Review: Making the Bible Belt

Michael Phillips

Professor of History at Collin County Community College

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Michael Phillips, "Review: Making the Bible Belt," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Joseph L. Locke. Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 283 pp.  ISBN: 9780190216283.

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Joseph L. Locke’s eye-opening monograph shatters erroneous and too-long-held assumptions regarding the role of religion in Texas political history.  Locke argues that H.L. Mencken’s 1920s dismissal of the American South as the “Bible Belt,” a region where fundamentalist preachers erased the division between church and state and profoundly shaped, if not dictated, law and custom in the former Confederacy, only approaches the reality in Texas beginning with the World War I era.  Mencken’s simplistic depiction of the South as a backward theocracy tucked inside American borders, Locke argues, has exerted a baleful influence on subsequent scholarship and punditry over the last nine decades.   


The South as a whole might be “Christ-haunted,” as Flannery O’Connor once put it, but Locke skillfully demonstrates that for much of its history Texas was not uniformly so.  He dates the origin of the Bible Belt to the Prohibition movement’s political victories from 1910 to 1920.  Nevertheless, he writes, even as fundamentalists achieved political hegemony, the state remained home to a Babel of religious voices. 


Locke recovers the state’s boisterous theological late-nineteenth-century past, a time when “[t]heological diversity, institutional rivalries, and organizational disunity” diminished the policy influence of major Protestant denominations like the Methodists and Southern Baptists (19).  For much of the nineteenth century, atheists, free-thinkers, heterodox preachers, and religious liberals attracted large audiences. Locke depicts nineteenth-century Texas as shaped by what he calls “anti-clericalism,” the deeply-held notion that ministers should stay out of politics on the grounds that the involvement of clergy in political matters threatened the kind of theocratic tyranny seen in medieval Europe and in the witch trials of Salem.   


Post-Civil War, many white Texans also associated politically active clergy with an abolitionist movement still reviled for decades after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Texas anti-clericals positioned themselves as heirs to religious liberty advocates like Thomas Jefferson, and tapped into popular prejudices against the Catholic Church and Islam, which they depicted as imposing doctrines on helpless, captive populations.  The anti-clericals dominated the state’s political discourse from the late 1860s until the rise of Progressivism at the dawn of the twentieth century.   


Swimming against these currents, some Texas preachers ventured into politics, campaigning for Prohibition in the 1880s only to suffer a series of humiliating defeats, from a loss in a local option election in McLennan County in 1885 to the resounding rejection of a prohibition amendment to the state constitution in 1887. Most ministers in the state, it seemed, preferred to focus on saving souls instead of exorcising “demon rum.”  


Utilizing a wide array of archival sources, including the papers of major religious leaders such as Baptist preacher J.B. Cranfill and Methodist minister and educator Edward Mouzon, Locke demonstrates how the Prohibitionist clergy recovered from defeat to emerge as the dominant political force in Texas at the time of World War I.  For a time, Protestant churches focused on institution building.  Rather than standing in persistent opposition to the modern world, they established a firm foothold in developing Texas cities.  Leading preachers took advantage of the era’s most advanced technology to promote their vision of a world redeemed through Christian activism.   


Baptists and Methodists expanded and improved Baylor University, which merged with Waco University in 1887, while also establishing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth in 1908, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1915.  These colleges and universities professionalized the state’s clergy.  A more sophisticated clergy, in turn, presided over growing bureaucracies that printed denominational newspapers and published books that addressed not just spiritual matters, but political ones as well.  Clerical authors wrote popular books that spun historical myths portraying the Texas revolutionary leaders in the 1830s as zealous men of God battling heathen forces.  Preacher-authors presented state founders, such as Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, as role models for Progressive Era preachers fighting to shutter saloons or to ban Darwin from the classroom.  


Anti-clericalism provided churches in the late nineteenth century with a useful nemesis.  Preachers like J.B. Cranfill and J. Frank Norris, even as the pews in their churches filled in the late 1800s and early 1900s, created a sense of shared grievance at the sinful world and a common sense of mission to save it not just through prayer, but through the vote as well.  All that was needed for the emerging activist clergy to reshape Texas law was a skilled politician, who arrived in the person of Morris Sheppard, who represented the state in the U.S. House from 1903 to 1913 and the United States Senate from 1913 to 1941. In 1917, Sheppard introduced in the Senate a resolution proposing the Eighteenth Amendment, which would ban the manufacture and distribution of alcohol in the United States. 


A gifted storyteller, Locke introduces us to a wide range of colorful figures and reminds readers of the little-known Texas connections of major Prohibitionist leaders like Carrie Nation and Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler, who achieved greater fame as the pastor of Los Angeles mega-churches and as a controversial radio broadcaster. As Locke notes, what happened in Texas didn’t stay in Texas.  The Prohibition Movement paved the way for the rise of the Christian Right that would realign parties and transform American politics nationally beginning in the 1970s.  This nuanced volume should be read closely not just by historians of American religion, but political scientists and sociologists as well.