When you think of Texas, images of gunslingers and cowpokes and rodeos may come to mind. But Robert Wuthnow, chair of the sociology department at Princeton University, has visions of Texas that stretch well beyond stereotypes. In his new book, “Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State,” Wuthnow says that Americans can’t ignore Texas or its religiosity. In fact, the two together create a powerful force that influences us all.
RNS: Give me three good reasons that the Texas’ religion should matter to me or the rest of the country.
RW: The first reason is politics. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor, is gearing up for another run at becoming President. Ted Cruz has made more news than any junior senator from his party in recent history. Former Congressman Dick Armey’s Freedom Works significantly contributed to the Tea Party’s national success. These leaders credit religion with guiding their policies and furthering their careers.
Second, understanding the Religious Right requires understanding Texas religion. The story that features Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson misses a lot. Texas reveals a longer and more complicated trajectory. The Texas story includes prominent conservative preachers favoring Barry Goldwater in 1964, mobilizing opposition to abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, supporting Gerald Ford in 1976, giving Ronald Reagan a platform in 1980, and organizing the “bubba vote” for George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Third, the history of American fundamentalism is lopsided without Texas. The standard narrative focuses on northern developments with a few offshoots in the Deep South and Southern California. The Texas story brings the Scofield Bible, dispensational theology, the political activism of fundamentalist J. Frank Norris, and conflicts within the powerful Southern Baptist Convention into clearer focus. Twice as many evangelicals and fundamentalists live in Texas than in any other state.
RNS: You say that Texas has influenced every presidential election for 50 years? Isn’t this just a function of the sheer size of the state?