New Works in the Field

Wildcat Christianity and the Oil-fueled Politics of Corporate and Nonprofit Patronage In the Middle East

Editors’ Note: Darren Dochuk introduces the concept of “wildcat Christianity” and discusses the relationship between evangelical Christianity, southwestern petroleum, and support of Israel, a subject addressed in his new book, Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic Books).

God, Gas, and Cash,” a recent article by Alex Kane and Nashwa Bawab in the Intercept, sheds light on a vital partnership in the era of Donald Trump. “As the Trump administration maintains the friendliest U.S. relationship with the Israeli right in history,” Kane and Bawab write, “Texas has become one of the most pro-Israel states in the country. It has forged ties with Israeli settlements and aggressively enforced a law targeting advocates of boycotting Israel.” Two constituencies are responsible for tightening this bond: Texas’ independent oilmen, whose recent discovery of gas fields off Israel’s coast has bolstered the country’s energy prospects, and evangelicals, whose fascination with the Jewish state stems from prophetic teachings. Convinced that Israel is key to the end-times and Christ’s return spoken of in the Bible, Texas evangelicals and their nonprofit organizations are channeling dollars, political clout, and moral support toward their Holy Land.

If rejuvenated by recent political trends, this alliance of evangelical Christianity and southwestern petroleum around a shared commitment to Israel is hardly new. As one segment of my new book Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America reveals, these two constituencies were active—and aligned—in the first years of modern Israel’s existence. Much has been written, of course, about the role evangelicals in the U.S. played alongside Jewish Zionists in nudging the White House toward a pro-Israel perspective. Thanks to these two citizenries’ aggressive lobbying, by 1947 a once hesitant President Harry Truman came to see the possibilities of a Jewish state through their eyes. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” he told pro-Arab state officials at the time, “but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” Over subsequent years, Truman’s successors would strengthen Washington’s connection with Israel, again due in no small part to sustained pressure from evangelicals and their Zionist allies.[i]

Yet equally important to the burgeoning U.S.-Israel union—and far less written about—was the longstanding work and vocational interests of southwestern independent oilmen. Technically speaking, independents were defined as such by their limited integrated capacities of production, refining, and marketing and their original status in the nineteenth-century petroleum industry as small producers who worked outside (and against) the juggernaut of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the emerging sector of “major” oil. By the mid-twentieth century, major oil would consist of seven integrated, multi-national petroleum firms, three of which were offshoots of the original Standard: Standard Oil Company of California (Chevron), Standard New Jersey (Exxon/Esso), and Standard New York (Mobil). Wiped out by Standard in oil’s first frontier of Pennsylvania, independent oilmen were, by then, resettled in the west, beyond the Rockefeller reach. There, during Texas’s “Gusher Age” (1900s-1950s), they gained leverage in the business.

That, in turn, not only allowed independent oilmen to challenge their oversized nemeses for corporate supremacy, but also to confront the Rockefeller way in the U.S.’s pulpits, pews, and philanthropic orb—and, ultimately, in the economic and political developments of the Middle East. As I show in my book, two opposing spirits of capitalism stood at the heart of the tension, driving these combatants to different Christian visions of wealth accumulation and charitable redistribution.

Fully committed to American oil’s rule of capture, a nineteenth-century legal canon unique to U.S. mineral extraction laws that guaranteed the right of each driller to compete for access to subterranean pools, and to drain them with deliberate speed, oil’s independent producers embodied the spirit of what I call “wildcat Christianity.” Imbued with the “charismatic” qualities classical thinkers such as Max Weber identified with preindustrial capitalists, they considered the rule of capture sacrosanct. 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. Whether overseeing a single team of oil hunters or managing larger, partially integrated corporations, independent producers took risks and pursued profits as if there were no tomorrow. Amid the boom-bust cycles that settled over the Southwest’s oil patches, they held ever more 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 the world collapsed. Always the speculators, willing to assume risks for a higher calling, they had little patience for elaborate and science-focused foundations that seemed to diminish the sacred and the spiritual in their quest to rebuild society.

The Rockefellers and Standard, meanwhile, sought to dull the excesses of the rule of capture, centralize authority over oil’s dizzying operational scales, and rationalize the industry and their attending philanthropic orb. John D. Rockefeller’s was an outlook in keeping with Weber’s Protestant ethic, which assumed godly capitalists would honor the principles of efficiency and control. And so the oil baron proceeded to rein the industry in by conquering and consolidating. 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 by way of their economic clout. Over time, that gospel inspired him and his son to pursue a revamped “scientific” philanthropy and led them to seek the rationalization and consolidation of Baptist charitable and educational institutions, much as Standard had with the oil industry. Frustrated with the limits of a charity that focused exclusively on personal matters of the soul, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (“Junior”) built up a foundation that stressed modernization on a massive scale and that intended to eliminate root causes of social and economic inequities. 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 U.S.’s place at the head of a new international order of capitalist and humanitarian exchange. That impulse reverberated at mid-century through the Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s heavy investment in medical, technological, and economic development projects across the global south.

The generations-long battle between these two corporate and churchly foes would have profound effects both on the life of modern U.S. Christian charity and U.S. petroleum. We know much about the Rockefeller-wing of liberal Protestantism and the scale of global ecumenism Rockefeller monies would facilitate. Yet the Rockefeller-inspired “civil religion of crude,” as I designate it, would also filter through major oil’s most ambitious projects at mid-century, including the most significant of all: Aramco. With Standard California at its head, the conglomerate of US oil companies that built this corporation in Saudi Arabia during the late 1930s and 1940s would, by the mid-1950s, boast earth-shattering discoveries and outsized 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 itself would be a vanguard of human advancement, shared respect for the holy, and post-sectarian exchange for the world’s postwar era. Always 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 their employer’s expanding empire as something much more than simply a drilling and refining operation. While they eagerly sold Aramco’s business enterprise to the world as a model of benevolent capitalism, they also marshaled support among the company’s executive and managerial ranks 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 and the United States’ Point IV agenda.

Meanwhile, as the twentieth century unfolded, wildcatters applied their own philosophy of petro-wealth. Independent oilers Lyman and Milton Stewart, heads of Union Oil Company in California, and backers of the publication of The Fundamentals, a 1915 treatise on fundamentalist doctrine, established a model for giving that reflected their capitalist drive to make and give money quickly in anticipation of the world’s end. Unlike the Rockefellers, whose comfortable standing in the world cultivated a confidence in man’s ability to transform it, the Stewarts shouldered the insecurities of a volatile economic system and the conviction that Christians had neither the time nor ability to restructure the globe; the best they could do was save as many souls before the impending apocalypse. As such, their financial plan (as one historian notes) simply “demanded expenditure for the kingdom, not stockpiling for the world.” What did this mean in practice? With tens of thousands of requests for money pouring in to their offices, Lyman and Milton personally—and through the apparatus of the Milton Stewart Evangelistic Fund—channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars toward missionary endeavors in Asia and the Middle East that shunned large-scale modernization projects for a focus on winning individuals to Christ. While their end-times beliefs ensured that Union Oil profits would flow into Zionist organizations and pro-Israel movement politics, the oilmen also remained concerned with the Middle East as a whole. While, for instance, the Rockefeller-funded Near East Foundation increasingly shifted its gaze during the 1920s and 1930s to expansive community restructuring projects in the region, the Milton Stewart Evangelistic Fund paid for river boats that could proselytize tribes in the marshland between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.[ii]

In subsequent decades, independent oilers in the Stewarts’ mold would act on the same corporate and philanthropic convictions; and Israel would feel the effects. Israel, in fact, would invite them. During its first decade of nationhood, it desperately sought oil and energy independence. At this juncture, American Jewish oilmen (and prominent philanthropists) Rudolf Sonneborn and Jacob Blaustein recruited independent oilmen to ease Israel’s burden. Blaustein was key to this effort. Besides working backchannels in the White House to ensure that the funneling of financial loans and arms to Israel went smoothly, he also served as Israel’s supreme oil booster.

