“Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State“ By Robert Wuthnow.Princeton University Press; 654 pages.
TEXANS miss few opportunities to boast of their history. The capsule version, peddled by politicians and populists, is as follows. Inspired by the deaths of a small band of fighters at the Alamo in 1836, Texans wrested their land from Mexican rule.
Texas duly became an independent republic for nearly ten years, before joining the United States in 1845. This independence, brief as it was, left a legacy of freedom-loving self-reliance that is the stuff of today’s endless mythologising.
Reality, of course, is muddier, as Robert Wuthnow shows in his commanding sociological history of this fast-growing state. He begins his tale with the “strange and desperate men” (in the words of a mid-19th-century traveller) who settled in the remote flatlands of Texas.
“Rough Country” marches methodically through every major historical event, from the civil war and Reconstruction to the turbulent 1960s and the rise of the Tea Party, examining how they shaped the state’s approach to race, political power and religion. A non-Texan professor from Princeton, Mr Wuthnow offers a clear-eyed view of the lingering legacies of slavery and segregation, matters that many Texans today prefer to pass over in favour of Alamo heroics.
Mr Wuthnow’s particular interest is religion, and he sets out to trace the emergence of Texas as “America’s most powerful Bible-Belt state”. It has twice as many Southern Baptists, a powerful conservative bloc, as any other state–which is perhaps unsurprising given its size–and politicians like Rick Perry, the governor, do not hesitate to call for prayer to fix drought or other ills. Dallas is sometimes known as the “buckle of the Bible Belt”, though there is competition for the honour.
So large and powerful did the city’s First Baptist Church become that by 1976 one writer had dubbed it the “big old ruby” in the Bible Belt’s buckle. The church’s preachers have long railed against abortion, homosexuality and America’s moral decline–though by 1968 one legendary pastor of yore, W.A. Criswell, had at least recanted his opposition to forced racial integration.
Texan churches did not always wield such political heft. A century and more ago, Protestant pastors largely stayed out of politics. They were wary of church-state entanglements, so tended instead to their flocks’ basic needs. It was Prohibition, for which many clergy campaigned before the first world war, that galvanised the church’s involvement in politics, Mr Wuthnow argues.
By the 1960s, as federal officials forced racial integration onto a state that had once sanctioned whites-only primaries, some Texan pastors began inveighing against government interference. Few white clergy in Texas spoke out against lynchings, Mr Wuthnow writes, and one estimate from 1922 suggested that half the state’s clergy backed the Ku Klux Klan. During the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, churches were neither “leader” nor “laggard”, Mr Wuthnow says, though Methodists were quicker than Baptists to embrace desegregation.
Mr Wuthnow raps today’s religious leaders for paying limited attention to inequality and poverty in this Tea Party age. He quotes one west Texas pastor who says, “I think that there are Christians who get more riled up about higher taxes than they do about abortion.”
“Rough Country” is not a ripping page-turner. Mr Wuthnow proceeds with an academic’s careful deliberation through historical episodes large and small, national and local. But his research, much of it culled from the archives of Texan publications, is exhaustive, and his command of data impressive, from the changing number of clergy in Texas to the growth of livestock handling in the Fort Worth stockyards more than a century ago. There are nuggets on every page, for historians, journalists, clergy and policymakers.
Nor is this book simply of interest to Texans. The state’s story, Mr Wuthnow writes, closely parallels that of America itself. Yes, Texas is growing faster than much of America, and it has a more powerful set of religious conservatives prone to clashes with moderates and Catholics.
But the currents and cross-currents that have roiled Texas have swept across other states, too. Those who want to understand America’s peculiarities, from its legacy of slavery to its powerful megachurches and its battles over the content of school textbooks, will find a welcome resource here.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist