“Bible Belt” is a phrase coined by the writer H.L. Mencken, who placed it first among the inventions of which he was vainest, followed by “booboisie,” “smuthound,” and “Boobus americanus.” Together they declare what Mencken thought of the Bible-obsessed regions of the United States, and especially that region called the Old South—a swath of states stretching from the Atlantic to Texas. A map of the Bible Belt and a map of the Confederacy are pretty much the same, and the explanation is to be found in the unbending defense of slavery by Southern Baptists before the Civil War—something everybody in the Bible Belt knows but most ignore, dismiss, or deny.
In 1928, on his way to the Democratic convention held in Houston, Mencken and his friend Henry Hyde stopped off in Fort Worth to talk politics with the notorious Baptist preacher J. Frank Norris, who had twice been tried for serious crimes and twice acquitted—the first time, in 1912, for burning his own church, and the second time, in 1926, for shooting to death an unarmed man in Norris’s own church office. He claimed that the victim made “the hip pocket move” as if to reach for a gun, and the jury bought it. Norris was not only quick on the trigger in the Texas way, but was a man of violent opinion who had dominated Baptist church circles for years with his campaign against “that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution.”
In 1925, hoping to satisfy Norris and end the argument, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) added a sentence to its basic declaration of faith—“Man was created by a special act of God, as recorded in Genesis.” To non-Baptists and non-Southerners this might look like a small ambiguous tweak, but it was the first time in nearly a century that Baptists had changed so much as a word in their basic document. Baptists like to say that they have no creed but the Bible, which means that nobody can tell Baptists what they have to believe. But in practice they mostly sign on to anything that makes it into the Baptist Faith and Message.
Next to evolutionists, Norris most disliked Catholics, and especially the governor of New York, Al Smith, who was about to be nominated for the presidency at the Democratic convention in Houston. Texas was part of the “solid South”; nobody in Texas or anywhere else believed that the Republican Herbert Hoover could carry Texas in the 1928 election, with the exception of Norris, described by Mencken as “a fellow of extraordinarily forbidding appearance and manner.” Norris told Mencken that Hoover would win in Texas by 250,000 votes. To Texas politicos a win by even one vote was unimaginable. In Houston a day or two later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt burst into loud haw-hawing laughter when Mencken told him Norris’s prediction. What? A Republican sweep Texas? Mencken laughed with FDR; he thought the idea was crazy, too.
Mencken scoffed but Norris was right. Hoover carried Texas by 26,000 votes. Norris knew what Texas Baptists thought about Catholics because he had been telling them what to think for years, and the history of Baptists in Texas proved they listened to their preachers. They listened to Norris through the 1920s when he supported the Ku Klux Klan, through the 1930s when he attacked socialists and modernist liberals sneaking their way into Baptist seminaries, and through the 1940s when he decided that the big threat to America and Baptists alike was communism, not the Roman Catholic Church.
But it is probable that not one in a hundred non-Baptists knows what Norris was talking about when he preached on the big idea he cared about the most—dispensationalist premillenialism, his favored theory of when Jesus was coming again, and what would bring Him. Absent some grasp of that, it is difficult to understand why Norris passionately urged President Harry Truman to recognize Israel in 1948, or what stirred Texas Baptists to tear apart the Southern Baptist Convention over the question of biblical inerrancy during the 1980s. There is a fevered quality to Texas religion and politics that makes calmer parts of the country stand back, but that ignores a big fact of recent American history: three of the last nine presidents have been Texans, and Ted Cruz and Rick Perry think they have a chance to be the fourth. The first is a Baptist, the second was brought up as a Methodist and now attends an evangelical megachurch.
In politics as in religion, Texans appear to have a low tolerance for difference. They are prepared to change but only like starlings, at the same time in the same direction and all at once. J. Frank Norris was one of the architects of the modern Texas politico-religious sensibility that lies behind the state’s lopsided vote for Republican candidates in every presidential election since 1976, when Texas last voted for a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. He was a Baptist and a southerner, but in the Texas view not the right kind of either. They abandoned him for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have never looked back.