Wildcatters from the US Southwest responded. With the exception of Shell and—briefly—Socony, major oil companies avoided the Jewish state because of their abiding ties to Arab oil-producing nations. Eager to take advantage of this freedom and of Israel’s favorable mineral laws, which guaranteed hefty tax-exemptions for all oil profits, independent companies from the U.S. Southwest flocked to the fledgling state. In many cases the prophetic importance of this Bible land added extra incentive. Fiercely devout oilers like Wesley Hancock and Russell Brown plumbed scripture for clues to oil’s whereabouts with a heightened expectation that came from toiling in the very territory where they believed Christ would soon return. Blaustein welcomed their enthusiasm, so much so that he readily engaged in informal exegesis with Brown, a board member of the Independent Petroleum Association of America who sent the Jewish oilman Bible verses proving oil’s past and future importance to Israel and all God’s people.

No substantial oil for Israel would be forthcoming. In 1973, following the Yom Kippur War (and the loss of control of oil-producing terrain in the Sinai Peninsula), Prime Minister Golda Meir would express a frustration shared by many of her countrymen: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses.… He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil.” Yet this would not deter the American Southwest’s evangelicals and oilers (often one-and-the-same) from sending their capital and charity—and drill equipment—Israel’s way; to the contrary, it would spur them on all the more.

From the 1970s to the present day, numerous other independent oilmen have made their way to Israel certain that if “Asher dipped his foot in oil” [Deuteronomy 33:24] they could do the same. Devout evangelical church people across the Southwest have helped these oilers drill for black gold by investing tens of millions of dollars in their corporate ventures as well as in the nonprofit work that they help sponsor. One of these ventures is Ness (“miracle” in Hebrew) Energy International, a company started by Hayseed Stephens in the late 1990s. “I didn’t have any doubt that Ness was a plan of God,” one church investor would testify in 2008. “He raised up [Ness] to find Israel’s oil…When they hit oil and the stock goes sky-high, that means Armageddon is around the corner.” Another Texas oil venture shrouded in evangelical fervor is Zion Oil and Gas, based in Dallas. Like Ness—but with more ambition—Zion has demonstrated the impact that the triangulation of corporate initiative, nonprofit work, and service to the church has had on the American (Texan) presence in Israel. While its geologists and drillers have continued a decades-long hunt for oil in and around Megiddo (where Armageddon is supposed to take place), its evangelical executives have worked with (and heavily funded) pastors such as John Hagee and nonprofits such as Hagee’s six-million-member Christians United for Israel to ensure that Israel receives economic aid, moral support, and privileged standing in Washington.

Today, the realms of independent oil and evangelical philanthropy are—as Alex Kane and Nashwa Bawab note in the Intercept—fully entwined and empowered where U.S.-Israel relations are concerned. With recent successes off its coast, Texas’ wildcatters are finally easing Israel’s energy curse. Meanwhile, Christian NGO’s such as HaYovel are contributing to the wave of evangelical volunteers (more than 1,700) and finances ($65 million total) that has poured into Israel over the past decade. While endorsing the work that Texas oilmen are doing, HaYovel workers and their peers have endeavored to develop Israel’s agricultural sector and far-flung settlements and, in their eyes, hasten the Lord’s return. Whatever their Lord’s timeline might be, one thing is clear: in the era of President Trump, Texas’ oilers and evangelicals are more determined—and equipped—than ever to shape Israel’s future with an abundance of “God, gas, and cash.”

-Darren Dochuk


[i]Quoted in Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 521, 523.

[ii]B.M. Pietsch, “Lyman Stewart and Early Fundamentalism,” Church History 82 (September 2013), 619, 628; Lewis R. Scudder III,The Arabian Mission’s Story: In Search of Abraham’s Other Son (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 256-257.

Darren Dochuk is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, recently released by Basic Books, and From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (Norton, 2011).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s