- Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion by Joseph L. Locke
In 1924, H. L. Mencken labeled the southern states “The Bible Belt.” Before reading Joseph Locke’s excellent history, one might assume that the evangelical Protestant churches’ success with political issues such as prohibition had been at the bedrock of Texas history. Locke, however, explains that the post-Civil War campaign for Christian politics was stymied by a strong anticlerical movement. Religion, anticlerics avowed, should concentrate on the spiritual side of life while leaving politics to the worldly. Locke argues that clerical political activism continued, nonetheless, and relied on growing denominational structures to market their agenda for reforms such as prohibition. Evangelicals eventually succeeded in transforming Texas into the “most powerful Bible Belt state” (4). [End Page 115]
In 1887, evangelical leaders endorsed an anti-alcohol amendment, but they suffered a humiliating defeat engineered by anticlerical Christians, agnostics, and free thinkers. Protestant clergy in the 1880s began to sense a growing lack of influence even as their churches grew and their programs expanded. Baptist pastors vied for ever larger, more influential churches, while Methodist preachers sought advancement through denominational hierarchy. Yet an inner torpor prevailed, and preachers returned to the message that a corrupt world needs its Christian counterpart to imbue morality in the public sphere.
Independent religious organs such as the Texas Baptist Standard, which claimed a circulation of 75,000 by 1911, spread the reforming message. According to Locke, “No other forum united Texas churches so effectively” (90). A growing body of religious histories recounted the growth of Protestant denominations and their gains in an era of American exceptionalism. Religious education leaders endorsed the expansion of Baylor University as well as the founding of Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University. They established Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Perkins School of Theology, and Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Locke argues that angst-ridden clergy, driven by fears of irrelevance, began to envision a message of Christian morality that acted in accord with voters’ responsibilities. These included Sabbatarian laws as well as admonitions against dancing and secular distractions, but the campaign against liquor and saloons took precedence.
Fighting for righteousness meant also grappling with race and gender issues. Pastors did not challenge segregation but held to the notion that by defeating saloons, “the black population would finally flourish” (131). Believing that alcohol fueled outrages against white women, white evangelists argued for prohibition both as a protection for whites and as a prevention to lynching. Thus, white evangelist Joshua Hicks of Sulphur Springs postulated that racial “political cooperation could sink the saloon” (134). Yet some black opposition to the movement led white religious leaders to fear the prohibition amendment would be defeated, inciting politicians to enact the poll tax in order to reduce black voting. In evaluating the role of white middle- and upper-class women in the campaign for prohibition, Locke finds that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was less influential in Texas than it may have been in other states. Gender played a role, however, not so much in women’s agency as in male notions of honor and protection of the home against drunken violence.
By the first two decades of the twentieth century, the stage had been set for a state constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol. Much of the state had already gone dry through “local option” elections, but in 1913, Texas furthered the cause by electing Morris Shepherd to the U.S. Senate, where in 1917 he introduced legislation that became the Eighteenth Amendment. Locke [End Page 116] concludes with an ominous analysis, arguing that the same forces that brought prohibition to the state and the nation also engendered the Ku Klux Klan to enforce it and later brought forth the birth of fundamentalism. This served to “wed the Republican Party to conservative religion and enthrone the religious right as the heirs of the Bible Belt, the . . . culmination of a nearly century-old...