It’s an old pattern. Texas voted overwhelmingly in 1845 to join the Union, but sixteen years later it did an about-face and voted to secede and join the Confederacy. In recent years the United States as a whole has been as closely divided as ever in its history but Texas is not. It is always hot for whatever it is for. At the moment Baptist Republican Texas is for election of a president in 2016 who respects traditional verities and is a guilt-free white male straight Protestant Republican who believes the final word is not yet in on man’s role in climate change. The switch from Democratic to Republican is remarkable for its swift completeness, but it is not the biggest surprise; the rest of the Old South did the same. The really new thing is what J. Frank Norris and his successors brought to the mix—a peculiarly Baptist evangelical zeal to make America more like Baptist Texas while ensuring that Baptist Texas did not become more like the rest of America.
It’s the Baptist thing that has the attention of the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in his new book, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State. Wuthnow treats Texas bigness as a given. Oil has been making Texans rich for a hundred years, and Texas oil moguls have always used their money to influence American politics, beginning with the tax laws that help the moguls keep it after they get it. Texas also has thirty-eight electoral votes, which are enough to get any Texas presidential candidate off to a plausible start.
But Wuthnow, author of a dozen formidable books on the sociology of American religion, does not linger on the traditional factors behind Texas political heft. His goal is to explain the pitch, moral tone, sharp focus, and sheer loudness of Texas politics as a product of Texas religion, which has come a long way since Methodist circuit riders wandered the prairie. Rough Country is chock-a-block with facts and numbers charting the rise of the Baptists at the expense of the Methodists, who just couldn’t seem to get the mix right—not enough Bible, too many kids in college, too open to modern ideas. It was Baptists who more or less invented the modern mega-church, led by J. Frank Norris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Worth from 1909 until 1952, and W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Dallas from 1944 until 1993.
Big as those churches were, with their associated schools, colleges, mission churches, radio stations, television ministries, and attendance in the five thousand to eight thousand range, they are now dwarfed by the real giants. The nation’s biggest church, Lakewood in Houston, Baptist at birth but now calling itself nondenominational charismatic, claims weekly attendance of 43,000. Houston is also home to the nation’s second-biggest church, Second Baptist, claiming weekly attendance of 23,000. Church attendance claims are easily fudged, but these churches are big however you count, with budgets to match.
Religion is a growth industry in Texas, which has twice as many Baptists as any other state, and enjoys the ministry of scores of Southern Baptist pastors whose official photos portray men—no women—in late middle life with perfect teeth, deep tans, blow-dried white hair, mastery of chapter and verse in the sixty-six books of the Bible, a gift for preaching that can lift the roof, and a six-figure salary. Something similar, minus the Bible literacy, might be said of Texas bankers. What distinguishes Texas Baptists, and what interests Wuthnow, is what they bring to national politics.
In the 1940s the Texas governor Coke Stevenson, whose first name had previously belonged to a famous Methodist bishop, remarked to some writer friends that Texas had been settled by frontiersmen who brought with them into the wilderness a rifle, an axe, and a Bible. Belief that settling Texas took all three is at the core of Wuthnow’s theory, embodied in his title Rough Country, of what makes Texas Texas. It is that the land itself was so full of danger, and that seizing it required so much violence, that Texans needed and created a religion with spine to tell them they were right, had God on their side, and could overcome all obstacles. But the Texas Wuthnow describes is not so much dangerous as dark, untrammeled, and violent, calling for Christian humility and fellow feeling. These gentle attitudes are not what the Texans found in the Bible they carried with rifle and axe. “If the country is rough, who make it so?” asked William Capers, a Methodist bishop who visited Texas in 1847. “The roughness is their own.”
The rough decades of war against Mexicans, Indians, and the Union were followed by rough decades of civil violence to keep blacks in their place. Wuthnow somehow finds space to mention how all of it fit into Texas—hundreds of lynchings of African-Americans, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the battles over Prohibition, the campaign by women for the vote, the brick-wall denial by Baptists of what modern science had to say about the antiquity of earth and the origins of the human species, the rise of black and Latino liberation movements, white male Protestant efforts to retain control of society and politics, on down to President Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and the South’s relentless slow seizure of the soul and the mechanics of the Republican Party. None of these themes are in high relief but all are there.
But something is missing from Wuthnow’s exhaustive account of the society and chief religion of Texas. It is why the Baptists of Texas are Southern Baptists and how the Republican Party has become southern in the same way. This in turn raises a question at the heart of contemporary American politics: Can a candidate for president nominated by the new Republican Party, paying tribute to all the old southern obsessions with white control of people of color, male control of women, nativist control of the nation’s borders, and traditional conservative Protestant control of public morals, win election to the White House?
