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3 ways Texas’ religion affects us all

Texas is not just a giant land mass filled with religious people in 10-gallon hats. It is also America's most influential Bible-belt state. - Photo of Texas Governor Rick Perry by Ed Shipul (
Texas is not just a giant land mass filled with religious people in 10-gallon hats. It is also America's most influential Bible-belt state. - Photo of Texas Governor Rick Perry by Ed Shipul (

Texas is not just a giant land mass filled with religious people in 10-gallon hats. It is also America’s most influential Bible-belt state. – Photo of Texas Governor Rick Perry by Ed Shipul (

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.

Courtesy of Princeton University Press

Courtesy of Princeton University Press

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?

RW: It is partly a function of size. But New York and California are populous as well and yet have not had the sustained influence on presidential elections that Texas has had. Besides the fact that three of the state’s native sons–LBJ and the two Bushes–were presidents, Texas played a pivotal role in Kennedy’s election in 1960, fueled support for Ford in 1976, helped Reagan win in 1980 and 1984, and in the past decade has provided support for conservative candidates in Republican primaries.

RNS: Name one way Texans influence and view of government has shaped actual public policy and people?

RW: My assistants and I interviewed two hundred clergy and lay leaders in Texas. The interviews revealed something that people of faith in other states should understand. These leaders were not (with a few exceptions) racists. They claimed to care about the poor. But, with their support, socially and fiscally conservative Republicans nearly always won.

African Americans, Hispanics, and lower-income white Anglos more often voted for candidates of the other party who they regarded as more sympathetic toward the poor. Those candidates rarely won. The religious leaders we talked to would not have said they were trying to disenfranchise the poor. But that was the inadvertent consequence.

RNS: Has Texas’ growing Hispanic population made a difference? 

RW: It has expanded the state’s Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches, thus adding to the state’s religious diversity. The Hispanic vote has been heavily Democratic, reinforcing speculation that Texas politics are trending purple, if not blue. However, gerrymandering and what critics describe as voter suppression have substantially weakened that trend. The white Anglo evangelical Protestant vote has been heavily Republican.

RNS: Despite influencing it, many Texans resent the federal government. How has this bled over into the rest of the country? 

RW: Texas was an independent republic before it was a state, which puts the twinkle in their eyes when leaders–half in jest– remark about secession. Resentment toward the federal government dates especially to Reconstruction and continued during the long decades of frontier settlement when citizens largely had to develop their own grassroots institutions. The Depression and the New Deal modified that sentiment somewhat, but the oil interests that became influential in the state increasingly resisted federal intervention in the form of taxes and regulations.

Protecting religious freedom has been an important part of the story as well. Texas leaders can argue–sometimes persuasively–that other states and the US as a whole would flourish economically and perhaps morally if the size of government was scaled back and good-hearted citizens were left to fend for themselves.

*RELATED: For more info on the religious diversity of Texas and other states, check out the new PRRI/SSRS “American Values Atlas” at


About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Enjoyed the article very much and was surprised at your accurate insights to the religious history of Texas. I particularly was impressed that you and your staff were able to discern that while the Texas fundamentalists were certainly conservative, they were not all racists – especially as regards blacks. If Texan fundamentalists could be charged with racism at all, it would be towards the Mexicans in far west Texas where I was located.

    I am a direct spiritual descendant of J. Frank Norris, though he had passed away a few years before I was converted to Christ in Big Spring, TX. But I moved into an association of fundamentalist churches [World Baptist Fellowship] which had been established by J. Frank Norris. I would end up attending that school and there I would meet the son of the elder Norris, Dr. George Norris, who was then a leading academic at the Bible Baptist Seminary which had been established by his father.

    One reason that I write is to clarify a distinction between J. Frank Norris and his son Dr. George Norris. Dr. George, my pastor and mentor in the faith, was NOT much like his bombastic father at all. In our years together, he shared his chagrin at the effect his famous father had had on their family, and suffice it to say, Dr. George was not supportive of the dangerous antics of his father [J. Frank had shot a man in his downtown Ft. Worth church office in self-defense].

    Surprisingly, while Dr. George Norris retains many of his father’s influences and views [dispensationalism for one, much to my own chagin], his views on a personal level were surprisingly liberal [perhaps moderate might be a better word]. I have always attributed that to the fact that he was educated in the far north, first at the University of Michigan and then Wheaton College in suburban Chicago. I think those years had the effect of moderating his politics, though not his fundamentalist faith. It was through his potent influence that I became a Calvinistic Baptist, a thing at that point not all that common. Fifty years later, I remain a Calvinistic Baptist and the movement has grown exponentially so that now even the SBC is heavily influenced by that view.

