Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State

Robert Wuthnow Examines God’s Role in Texas Politics in Rough Country


A version of this story ran in the October 2014 issue.

Above: Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State
By Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press
654 pages; $39.50

It would be easy for a casual observer of Texas religion and politics—particularly one who is young, secular or a newcomer to the state—to assume that conservative Christianity has always been allied with powerful Texas Republicans and motivated primarily by social issues. In fact, such alliances are only a few decades old, though they’re facilitated by deeply held values that have shaped Texas history from its beginning. In Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, Princeton sociologist and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Religion Robert Wuthnow examines religion’s influence on Texas politics and the ways in which the state’s geography and culture have affected its dominant religions. Texas’ unique situation as a frontier state, a Southern state, a border state, an enormous state and an oil-rich state have all shaped its religious profile.

Rough Country begins on the Texas frontier, where clergy in small churches, generally Baptist and Methodist, counseled the devout about personal salvation and mostly stayed out of politics. Later, as Southern Baptists came to dominate the religious landscape, particular ministers and churches assumed positions of political and cultural influence that presaged the role of today’s megachurch leaders. (An especially interesting case study is Dallas’ First Baptist Church, which counted nearly 22,000 members in 1980, and was led by the outspoken W.A. Criswell from 1944 to 2002.)

As Texas’ population grew, its Southern history injected the challenge of race relations into both the statehouse and the church house. Clergy and congregations—both black and white—grappled with slavery, emancipation, segregation, lynching, anti-lynching legislation, poll taxes and civil rights activism. Meanwhile, religion influenced Texans’ response to other historical moments, including the push for Prohibition, anti-Catholic suspicion of presidential candidates Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, mixed feelings about the New Deal, and an enduring fear of communism.

“There was implicit agreement that morality was deeply relevant to political discussions, only disagreement about how morality should be defined.”

Wuthnow identifies several concepts that have motivated religious Texans throughout the state’s history: liberty of conscience, separation of church and state, mistrust of the federal government, and defense of morality. The definitions of these concepts, of course, vary with the speaker and with the times. Thus separation of church and state can mean, as it did in the state’s early days, that clergy had no business speaking directly about government matters or holding office. Or it could mean, as interpreted more recently, that the state should refrain from sanctioning practices that some religious people find objectionable, such as legal abortion, same-sex marriage and insurance coverage for contraception.

Wuthnow’s elaboration on the point of morality is especially illuminating. In the context of the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater and general anxiety about tumultuous social changes, he writes, “Morality was the language in which citizens expressed concern that something they did not quite understand was terribly wrong.” Johnson was already associated with welfare programs run by the distant federal government, of which Texans had been suspicious since Reconstruction. While opposition to welfare programs was partly rooted in fiscal conservatism, it also served as a proxy for opposition to the integration that Johnson supported. In October 1964, Johnson’s principal administrative assistant, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for partaking in “indecent gestures” with another man in a public restroom. The Goldwater campaign seized on the incident as proof of the country’s moral decay. A few weeks later, a group of prominent clergy released a statement objecting to the way that “morality” was being defined in the campaign and suggesting that social justice, peace and civil rights issues were of greater moral concern than Jenkins’ indiscretion. “There was implicit agreement that morality was deeply relevant to political discussions,” Wuthnow writes, “only disagreement about how morality should be defined.”

Rough Country’s analysis concludes in 2012, well into Rick Perry’s governorship and after his failed bid for the presidency. Were an addendum to be written, it might focus on the so-called Texas economic miracle and the influx of immigrants to Texas cities from other states. Throughout the book, Wuthnow emphasizes that aside from its size and natural resources, Texas should be considered a microcosm of the United States, rather than a national exception. Nonetheless, the combination of the state’s geographical context, history and religious culture has created a distinctly Texan mindset that prioritizes local control and moral authority. As more people move to Texas from other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, how will they shape its identity and influence as a Bible Belt state? Do new residents absorb Texas’ frontier mentality and emphasis on liberty of conscience, or do they dilute it?

The titular phrase “rough country” appears in numerous quotes referencing the difficulty of life in frontier-era Texas, and you can argue that, for many people, Texas is still rough. Our modern frontiers encompass the state’s relationship to its immigrant population, the effects of economic inequality on education and public health, and environmental challenges like persistent drought. These are issues about which religion is not exactly silent, but neither is it especially vocal. How Texans address these challenges, and how they define their moral justification for doing so, will depend in part on whether people of faith become pioneers on these new frontiers.