Two episodes in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, both cited in passing by Wuthnow, are fundamental to understanding its peculiar obsessions in their modern form. The first is the quarrel over slavery that led to a split of American Baptist churches into Northern and Southern Conventions in 1845, the subject of a lucid history by E. Luther Copeland, a Baptist pastor and missionary who sided with the moderates in a struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Copeland argues that the coup carried out by fundamentalists with broad political goals, beginning in 1979, was a direct if long-delayed consequence of “that original sin which found us on the wrong side of the slavery question.”
Of their political aims the fundamentalists said nothing, focusing instead on a growing liberalism in Baptist seminaries that cast doubt on the literal truth of certain biblical passages—doubts unsettling to Baptist youths raised in country churches, who grew up thinking that God had created the world in seven actual, twenty-four-hour days. Leaders of the fundamentalist coup were a pastor in W.A. Criswell’s Dallas church, Paige Patterson, and a Houston lawyer and judge, Paul Pressler, who rejected textbooks used in some seminaries as “just liberal garbage.”
The goals of the revolt were evident in a kickoff sermon delivered at the annual SBC meeting in Houston in 1979 by the fundamentalist preacher Adrian Rogers, pastor of a megachurch in Memphis, who had two things on his mind. One was the crucial importance of absolute faith in an inerrant Bible to make converts and win souls and build a church. “And if you don’t believe it,” Rogers said, “you go out and look at these guys who pussyfoot about the Bible and check [their] baptismal records.” He was delivering a practical pointer, one pastor to another: pussyfooters don’t build megachurchs.
But Rogers more importantly had his sights on the Equal Rights Amendment—“Satan’s fib about women’s lib.” Rogers did not pussyfoot about women’s liberation. “This unisex movement,” he said, “has been belched out of hell.”
Rogers’s broad political purpose, only half-hidden behind the campaign for an inerrant Bible, offended and alarmed traditional Baptists for whom separation of church and state was an article of faith. “I…am not going to roll over,” said Houston pastor Kenneth Chafin, “and let a group of Frank Norrisite fundamentalists steal the institutions of my denomination.”
But the Patterson-Pressler faction did exactly that; an unbroken string of conservatives were elected to head the church every year for the next decade, and with the unique power of appointment granted SBC presidents, they systematically packed every committee and board, pushed out anyone who did not agree, and gradually purged the Baptist seminaries of all the liberals, defined by Pressler as anyone “who believes the Bible does or could contain any kind of error.”
The fundamentalists were feeling their oats in August 1980 when Ronald Reagan, on the first tour of his presidential campaign, attended a conference of 17,000 evangelical and lay leaders gathered in Dallas for a National Affairs Briefing. Reagan won the heart of the crowd with two sentences—“I know you can’t endorse me,” he said. “But I want you to know that I endorse you.”
Reagan and his advisers sensed that Texas Baptists were at the heart of a major change brewing in America. Talk about red states and the Tea Party suggests something new in the world but Reagan was joining the Baptists to reject pretty much everything “modern” to emerge in American culture and society over the last two centuries. The three that most disturbed the Bible Belt South were the end of slavery, the “theory” of evolution that cast doubt on the literal truth of the Bible, and the emancipation of women.
The goal of “the Christian Right” as it waded into American politics was not vanilla concern with good government, but something gem-hard and Bible-based. The word “inerrant” is unfamiliar to most Americans, who take a softer view of religion than Southern Baptists. Dressing up for church, helping the poor, praying for peace, the sweet hope of marriage vows, the solace of ashes to ashes and dust to dust at the graveside—that seems to cover it for most Americans. Southern Baptists have an iron spine forged in a hotter fire: they believe salvation is what the universe is all about; the way to be saved is spelled out in the Bible; you can trust the Bible because everything in it is true, and that includes the story of Eden—woman’s role in man’s fall.
At the SBC’s annual meeting in Kansas City in 1984 the fundamentalists pushed through a resolution barring the ordination of women “because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.” With this measure the fundamentalists closed a perfect loop. Women were not allowed to be “over” men, which means they cannot teach men where religion is concerned, which means they cannot be ordained and serve as pastors, which means they cannot challenge the interpretation of the biblical verses that confine them to a secondary status. Driving the resolution was a fear held in common with their fundamentalist brothers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds—fear of the loss of control of women.