    I could talk all day but I won’t bore you. It was fun reading your remarks.

  • The Texas story brings the Scofield Bible, dispensational theology, the political activism of fundamentalist –

    I suppose Lutherans can forgive Texas for the above..
    as long as there not the blame for all of the Baptist theology ..
    we have to deal with..

    and to think
    I use to like Texas..
    this is all very disheartening ..

  • please don’t tell me next that John Calvin was a Texan to .. because we were planning to visit Texas.. and that would just be the last straw..

  • The next time Rick Perry jokes about seceding there should be overtures made towards selling Texas back to Mexico with long term leases on the oil wells and Willie Nelson.

  • Jonathan, I have been following this story for 30 years and have had free lance articles published in Baptists Today and Christian Century on the matter. I may blog in some longer measure at my blog I encourage you and your readers to read the print only review of Wuthnow’s book by Tom Powers. It goes at some length about Judge Pressler and W. A Criswell, the men without whom your father would never been president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
    The story missed to date may be Bill Moyers and Rice’s Chandler Davidson to tell. Pressler’s family history with Exxon Oil, the Texas Regulars and the margins of the White Citizens Council and John Birch Society go back at least as far as the leaving of Carlyle Marney from FBC Austin in 56.
    That is the story many, including yourself need to pursue.
    Monitor the ongoing conversation at public policy room of

  • Victor:

    UNC Profff Molly Worthen’s recent book The Apostles of Reason is a must read for you; Jonathan and his father as well. It puts the inerrancy matter as distinct from the Birch Society politics of the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in a much broader framework, in a hundred years history of the wider venue of conservatism evangelicalism.

  • The review of Wuthnow by Thomas Powers mentions Paul Pressler and Coke Stevenson not to mention WA Criswell.

    There is an interesting analogy to be made comparing Pressler and his family connections to the Birch Society to the fellow who was the driving force in the Missouri synod to split that denomination.
    Like Pressler, closer scrutiny reveals right wing political motivations outweighed biblical convictions, and the demagoguery was similar.

    For a history of Race google The Fiery Sermon by Duke’s Curtis Freeman, an unpacking of W.A. Criswell’s race baiting speech to Baptist pastors in Columbia S.C. in 56 followed next day at Strom Thurmond’s invitation to ajoint session of the S.C. Legislature.


    Here’s proof that God does not exist:

    “Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority
    vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas,
    do hereby proclaim the three-day period from
    Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011,
    as Days of Prayer for Rain
    in the State of Texas.”

    This prayer was followed by 7 months
    of searing drought and wildfires.

    But the rains finally came…..

    🙂 🙂 DURING The Atheist Convention in October 2011 ! 🙂 🙂

  • John Calvin would not like Texan theology at all…..a bit too much human effort mixed in with God’s sovereignty.

    I’m not Texan, but John Calvin wouldn’t like me, either. And that’s perfectly okay, because double predestination is not my idea of a compassionate God.

  • In other words, the best way you can think of to stop religious and political conservatives today is to take yesterday’s conservative icons and tie them in with Birchers and bigots.

    I guess that means you don’t think you can win by debating ideas — political or theological.

  • So what do you do at an atheist convention, Max?

    Talk about the paradox (actually the antinomy) of hating a non-existent deity?

  • Repeat after me:



    Welcome to the face of politically correct journalism…..not as bad with this article as with others, but still there nonetheless.

  • Well not for nothing, but most were. Especially from the South. Just because you are annoyed over such characterizations, it doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

    Show me a conservative these days who holds Eisenhower as an example.

    There is no argument more brain dead and counter-productive than complaints about being called a bigot. It never actually refutes the charge. The speaker never does anything to show why it is somehow biased or incorrect. They just show that they are thin skinned on the subject.

  • Well then, Hail Caesar, Beware the Ides of March. Watch out for that Brutus fellow. He seems a bit shifty.

    If Texan politicians cared so much about the Constitution, why do they ignore it so often. Why do they constantly ignore the 1st Amendment? Why do they try to steal votes from citizens?

  • Just as politics has no business interfering in religious affairs,so should religion stay out of politics.
    I have no trust in any politician,like G.W. Bush did,who says that Jesus is his primary source of advice..Here is why. Whenever a so called born again politician,consults Jeeeeezus! before making a decision that may effect millions of people,it is amazing how often that Jeeezus! tells them exactly what they want to hear. Convenient,is it not?
    Anyone who says they have Gods ear,and know His mind,is either untrustworthy,or insane.