Of all the places I’ve lived, none is more religious, and religiously distinct, than Texas. Kyle Childress, writing in the Christian Century, reviews sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s new book about Texas Baptists, which focuses on how the frontier experience shaped their faith. Excerpt:
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow seeks to show how living in such an unforgiving and challenging land has shaped the perspective of its people and especially its religion. This rough country has been observed and experienced and often written about in letters and diaries by the settlers of the Texas frontier; in it, Wuthnow says, “nearly everything is rough: the land is rough, earning a living is rough, the people are rough, even the preachers are rough.” He goes on, “What to make of this roughness, and how to overcome it, are the most basic questions of everyday life.”
Mixing historical anecdotes gleaned from newspaper accounts, memoirs, and diaries with demographic studies and sociological analysis and using historical narrative as a framework, Wuthnow shows how this rough state with its rough religion and its rough relationship with race became such a powerful force in Bible Belt politics.
During the formative history of the state, people living “at the margins of civilization existed in daily fear of attack from hostile Indians, outlaws, and renegades.” One person wrote about life in the city of Galveston, “Nobody who cares for his life ventures out after dark.” Men there “shoot and cut up each other on the least provocation” and “bowie knives and pistols are conspicuous ornaments.”
At the same time, there was fear of slave insurrection and fear of Mexico with its threatening Catholic religion. Slaves were treated roughly and Texans of Mexican descent were mistreated. With so much “evil” out there, efforts at resisting it, restraining it, changing it, and even destroying it were paramount. Either attack it or convert it and civilize it through the building of towns, roads, schools, businesses, churches, and other institutions.
According to Wuthnow, religion was preeminent in affirming the social order and combating evil.
This made instant sense to me — intuitive sense, I mean. Even though I was raised in next-door Louisiana, the strength of Christianity in Texas, and its texture, was a surprise to me when I moved there. Years later, when I read Sam Gwynne’s terrific book Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanches and their last leader, Quanah Parker, I got an education in how terrifying life on the Texas frontier was for settlers in the 19th century, and how close that history is to the present day. For better and for worse, one can see why religion in Texas took the form it did, and why that form generally persists to this day. You may object strongly to that form on theological grounds, but you should understand that it is as much a product of historical, geographical, and cultural forces as African-American forms of Christianity are a product of slavery and Jim Crow.
What’s interesting to me about both forms of Christianity is that they emerged under harsh conditions, and in the absence of strong traditions. Those two forms of faith seemed particularly malleable to fit the social and emotional needs of their practitioners. No religion comes to us pristine, handed down directly from heaven, untainted by the human touch, but my sense is that experience and felt necessity played outsized roles here.
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