The American Historian

Reviews

Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion 

Joseph L. Locke. Oxford University Press, 2017

Review by James Ivy

A book about the role of religion in public life is a timely one. Of course, a reviewer might have written that sentence at any point in our nation’s history. Even so, Joseph P. Locke makes a compelling case for the particular significance of that tension between religion and public affairs in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Texas.

Specifically, Locke examines the rise of clericalism, the formal acceptance of ministerial leadership in public affairs, in the Texas prohibition campaigns. In the years immediately following Reconstruction, white evangelical ministers were often hesitant to engage in political activism, or at least were defensive about their efforts. And those ministers who did engage faced swift responses from anticlerical critics who decried the “meddling” of ministers who were violating the conventional separation of church and state. However, between the unsuccessful prohibition campaigns of the 1880s and the successful efforts in the second decade of the twentieth century, religious leaders, their supporters, and the reform wing of the political establishment began to welcome the leadership of “political preachers,” and to construct arguments to justify their involvement. This victory of clericalism over anticlericalism in Texas politics was never complete, but it both ensured the success of prohibition and it had a lasting effect on the broader American polity, resulting in the establishment of the Bible Belt as an identifiable cultural region in American life.

As Locke recognizes, a providential view of American history, the ideological position that asserts that God is peculiarly invested in the success of the American experiment and its political squabbles, is nothing new. What is new, at least what is new for southern clerics, is that both religion and politics provide “historical sanction for their new aims” (p. 95). Previously ministers had championed their unworldliness, their insularity from the profane world. Now their goal was “not only to be a part of it, but to conquer it” (p. 77). The commission when confronting the ubiquity of sin was no longer merely to preach the gospel to the sinner; it now demanded the transformation of sinful institutions.

Religious leaders acknowledged that this was both a new strategy and a new theology, but defended it as a necessary innovation. The saloon was the apotheosis of urban squalor and rootlessness, and the culture had to change to meet the challenge. Locke quotes Presbyterian minister J. Gilmore Smith who asserted that the problems of modern life required “a new view of Christ” (p. 103). The problem of the saloon also required a new view of what it meant to be a Christian. Anyone who identified as such must also accept an obligation of political activism.

Locke does an excellent job of connecting the fluctuating importance of prohibition as a political issue with the ascendance, decline, and revival of agrarian politics, and with the rise of Progressivism in Texas. Populists wanted politicians to focus on vital economic issues rather than engage in moral crusades. The antiprohibitionists were often the most outspoken anticlericalists. But there also was a convergence of reform in the twentieth century that cemented alliances and guaranteed the ascendancy of the clerics. Prohibition became, in the southern states, another progressive box to check. Progressive Democrats embraced the prohibitionist ministers, and with the ministers came the clericalist defense of their new role.

Locke’s innovation is to use clericalism as a filter through which to view a familiar period in Texas politics, and he does so to fruitful effect. But while a filter can provide a novel view and new insights into an object of study, it also can obscure important detail. Women played crucial roles in the early years of prohibition. As they were pushed aside, the new leaders took charge not only because they were ministers, but because they were male. The organized, professional lobbying efforts of the Anti-Saloon League employed thousands of ministers across the nation, and as an institution has the strongest claim on the success of prohibition. Its leadership in all parts of the country included ministers, not just in those regions that we recognize today as the Bible Belt.

The great issue of southern politics is always race. Locke recognizes correctly that prohibitionists and antiprohibitionists treated African American voters differently. Consistent with their theology, evangelical ministers were often hesitant to demonize black voters, except when they had lost a vote on prohibition and were looking for scapegoats. Locke overlooks the fact that the antis also had a complicated, and opportunistic view of African Americans. The antiprohibitionist argument for “personal liberty” resonated with a population only a generation or two away from slavery and who daily contended with the progressive reforms of Jim Crow and disfranchisement.

The clericalism of the Bible Belt has always been constrained by the peculiarities of racial politics. Later in the twentieth century, well past the era Locke so carefully analyzes, leaders in the black churches embraced clericalism to take the lead in the Civil Rights movement. However, in the white churches anticlericalism was again ascendant. Jerry Falwell first attracted national attention with his published sermon, “Ministers and Marches,” decrying again the political preachers. It was only later, when he, like the prohibitionists, turned to a simpler moral vision, that he claimed political leadership for a Moral Majority.

But if I find Locke’s treatment of race insufficient, it isn’t incorrect. Nor is it the central topic of this fine book. By highlighting the important role of clericalism in the Texas prohibition campaigns, Joseph L. Locke has given us a new and useful way to think about the relationship between religious and political institutions in Texas, in the Bible Belt, and in the nation as a whole. That is no small accomplishment.

Reviewer

James Ivy is the author of No Saloon in the Valley: The Southern Strategy of Texas Prohibitionists in the 1880s. He teaches at Trinity University.