Review of Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (Princeton University Press, 2014).
I grew up in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s. During my childhood, Texas was a purple state. Both major parties represented us in the Senate, and the governorship oscillated between Democrats and Republicans. Things have changed quite a bit.
In November 2014, Republicans swept the mid-term elections throughout the United States. In Texas, the margin of victory was surreal, with Republican Governor-Elect Greg Abbott defeating Democratic Candidate Wendy Davis by more than 20 points. Yet how did Texas, which in the 100 years between the end of Reconstruction (1877) and the inauguration of Jimmy Carter (1977) sent only one Republican to the Senate and none to the governor’s mansion, become the geographic locus of the Republican Party? In Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow contends that religion played a major role in that transformation, reaching all the way back to the founding of the Republic of Texas (1836) in order to investigate the grassroots causes of the shift in voter alignment in the Lone Star State.
Texas Turns Purple
Prior to the Civil War, as natural disasters, disease, and potential attack by Native Americans threatened white families that settled Texas, religion brought hope and comfort. It also shaped civilization in the “rough country.” As historian Sidney Mead has persuasively argued, the lack of an established church left America without a central authority empowered to teach virtue to the populace. Instead, various denominations cooperated to shape a generally Protestant public morality.
In the Republic of Texas, they did the same. Over time, schools and communal organizations, informed by Protestantism, took over the functions of teaching and enforcing social norms, all the while developing a symbiotic relationship with the churches. In this context, individualism blossomed, and Texans saw themselves as strong advocates for liberty—“liberty of conscience, liberty from tyranny, and liberty from religious authority”—and viewed government as a potential threat to each of these. As a result, although religious Texans trusted Democrats to maintain the all-important racial status quo, most supported the New Deal with “considerable misgivings,” worrying about the government “gaining too much influence over peoples’ lives.”
On the other side of the 1930s, two sorts of Democrats emerged: an older guard that depended on connections with local business owners who were skeptical about the federal government and a newer breed that more fully embraced the New Deal’s progressive goals. The die was cast for interparty conflict, political realignment, and religious restructuring.
In the 1950s, Texans liked Ike twice, and as the postwar economy surged, so did religion. Texas, along with the nation, was swept up in the postwar revival of religion, and Southern Baptists began to outstrip all other religious groups among white, non-Hispanics in the Lone Star State. Ties between evangelicals and Republican-leaning business interests grew, birthing the sort of dependent-on-private-funding ministries that populate the American evangelical landscape today.
Kennedy’s candidacy pushed Texas Baptists and other evangelicals, who feared the church-state implications of a Roman Catholic president, further towards the Republican Party. By 1961—not 1962, as Wuthnow recounts—Texans elected a Republican to the US Senate, the first since Reconstruction. As oilmen, entrepreneurs, and industrialists deepened their alliances with pro-business politicians and religious leaders in Texas, the internal conflict between conservative, pro-business Democrats and their New Deal counterparts came to a head during the tumultuous 1960s, when progressive activism focused on Civil Rights, anti-war protests, gender equality, sexuality, and abortion. While evangelicals in Texas felt the “liberalization of long-held norms… was fundamentally unbiblical,” Barry Goldwater’s campaign helped establish the Republicans as the party of traditional values, drawing Texas evangelicals closer.
By 1972, Texas had become purple. The Reagan Revolution and the emergence of the Religious Right were on the horizon, and in 1980, 84% of all conservative Protestants in Texas chose Reagan instead of incumbent Jimmy Carter, a fellow born-again Christian.
Rather than painting the rise of the Religious Right as a reactionary backlash, Wuthnow shows its continuity with Texan history. He traces the movement’s origins back to the dawn of religion in the “rough country,” with its sense of responsibility for public morality and its preference for small government. Reagan’s social conservatism affirmed Texas evangelicals’ moral vision, while his free-market rhetoric and small-government ideals fit nicely alongside their discomfort with New Deal progressivism. As the 1980 general election approached, evangelical leaders sensed that the people who filled their congregations and supported their ministries had “enough clout to make a difference.” And they did.
Wuthnow recognizes that race shaped all the religious and political developments discussed in Rough Country. As Reconstruction ended (1877), supporting the public good meant maintaining racial inequality. The poll tax, white-only primaries, lynching, and segregation entrenched white privilege. And, while a few white Protestants advocated for equality, others went so far as to support the Ku Klux Klan. Most white Protestant leaders simply avoided “politics,” preferring to emphasize individual responsibility and morality rather than racial equality. The 1960s changed all that. Forced to pick a side, most evangelicals in Texas supported the non-progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is to say that, implicitly or explicitly, they supported the racial status quo.
Contrary to Randall Balmer, for whom race is the sole cause of evangelicalism’s rightward turn, Wuthnow treats the issue with nuance, identifying the overt racism that often played a role in religious and political developments while recognizing the legitimacy of other factors. In his telling, evangelical concerns regarding the unborn, traditional marriage, and small government might be colored by race, but they are not only about race. They were very much in keeping with the moral caretaking role public Protestantism served in Texas society since 1836.
In many ways, Rough Country tells a traditional story of 20th-century American society. After all, Wuthnow bends his tale around the New Deal 1930s and the upending of traditional moral values in the 1960s. In doing so, though, he preserves the autonomy of his subjects, portraying them as actors, not merely acted upon. This is a corrective to his earlier work, The Restructuring of American Religion (1988), which was rightly criticized for painting American Protestants as drifting, willy-nilly, into left- and right-wing identities in synch with broader national developments. As the 20th century came to a close, traditional denominational labels mattered less as religious Americans identified more as conservative (right) or liberal (left) than by any denominational identity.
In Red State Religion (2011), Wuthnow found evidence for his conclusions at the grassroots level. Facilitated by a handful of influential megachurches in the state, late 20th-century evangelicals in Kansas found their primary identity in political causes and coalitions in the face of declining denominational identities. In Rough Country, Wuthnow contends that the opposite occurred in Texas but with the same overall effect.
While other denominations in Texas experienced the same sort of decline as in the rest of the nation, Baptists bucked this trend as fundamentalist (Wuthnow’s term, not mine) Baptists moved the convention to the right during the 1970s. Due to their disproportionate influence in the Lone Star State, this rise in denominational identity pulled large numbers of white Protestant Texans along with them and into the Reagan Revolution, leading Texas to become the “most powerful Bible-belt state.”
Here, Rough Country raises several important interpretative questions. Although Texas Baptists may wish their influence were as great as Wuthnow perceives, he overstates the case. Personally, I suspect that the Reagan Revolution fed the conservative turn in the Southern Baptist Convention just as much as, if not more than, the reverse. This is, of course, a knotty chicken-egg question, but the issues involved go to the heart of Wuthnow’s overarching interpretation of national conservative-liberal realignment. In Texas at least, such realignment did not wholly correspond with declining denominational identity. Perhaps, the same is true in other states. Then again, it might be that religion in Texas is different than in the rest of the country, something those of us who reside here—having once lived elsewhere—intuitively know.
Rough Country combines a careful treatment of religious history in Texas with sociological insights about the way religion functions in people’s lives. Like everything Wuthnow writes, it demands careful attention. Although not an easy read, it is a worthwhile one. A stoutly researched book full of interesting stories and important multi-layered interpretations, Rough Country should be required reading for every evangelical leader concerned with race, religion, or politics. They will come away better informed about many historical matters that have made a lasting impact on politics, race relations, and ministry—not merely in Texas, but throughout the United States.
This review initially appeared online at Christianity Today on March 5, 2015. You can access the original post here.