and seemingly otherworldly—importance” (p. 9).
Over 560 pages, Dochuk describes how the Christianity-oil synthesis developed along two tracks. The first was “wildcat Christianity,” captured by the individuals who staked their fortunes and faith in Christ to find black gold in rural areas of the fast-growing country. The second was “the civil religion of crude” articulated by the major companies who sought to control the industry’s excesses through “a bureaucratic outlook in keeping with the Protestant ethic Max Weber would famously write about” (p 12).
Anointed with Oil is a must-read for historians of the United States, and can inspire scholars and journalists in other countries to examine how oil helps nations and people construct meaning and policy. By focusing on Christianity’s relationship to oil, Dochuk unearths elements that diplomatic and economic historians have partly ignored or not yet combined. The book will also help non-specialists better understand the self-confident rise of the United States, its willingness to use oil coercively abroad, and its reluctance to embrace non-oil alternatives in the face of climate change.
The individual vs. the corporation
Dochuk’s story unfolds in four parts. The first details early exploration in Appalachia, California, and Texas in the decades following the American Civil War. The application of modern drilling techniques in 1859 had already created a frenzy around oil, but Dochuk shows how crude came of age in a postwar nation that was redefining itself. The boom-bust nature of the early industry nurtured wildcat Christianity, in which individuals cast their luck and fortunes into God’s hands, naturally strengthening the religion’s appeal among oilmen. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company, however, asserted dominance over this early craze by harnessing Christianity’s underlying creed of striving to create a better world. “With Standard’s ascent came confirmation that a second stage of capitalist development had consumed the oil business, one geared to the prescriptions of a rational, Calvinistic Protestantism that privileged coordination and control over willful acceptance of risk” (p. 61).
The second part describes the backlash to Standard, which occurred during America’s progressive era in the early twentieth century. The dissolution of its monopoly, the rise of labor, and the realization that oil was central to American power, both in winning the First World War and creating massive commercial opportunities abroad in the 1920s and 1930s, redefined class, nationalism, and opportunity in American society. Once again, the civil religion of crude won out, as American business leaders “portrayed unionists as communist and un-American” (p. 195). Standard’s break up, ironically, permitted it to thrive in the international arena, which required the application of significant capital alongside a proselytizing vision for America in the world.