Texas is a big state, and so it is no surprise that Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State by Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow exceeds 480 pages before the notes. The first widely conceived religious history of the 28th state, Rough Country will appeal to Texans and non-Texans, scholars and educated non-experts. At first glance, one may assume Texas serves as the epitome of the Bible Belt or that Wuthnow intends to argue that Texas is a microcosm of America. But the religious history of the Bible Belt’s cowboy buckle is more nuanced. Not a microcosm, Wuthnow argues, “Texas is better imagined as a case study in which much that characterizes all of America—albeit refracted differently in each locale—can be seen.” Texas is unique and reflective of larger trends. Texas also allows Wuthnow to develop new insights in the study of the Religious Right.
Starting in the mid-19th century shortly after the Texas Revolution, Rough Country begins with a theme of roughness. The rough country bred fantastic, even magical stories reminiscent of the New England Puritans, and reports of the region’s rough inhabitants were punctuated with stories of refined settlers. Texas was a place of variety and contradiction. It was also a place where religious institutions enjoyed popularity. Ten years after statehood, Texas had the same church-to-population ratio as Massachusetts and New York. With its Mexican past, Catholicism commanded the southern counties while Methodist and Baptists camp meetings quickly spread those denominations throughout the state. These three Christian denominations in particular would prove to be the major players in the state’s religious history.
Along with roughness, liberty is another theme that defines Texas. For Texans, Wuthnow writes, “the watchword was liberty: liberty of conscience, liberty from tyranny, and liberty from religious authority.” The federal government’s involvement during Reconstruction bred a distrust of the government among white Texans. Many Texans have long desired a small government that is supplemented with voluntary local charity. Another important liberty was freedom of religious expression, and this emphasis on liberty explains why Texas Baptists have long emphasized the separation of church and state while also demanding morality of their local and the federal government. Still, the involvement of religion in politics was something that developed over time. While Texans had always expected religion to support morality and civilization, 19th-century Texans with their desire for liberty, denied early morality laws. Prohibition would prove an important turning point. Religion, primarily of the Baptist and Methodist variety, cultivated good, moral behavior, but sometimes, regulation was necessary. Increasing widespread support for Prohibition as a moral need for society in the early 20th century mirror more recent arguments about abortion and homosexuality. Even if Texas was rough, it would be moral.
This morality, though, was racial. White Protestants appreciated the Ku Klux Klan’s suspicion of Catholics and their support of Prohibition. “An informal estimate,” Wuthnow reports, “suggested that half the clergy in Texas supported the Klan in 1922.” The state’s African Americans and Latinos were either outsiders or charity cases. Lynching was as common in Texas as it was elsewhere in the South, and anti-lynching advocacy groups organized. Some progressive Protestants saw Prohibition, suffrage, and anti-lynching as issues in need of public advocacy and reform. Racial minority groups looked after their own too, and black churches and predominantly Hispanic Catholic parishes were places of union organizing and social involvement.
The effects of the Dust Bowl as well as the Great Depression helped Pentecostalism’s healing ministries flourish. But Wuthnow’s Texans are not down and out for long. The hardships of the 1930s seemed to be quickly replaced with growth in the 1950s. Radio, television, and parachurch ministries were on the rise after World War II, fueled in Texas by oil money.
