Texas: The Southern Baptists in Power

Magnum Photos
First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, 1990; photograph by Hiroji Kubota

“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…

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