Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Joseph Crespino

The Wuthnow Project

A trilogy on religious and political conservatism in modern America.

In 2003, Sufjan Stevens released an album titled Greetings From Michigan, the Great Lake State, a 15-track aural history of the 26th state. Stevens billed it as the first installment of a planned 50 albums, one for each of the 50 states. He followed it up in 2005 with Come On Feel the Illinoise, which included tracks such as "The Seer's Tower," "One Last 'Woo-Hoo!' For the Pullman," and "Let's Hear the String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell." Since then, though, the ambitious project has stalled. Stevens has produced a number of other albums, including what he calls a "programmatic tone poem" for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but the other 48 states still await their turn as muse.

Such grandiose silliness has little to do with the work of Robert Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, save in one respect: if anyone writing today could pull off a similarly epic mission—a book for every state—it would be Wuthnow, who at last count had authored some 34 books and 15 edited collections over a nearly four-decade career as one of the leading scholars of religion and society in the United States. In 2012, for example, he published Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland, a study of conservative religious culture in his native Kansas. With his latest book, Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, Wuthnow has done more than merely pull even with Stevens in the race to 50. When we add to the list yet another of Wuthnow's recent titles, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future, it's clear that he has completed a trilogy on religious and political conservatism in modern America.

Hardly any development in modern America has been in greater need of scholarly explanation than the resurgence of religious and political conservatism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The rise of the Religious Right bucked much of the conventional wisdom of modern social science. Society was supposed to be growing more and more secularized. Rural peoples were moving to cities and becoming integrated into modern social and economic networks. Education was becoming standardized and extended to greater numbers of people. Science was explaining phenomena which had mystified human beings for eons—and which had inspired much of the hocus pocus of religious and spiritual practices. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment. Instead of becoming less religious, citizens in the United States—the most scientifically advanced, industrialized, and democratized nation in the world—actually became more religious. Or at the very least huge numbers of them embraced a religiously influenced social and cultural conservatism that seemed to defy all the modernizing trends.

Social analysts have not been entirely mystified. Conventional wisdom has run in two general directions. One argument contends that religious and political conservatism is merely false consciousness manufactured by economic and political elites. This dismissal of religion as the opiate of the masses has deep roots that stretch back to the origins of modern social theory. Its revitalizers and popularizers have been legion. Thomas Frank's popular 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas is one of the most recent versions, and one against which Wuthnow writes in his fine-grained study of Kansas. The other conventional explanation is that the turn toward conservative religious life represents a self-interested, narrow-minded reaction by a petit bourgeoisie that is being displaced by broad economic and cultural trends. Barack Obama contributed a version of this analysis to popular culture with offhand remarks he made as a presidential candidate back in 2008. Lower-middle-class whites in the Rustbelt, he explained, were frustrated by the long, slow decline of their local economy, and they turned to God, guns, and resentment of immigrant outsiders in response.

With his exhaustively researched and carefully argued studies, Wuthnow offers a different approach. Avoiding general theories and broad explanations, he looks closely at both the social and institutional structure of the communities in these states and also the history and local contexts that have shaped them. Each book in this informal "trilogy" comes to its own set of conclusions, making a general summary difficult, yet two characteristics of Wuthnow's methodology stand out. First is the seriousness with which he takes the opinions and perspectives of the people he studies. Wuthnow chides his fellow sociologists for "telling almost any population under investigation that it did not understand itself as well as sociologists did." In his study of small towns, Wuthnow and his team of researchers interviewed hundreds of small town residents, and their perspectives come through continually. Surprisingly for a social scientist, he writes about the need to "move beyond the search for broad generalizations." Sociologists, he writes, maintain a "tool kit" of useful analytical categories—closed versus open networks; symbolic boundaries; collective representations; a preoccupation with patterns of deference, demeanor, and norms—yet "these elements combine in manifestly different ways in different places."

This interest in context and difference leads to a second characteristic. It is striking how heavily Wuthnow relies on history to explain conservative religious culture. For books that largely are interested in explaining the contemporary scene, they take a decidedly long view. The studies of Kansas and Texas, more than anything, are social histories of the intersection of religion and politics, from the origins of white settlement through to recent Tea Party activism.

