How Religion Turned Texas Red

Conventional wisdom says Texas went Republican when the Democrats endorsed civil rights. Historian Robert Wuthnow says the shift started much earlier and was driven by religion.

Everything is bigger in Texas—and that includes its complicated history of religion, politics, and race.

That complicated history has been met by a commensurately large tome from Princeton social scientist Robert Wuthnow in the exhaustive Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State.

Wuthnow charts the thorny history of Texas as the state made the transition from member of the Confederacy to frontier state and Democratic stronghold and thereafter to Republican bastion, sugar daddy, and progenitor of two of the last four presidents. The swing may have been less wild than that documented by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas, but arguably Texas was and is more important.

Brimming with intriguing and enlightening information, anecdotes, and statistics, Rough Country will satisfy anyone curious about how and why Texas became the staunch red state we know so well.

Wuthnow extensively covers the institutionalization of racism through churches, Texas’s unique origin story, the Catholic Church and Latino political organizing, as well as current politicians such as Rick Perry. He also spends considerable space pushing back convincingly on the understanding that the rise of the state’s Religious Right came about in response to liberals. His section on the battle over evolution and the power of the Scofield Reference Bible is particularly instructive for anyone grappling with the contemporary debate over climate change.

However, his coverage of one issue in particular—when, how, and why did the South in general and Texas in particular go Republican—makes this book indispensible.

Still hotly debated by historians, the shift’s importance is more than mere intellectual chatter. It contains lessons and potentially answers for those trying to ignite a second political revolution in a demographically changing region. Perhaps no state was more key to that first shift than Texas, and there is no doubt about the centrality of Texas for the next one.

The many oversimplified explanations of the transition from Democratic to Republican stronghold can be found in mainstream discourse and on Sunday talk shows. Few are as pervasive and as neatly packaged as the narrative arguing that Southern whites fled the Democratic Party because of civil rights and that poor conservative whites have been hoodwinked by rich men into voting for anti-government policies.

There can be no doubt that race was a significant factor in Texas turning Republican. Similarly, there are certainly wealthy individuals supporting the conservative movement who stand to benefit from an anti-government agenda.

Wuthnow, however, complicates those two narratives, widening the lens and showing that the shift was due in large part to religion—that the electorate was shifting nearly a half-century before civil rights, and that the anti-government, anti-welfare mindset took root because of Texas’s particular brand of Christianity.

The first major shift towards the Republican Party in Texas came with Prohibition. It represented one of the earliest occasions in which the state’s religious leaders—who had long eschewed politics—exerted their influence. Wuthnow writes, “The issue that began significantly to redefine previous understandings of the relationship between religion and politics more than any other was prohibition.” He points out that it was one of the first times in Texas that a significant number of prominent religious organizations and pastors pondered direct endorsement of candidates based on a political position.

The second major shift came with the 1928 nomination of Al Smith for the Democratic presidential nomination. Smith was not only Catholic—which fed into long-standing paranoia in Texas about the Church—but also was believed to be “wet” (opposed to prohibition). Texas, which voted overwhelmingly Democratic, went into political turmoil as some advocated opposing Smith because he was “wet” and a Catholic. Smith would go on to lose Texas by about 26,000 votes, making him the first Democrat ever to lose in the state. Voters went against him even despite Democratic attempts to portray Hoover as a supporter of racial equality.

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Wuthnow also expands on the simplistic understanding of Texas’s love affair with “small government,” laying bare the roots of that impulse in the type of Christianity practiced in Texas. Protestants in Texas, particularly Southern Baptists, he argues, had traditionally held to three big religious tenets: evil was a real and present danger, self-help was essential, and liberty of conscience was of the utmost importance. All three could be traced to the Texan origin story, when religious institutions provided stability in a dangerous frontier, self-sufficiency was required, and the Mexican Catholic Church was seen as the oppressor.

The fear of evil was important—it meant Texans were more amenable to morality arguments, whether the topic of discussion was birth control or economic policy. It meant they were more comfortable with framing the fight with communism in such a manner, and that they also believed things went wrong in the world because there was evil afoot.

While the 1964 election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater is now memorialized for the stark contrast in terms of civil rights, Wuthnow argues that another issue was at least as prominent, if not more so—morality. He contends that the frequent use of the word, and the framing of political decisions in terms of those who were worried about morality and those who were not, laid the groundwork for Republicans to smash liberals with the issue in later elections. In Texas, for instance, the Dallas Morning News wrote 9,921 articles that included the words “moral,” “morals,” or “morality” between 1960 and 1969. Homosexuality was suddenly an issue, most notably when LBJ’s personal aide Walter Jenkins was arrested while with another man at the YMCA just a few blocks from the White House. As crime became seen as a national issue, fingers pointed to immorality, which was the disease eating away at how America supposedly used to be.

While the Tea Party activists’ anti-government screeds may have shocked some political observers in 2010, Wuthnow unearths longstanding dissatisfaction with government welfare in Texas. He argues that as far back as the ’30s, electoral support for Franklin D. Roosevelt masked local opposition to many of his welfare policies that were believed to fly in the face of the self-sufficiency espoused by Texan Christianity. The skepticism Texans applied to government welfare came from the conviction that “God helps those who help themselves,” and many leaders openly worried about the deleterious effects of welfare on the industriousness of citizens.

In addition, many Texans believed that the role of helping the indigent belonged to the church. As one preacher declared, “Many millions are trusting in no God other than the government’s bread basket.” That mindset would make Texans far more predisposed to policies that spoke about placing agency in the hands of individuals as well as arguments that welfare actually hurt poor people.

As churches and leaders saw an encroaching federal government as a threat to the traditional church roles (as well as possible meddling in internal church affairs), the steadfast principle of liberty of conscience also pushed a lot of religious leaders to lean away from an expanding federal government.

Its heft may scare away some casual readers, but Rough Country is surprisingly accessible. Using the stories of the colorful men and women who drove Texas history, Wuthnow injects surprising life into such normally tame subjects as political theory or statistics about household incomes and the racial breakdowns of counties. For anyone looking to dive into the big, knotty history of one of the most iconic states, this book is well worth the time.