Review: Rough Country
Robert Wuthnow. Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 654 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-15989-8.
“Texas is America’s most powerful Bible-Belt state,” Robert Wuthnow writes in Rough Country, undoubtedly the most important and sophisticated study of Texas’s long religious history (5).
Wuthnow’s most immediate contribution, perhaps, is simply to wrench Texas history out from under itself. Texas is too often the orphan child of American historiography. If historians of American religion have pored over southern California’s fundamentalist fiefdoms, for instance, they have devoted comparatively little sustained attention to the state that in this infant century alone has already given the nation George W. Bush’s faith-based presidency, Rick Perry’s political prayer rallies, Ted Cruz’s Tea Party obstructionism, and Christian nationalist David Barton’s perpetual war on American history standards. And yet, rather than studying Texas for its peculiarities, Wuthnow believes “Texas is better imagined as a case study in which much that characterizes all of America—albeit refracted differently in each locale—can be seen” (444–445).
Wuthnow writes with a confidence born of experience. He hardly feels compelled to shoehorn religion into a leading historical role—preferring rather, a “more complex story” (371). As a sociologist, he “eschew[s] the idea of grand empirical generalizations and focus[es] greater attention on the complexity of social processes and the contextual contingencies involved” (457). He wants to see how religion, race, politics, and power interweave, and he believes a state-level study can look at the “particular social circumstances in which religious developments occur” (482). Thus, in Rough Country, religion alternately shapes and is shaped by broader trends and social forces. When surveying 150 years of racial inequality, for instance, Wuthnow observes, “religion was seldom a determining factor in any of these policies but contributed to all of them” (445). In reference to the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, Wuthnow explains, “religion was neither the leader that some hoped it would be nor the laggard that it often seemed” (302).
And yet, for all of its 654 pages, Rough Country is still a mad dash through a century and a half of Texas religious history. Drawing mostly from contemporary daily newspaper accounts, Wuthnow’s narrative generally follows the state’s white Protestant establishment and its rotating cast of male leaders through issues, controversies, organizations, institutions, political candidates, and elections: churches are built; schools and denominational structures are organized; segregation is codified; lynching becomes epidemic; prohibition is won and lost; fundamentalism is fostered; dispensationalism is created and promulgated; evolution is fought; Al Smith’s 1928 presidential bid is defeated; religious welfare organizations struggle to stem the effects of economic collapse; clergymen preach against communism; farmworkers protest; revivalists spark a Cold War religion; anxious observers worry about public morality; leaders hesitate to embrace civil rights; the appearance of integration, abortion, homosexuality, and women’s rights fuel reaction; religious leaders reinterpret “liberty of conscience” as an offensive political tool; and activists move into the electoral arena behind Ronald Reagan and two George Bushes before exploding into Tea Party politics. Throughout it all, debates about morality are argued, racial divisions are drawn, moral standards are proffered, and a world is redefined by its faith.
Wuthnow approaches Texas history in part on its own folkloric terms. He argues that nineteenth-century Texans confronted a vast “rough country,” a harsh land lacking in infrastructure, wracked by disease, and ravaged by lawlessness. In the struggle against this seeming “roughness,” Wuthnow writes, the state became a wilderness to be won for civilization, morality, and God. Wuthnow’s Texans, then, are self-proclaimed civilizers rather than pioneers. They are, in his account, institution-builders borne along on a “sea of uncertainty and danger” (53). And out of their struggles emerged the habits and mindsets that set patterns for the future. Importantly, not only the “harsh realities of frontier life,” but racial anxieties in the aftermath of abolition and the political turmoil of Reconstruction imbued white religious leaders with the particular faith that they carried through 150 years of clumsy racial entanglements (448).
While Wuthnow’s episodic narrative ranges widely across time, it nevertheless returns to key themes: the tragedy of American race relations, the continual redefinition and deployment of moral norms, the enduring power of Southern Baptists, the belief in a “liberty of conscience,” the allure of politics, and the never-ending evolution of standards for the creation of an “us” and a “them.” Yet despite ample opportunities, Wuthnow attributes few hateful or malicious motives to his subjects. Far less strident than its subtitle suggests, this work will disappoint those who expect a train of radical conservative provocateurs. Instead, Wuthnow typically portrays his subjects as earnest and sincere. In his telling, social tragedies seem most often born of unforeseen consequences rooted in a myopic “rough country” individualism ill-suited for anything other than a nineteenth-century frontier.
By pulling Texas’s peculiar history into a national narrative, Wuthnow hopes to shift dominant accounts of American religious history in ways that can accommodate Texas’s peculiar experience. Wuthnow’s sweeping history is, of course, not a complete account of Texas’s religious history, either in its chronology or in the diversity of its subjects. But then, it is not meant to be. Wuthnow seeks instead to account for the raw power of Texas’s red state religion and he has undertaken that massive task with all of the skill expected of such an accomplished scholar.