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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Professor highlights relationship between oil, politics in US

Darren Dochuk, associate professor of history, addressed the relationship between oil, religion and politics in the United States as part of the Higgins Lunchtime Labor Research, Advocacy and Policy (RAP) series Friday.

Dochuk said oil has a long and rich history as an important resource in the United States.

“Oil achieved unprecedented status in the mid-20th century — the 1930s to the 1950s — as leverage for America’s authority in the hydrocarbon age,” he said. “But it first captured America’s heart at the dawn of the 20th century as the fuel and lubricant that would light its cities and grease its modern machinery and economic ascent.”

Dochuk said oil’s connection to religion began primarily with Henry Luce, a co-founder of Time Magazine.

“It directly influenced God-fearing individuals with clout, who translated crude and Christianity’s vision of the future into real institutional structures, policies and outcomes of significance,” he said. “ … For Luce, petroleum was a limitless power that held the capacity to transform the world into something godlier and good.”

Luce’s involvement with the oil industry prompted an entirely new movement based on the combination of oil and religion, Dochuk said.

“Luce’s aspirations mirrored those of a cadre of corporate, church and state visionaries who believed that petroleum-fueled Christian democracy … integrated and partnered with the state could guarantee this nation’s post-war influence,” Dochuck said. “This cadre of corporate church and state visionaries accelerated intensified outreach on behalf of what I call the ‘civil religion of crude.’ And this civil religion of crude at mid-century was designed to steer the United States’ oil sector and society out of several unfolding crises that emerged at that moment.”

Dochuk said these crises, such as fear of depleting the nation’s oil supply, drove big businesses to drill for oil abroad.

“Driven by fear and optimism, large corporations started chasing wider prospects,” he said. “ … With something momentous in reach, Chevron started sending workers to Saudi Arabia’s outback to consult with [tribes] and to drill. By 1940, assurances of shared destiny predominated as local and U.S. operatives together hunted bigger pools.”

One person who distinguished himself in the oil business particularly well, Dochuk said, was John D. Rockefeller.

“John D. Rockefeller embodied the civil religion by placing the profits of his family’s standard oil empire in the service of its broad initiatives,” he said. “Frustrated with outmoded strategies of corporate and church outreach, he built a philanthropy that stressed scientifically informed global development.”

Rockefeller’s success in the oil trade, however, left him and his family with plenty of enemies, Dochuk said.

“Those who inhabited oil patches were also filled with the spirit of rebellion, which was present from the beginning due to their marginalization by the Rockefellers,” he said. “ … The revolt intensified in the 1930s and ’40s in response to U.S. oil’s shift to foreign fields.”

In the midst of dissent against the Rockefeller monopoly of the oil market, Dochuk said, Sunoco emerged as a worthy competitor.

“Sunoco’s executives were the antithesis to Washington politicos and standard CEOs,” he said. “They focused on the interests of local people and their economic health, took care of the little man and royalty owners — with whom they collaborated — and stayed true to the politics of the small producer.”

Dochuk said Sunoco joined forces with other smaller oil moguls to challenge the Rockefellers and begin to turn the oil industry into what it is today.

“On a purely political level, the clash of the two gospels of crude animated some of the most crucial pivots in 1940s federal governance,” he said. “The struggle certainly played out as a clash of competing economic interests, but it was also a matter of colliding world views. Nurtured in different workscapes of oil, it was a culture war that folded matters of faith, labor and corporate politics into two competing sides.”