I am a Texan. We Texans believe you can’t understand us unless you have grown up as we have on Friday-night football and been saved in a tent revival. Growing up in Texas, I assumed that the world was made up of Jews, gentiles, and Texans. There were people “out there” called “Yankees,” but I did not encounter any of them until I left for graduate school.
Texans pride themselves on being a contradictory people who are not easily understood. If you think you know who we are, you have probably let some faux Texans like those of the Bush family confuse you. Texas men like to confound their detractors often by exposing a soft side that is as genuine as it is unexpected from someone who has just ridden a brahma bull. Texas women may seem quite subservient to Texas men, until you get close enough to see who is making all the important decisions.
I have no idea if Robert Wuthnow is a Texan, but if only those born in Texas understand the state, he must be. I confess to having read this book on faith and Texas by the distinguished sociologist of religion autobiographically. I grew up listening to the radio stations that broadcast evangelists at 75,000 watts from Villa Acuña, Mexico which was the town opposite Del Rio, Texas. During my teen years, ?W. A. Criswell dominated Dallas. Before you went to a movie on Saturday night, you and your date first went to First Baptist to be told what Jesus wanted you not to do. We may have been Methodists, but we knew that the Southern Baptists set the norms for how we were to live. Dancing at the senior prom was highly suspect.
Wuthnow explains how the churches became so strong in such a wild and unforgiving landscape, along with how religion turned Texas into our leading conservative state. After all, Texans have long mistrusted government, their conservatism being more a libertarian “leave-me-alone” than George W. Bush’s compassionate variety. Still, Wuthnow observes, “a rough country could easily turn out rough people if corrective measures were not taken to restrain the worst aspects of human nature. The true challenge was ensuring that civilization would prevail.” Texans are “rough” and it is by no means clear that, at least in some parts of the state, Texans have ever been “civilized.”
The story unfolds in anecdotes, a method that makes Wuthnow sound more like a historian than a sociologist. True, in the afterword of Rough Country he provides a concise, illuminating account of theories in the sociology of religion that have informed his presentation of the materials in this book, but in the book proper the tales carry the burden of proof. Those theories, which he identifies as theories of secularization, rational choice, and practice orientation, are kept in the background as he chronicles his main theme of the role of religion in the Lone Star State.
He begins the story after the Civil War when Texas was populated by people seeking new opportunities because of the destruction of their old way of life. By doing so he misses an opportunity to show just how harsh life was for the early Texans—a harshness that surely shaped the character of the state. But by beginning with Reconstruction, Wuthnow is able to establish a theme that runs throughout Rough Country. In this telling, the story of Texas and the story of the religious shaping of Texas turn on a third factor, race. As Wuthnow shows, what we have witnessed in Texas since the end of Reconstruction is a century and a half in which white non-Hispanics attained and maintained greater privileges than African Americans and Hispanics. Sadly, religion often played a vital role in sustaining this political and social dominance by whites.
Wuthnow calls attention to one disturbing case, the murder in 1869 of B. W. Loveland and the subsequent hanging of Jake Johnson, an African American who had been seen in the vicinity of Loveland’s store. The evidence against Johnson was extremely weak but that did not prevent his being hanged. Wuthnow observes religion had given Loveland a “mark of respectability,” which meant Johnson was viewed as representing the unreliable because his “kind” were subject to worldly temptations.
The complicity of the church in that judicial murder, Wuthnow suggests, exposes the dubious part religion played in the Texan past. The church may have seen its role as one of civilizing a necessarily harsh social order, but in truth it only perpetuated the victimization of an already degraded black population. That same social order, often with the blessing of the church, not only tolerated the Klan but also refused to challenge the widespread use of lynching as a mode of intimidation and repression. Protestants often saw the Klan as an ally in the fight against alcohol as well as Catholicism.
Southern Baptists led the way. Early on, Methodists actually outnumbered the Baptists, Wuthnow notes, but the Methodist penchant for moving clergy every few years did not encourage Methodist clergy to be entrepreneurs. That was left to the Baptists, who soon outnumbered the practitioners of all other forms of Christianity. Texans often observe that there seem to be more Baptists in Texas than people.
The irony, of course, is that the social and political power of the Baptists belied their conviction that a strong separation between church and state must be maintained. Baptists would criticize “liberals” for becoming involved in politics, but Baptists supported conservative political candidates who promised to resist integration and eventually encouraged the decisive shift of the state from Democrat to Republican loyalty, enthusiastically endorsing Ronald Reagan. At the center of this part of his story Wuthnow places ?W. A. Criswell, the pastor of the largest Baptist church in Texas, First Baptist Church of Dallas. Criswell was a vigorous opponent of integration during the years the civil rights movement was gaining ground, often preaching that the place of Ham in God’s plan of salvation meant the races were to be kept separate. He later acknowledged he had been wrong to oppose integration but he continued to be the standard bearer for conservative causes.
Criswell’s story is one of the many ways Wuthnow helps us understand how the Baptists, people who allegedly thought religion and politics should not mix, worked to make Texas the standard bearer for the religious right. When, in 1980, Reagan addressed the Baptists assembled in Dallas, stating that he understood they could not endorse him but he could endorse them, Baptists dropped all pretense that they were not political. The politics of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in particular, the political takeover of the Convention by Paige Patterson and Judge Pressler in the 1980s, Wuthnow persuasively shows, played a decisive role in making Texas a Republican state.
Patterson and Pressler were men that played for keeps. They not only led a populist insurgency against the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, they also began to develop institutions that would ensure the long lasting effect of their conservative agenda. That Patterson became dean of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth is an indication that these men recognized they are in a long fight. The clergy trained at Southwestern have shaped and will shape the future by being established in churches across Texas. The enemy is out there, as the Roe v. Wade decision makes clear. Equally to be opposed are the feminist and homosexual agendas.
I have only been able to mention a few of the characters that populate Wuthnow’s story. It seems, therefore, small-minded to criticize him for missing some that might have made his narrative more complex. I am thinking of people like Ernie Cortez, an organizer whose faith shapes his leadership of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation. Calling attention to Cortez would not fundamentally change Wuthnow’s story line, but it would suggest that there are in Texas more progressive movements that have some religious support than Wuthnow’s account suggests.
I am grateful to Wuthnow for helping me better understand the world that produced me. But all readers will, I believe, find amid the details that make this such a rich book an important account of the complex role religion has played and continues to play in American life.