The war over women, heating up through the 1970s as the Equal Rights Amendment moved state-by-state toward ratification, brought conservative Baptists into national politics, something they had traditionally avoided. Wuthnow cites a crucial moment in November 1977 when two contending groups of politically active women met in Houston to battle for and against the ERA. The conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly had been accusing liberals of “trying to cram the Equal Rights Amendment down our throats with federal money.” She called it “a grab for power” and vowed to defeat the ERA—something that appeared almost impossible in 1977, when ratification by only a few additional states was needed to add the amendment to the Constitution.
In Houston the liberals were full of confidence and open to everything, not just the ERA. At the Pro-Life Rally in Houston where Schlafly was a keynote speaker she felt an instant change in public mood: the left went too far, she argued, and “sealed its own doom by deliberately hanging around its neck the albatross of abortion, lesbianism, pornography and federal control.” Schlafly proved right; the percentage of American women backing the ERA fell from 67 in 1976 to 48 two years later, when Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler were organizing their coup in the Southern Baptist Convention. Citing polls as he goes, Wuthnow charts the rise of the Republican right in Texas, eroding and then erasing support for the rights of women and minorities on a host of issues. Sometimes the right stumbled, as Clayton Williams did with a throwaway remark about rape during his campaign for governor against Ann Richards in 1990—“As long as it is inevitable you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” Williams lost but noted later that his campaign had a lasting effect—“I made it OK for Bubba to vote Republican.”
Bubba was ready for a Republican when George W. Bush attacked Richards in 1994 for spending public money on abortion, teaching about contraception in public schools, and providing benefits for the gay partners of state employees. J. Frank Norris could have written Bush’s speeches. Bubba was against all of those things and gave Republican Bush 53 percent of the vote.
The specific issues attacked by the Christian right in recent decades, and which liberals have scrambled to defend, all come with strong feelings that explain the heat of battle. But on the evidence of his book I would say that the issues one-by-one are not what explain the immense labor Wuthnow has devoted to researching and writing Rough Country. He poses “the central question of interest to scholars of society—why is inequality as durable as it is?” His painstaking study of religion in Texas delivers a direct and simple answer: “The decisive factor was exclusion from political power.”
Texas is a state of dramatic inequalities—between white and black, between Anglo and Latino, between rich and poor, between men and women. White male non-Hispanics with money run the show and have a history of vigorous action to retain control—a fact amply demonstrated in Rough Country. Texans fought a civil war to keep their slaves, then excluded African-Americans from the vote with physical violence, poll taxes, intimidating literacy tests, and a legally sanctioned, whites-only Democratic primary. Voter ID laws enacted in recent years have the same transparent purpose—to intimidate and exclude. Votes for women were resisted for decades and efforts by the state to discourage, limit, or ban abortion have been unrelenting and appear close to success.
The example of Texas poses a problem for sociologists. Traditional “secularization theory,” Wuthnow notes, predicted a gradual and steady decline in the importance of religion “as societies developed and modernized,” something that conspicuously failed to happen in Texas despite the plain fact that it is hard to think of a region of the country where ordinary life was tougher at the start or modernized in material ways more dramatically. To explain the failure of their theory sociologists have posited a new way of thinking about religion, defining it as an economy, something roughly like commercial real estate activity in cities. In Texas competition was vigorous and churches with a clear and simple biblical message—no pussyfooting!—expanded and flourished.
H.L. Mencken in 1928 was convinced that “the Rev. Dr. Two-Gun Norris” was a dinosaur destined for the fossil beds. Along with most leaders of the Democratic Party in Texas, Mencken thought Al Smith was going to brush aside Baptist objections and allowed himself a further hope, that “the time-worn political system of the late Confederate states [was] booked for an overhauling.” The Democrats were wrong on the first count, Mencken on both.
The quarrels then and now all seem to be about religion, but Wuthnow offers convincing evidence that something else is ultimately at stake in arguments about God: questions of political and social control. In the South, he finds, the new Republican Party wants exactly what the old Democratic Party wanted for a hundred years—power to control people of color, Latinos, women, tax policy, who judges the law, who issues the regulations, who maps voting districts, and, oh yes, whether it’s okay to put a Nativity scene on the State House lawn. Is there any sign that the party and the Southern Baptist Convention are losing their hold on Texas and the South? Not that I can see.