Like the rest of the country, Protestantism increasingly developed in two camps in Texas: the progressives and the conservatives. Strong anti-evolution sentiment in the state, along with oil money, made Texas a stronghold for Fundamentalism. Reverend C. I. Scofield easily found a home in Dallas and dispensational theology spread beyond the bounds of Fundamentalism in the state. The effects of the Dust Bowl as well as the Great Depression helped Pentecostalism’s healing ministries flourish. But Wuthnow’s Texans are not down and out for long. The hardships of the 1930s seemed to be quickly replaced with growth in the 1950s. Radio, television, and parachurch ministries were on the rise after World War II, fueled in Texas by oil money. Many of these ministries were interdenominational, though run by Southern Baptist Convention pastors. Southern Baptists had always been popular in Texas, but their dominance asserted itself in the mid-twentieth century, most notably when Reverend Billy Graham became a member of Dallas First Baptist Church. Though dominant, white Baptists felt threatened, most notably by integration and Catholics. White displeasure with Brown v. Board of Education was strongly felt in Texas, and mid-century white flight meant that new churches could still be easily organized on racial lines. Though delegates of the 1959 Baptist General Convention of Texas approved a resolution that condemned racism, they also “approved a resolution accusing the Roman Catholic Church of being ‘an ambitious political system aspiring to be a state’” ). The following year while campaigning in Houston, then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech on the separation of church and state, a message clearly targeted at Texas Baptists.
It is during the late-20th century when Texas begins to assert itself as the Bible-Belt powerhouse. Home to Southern Democrat Lyndon Banes Johnson and a strong base of support for Republican Ronald Reagan, Texas is also home to another two Republican presidents, George Bush and son. In addition to White House significance, the language of morality, something Texans had long emphasized, more clearly became part of national political conversations. Abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment reflected the conservative/liberal divide found throughout the nation. However, because of the strong pro-life support in Catholic churches, abortion could also redraw some old political lines in new racial and ethnic ways. Wuthnow also identifies strong Religious Right leadership coming out of Texas, even if those names are not typically seen in the historiography of the Religious Right. Additionally, instead of emphasizing Pat Robertson’s campaign in the Republican primary, Wuthnow focuses on the widespread appeal of George H. W. Bush. Texas gubernatorial elections in the 1980s and 1990s also reflected the larger divide between conservatives and liberals that Wuthnow has explored in many of his previous books. In this way Texas is not distinctive but rather indicative of national trends.
In the closing decade of the 20th century, faith became a common way to discuss religion in the public sphere. Then Texas governor, George W. Bush “embraced the idea of religious organizations working in partnership with state and local government to carry out social service activities.” Faith-based community initiatives became common in the state, including faith-based prisons and drug rehabilitation programs. Faith inspired social service, and faith played a major role in politics. Debates on homosexuality and abortion continued to center on assumptions of morality. This is not surprising, but Wuthnow makes an insightful connection between these recent developments and Texas’s race relations past. White Protestants demanded morality of their government on abortion and gay marriage, while income inequality and incarceration were best dealt with privately. In other words, problems facing racial and ethnic minorities were not issues of national morality and thus did not warrant government action. Many Texans thought the government was too invasive in their lives and concluded that the “policies emanating from the nation’s capital were wrong.” This made Texas a likely place for Tea Party support. In fact, a 2010 study of Texas voters “found that 33 percent claimed to be in some way involved in the Tea Party movement.” Obama’s administration stood in opposition to Tea Party views on taxes and morality. Throughout Rough Country Wuthnow pays close attention to demographic information, including a comparison of voting outcomes and local religious affiliation. Those friendly to the Tea Party movement were more likely to identify as born-again Christians. Recent Governor Rick Perry’s prayers to end the drought go hand-in-hand with his Tea Party sympathies.
Rough Country is a well-written and nuanced narrative of Texas religious history, however, the utility of the book’s afterword is less clear. Throughout Rough Country Wuthnow’s narrative clearly shows the sociological function of religion. Indeed, religious communities do much to shape social boundaries and society itself. In the book’s afterword Wuthnow wants to draw conclusions about sociological studies of religion and the sub-discipline’s most useful theoretical approaches. Many outside the field of religious studies may find this irrelevant or over their heads. To a scholar of religious studies, some of the afterword reads older than its 2014 publication date. This is not to say that the afterword is useless; it maps Wuthnow’s take on the field of the sociological study of religion, but some readers will likely skip it. This small criticism aside, Rough Country is a timely and important contribution that should be read by those in the academy and those outside it.