Kansas' image as the quintessential conservative red state hides a contentious and bloody history, Wuthnow reminds us, all of which was connected to religious life in the state. The muralist John Steuart Curry recalled this history in the apocalyptic scene he painted in the Kansas state capitol, depicting a wild-eyed John Brown towering over armed antagonists, an open Bible in his left hand and a rifle in his right. Wuthnow begins with that bloody history, and he ends with an examination of religiously motivated violence that led to the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions. Yet it is not extremism but pragmatism that characterizes the religious life of most Kansans, Wuthnow argues. For much of the state's history, red-state religion "had less to do with contentious moral activism than it did with local communities and relationship among neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers," he writes. As citizens of a rural agricultural state isolated from the sources of economic and political power in the East, Kansans developed a skepticism of distant authority and a strong reliance on local democratic government. The religious establishment, particularly the Methodists who predominated numerically, often checked more radical political sentiments. In recent decades, the influence of the Methodists, as well as the Catholic Church, which has been the other major denomination in Kansas, has waned in comparison to that of non-denominational evangelical churches and Southern Baptists, many of whom migrated from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. It is these groups, Wuthnow argues, that have waged the divisive culture wars of recent years. They are often in tension with older established denominations, a fact often missed by outside chroniclers of Kansas's supposed red-state religious unanimity.

Texas, as large and diverse as it is, is less easy to explain. To understand the rough and tumble quality of Texas's religious and political life, Wuthnow begins in the 1820s with the origins of white settlement in the state. The challenges of establishing social order on the frontier, along with the mythologies that developed around white Texans' battles with droughts, plagues, Native Americans, and the Mexican militia, influenced the political and religious culture that emerged. Civil religion and more traditional kinds merged in powerful ways in Texas' cult of political and religious liberty. In white Texans' origins story, the martyrs at the Alamo died at the hands of authoritarian Catholics, and their memory was preserved as the scene of the battle, once a Catholic mission church, was turned into the shrine of Texas civil religion.

Such a place was fertile ground for the seeds of Southern Baptists, now the dominant denomination in the state, a group with its own historical commitment to religion practiced free from the controlling influence of the state. In the 20th century, Texas became renowned as a hotbed of fundamentalist belief. The reputation always belied a more complicated religious scene, yet the state did launch some of the most successful fundamentalist preachers and presses—in part because booming cities like Dallas and Forth Worth, flush with oil and cattle money, had financial backers and denominations to bankroll these religious entrepreneurs. The relationship between business and conservative religion only grew over the course of the 20th century; Wuthnow shows how Texas was home to some of the most important funders of conservative religious causes. It was also ground zero for the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, a development that would have implications for the broader Religious Right. Wuthnow also includes an afterword in which he puts on his sociologist hat once again and provides a bravura critical assessment of major theories and methods in the study of modern religious life.

While the focus of Rough Country is on white religious culture and politics, Wuthnow pays particular attention to how Texas's racial history shaped the dominant white culture. The racial diversity in Texas communities influenced white conservative Christians "inadvertently, implicitly, or explicitly," he writes. For Wuthnow racial diversity largely means the presence of African Americans; the history of Hispanic-Anglo relations gets far less attention in this book. Even so, Rough Country makes clear that Texas' racial and religious histories cannot be properly understood independent of each other. For example, Wuthnow shows the enduring impact that racially segregated churches had on the broader society. Church ministries that developed in the Jim Crow era served to rationalize separation between the races. Once those separate institutions were founded, Wuthnow writes, "subsequent efforts to organize ministries that crossed racial lines faced structural barriers that destined most of these efforts to fail or to succeed only in limited ways despite the good intentions of those involved."

Religion is not a particular focus of Wuthnow's Small-Town America, at least not in the same way as in the other two books. He is interested in how communities respond to social and cultural change. Churches and religious belief are among the traditional institutions and cultural practices that are in flux. Wuthnow concludes that, despite the mythology surrounding them, small towns really aren't that different from urban and suburban areas. All are governed by the same laws and institutions. All are drenched in the same media-driven culture that we receive through television and the Internet. Small towns are different, Wuthnow argues, primarily in that they are small. It seems like an obvious point, but it's not. Small towns, he writes, have distinctive social relationships and meanings of community that can only be formed in places where the racial, ethnic, class, or ideological differences are narrowed, or at least, where those differences are mitigated by personal interactions, interfamily relationships, and a tighter web of connectivity. The mistake people make, he says—and they've been making it ever since the 19th century, when modern American metropolises were born—is the belief that "America could save itself from impending doom by somehow reinstituting the values and lifestyles of the small town." This is the sentiment that Sarah Palin invoked on the campaign trail in 2008 when she lauded the values of "real America." Palin really meant Republican-leaning areas, but she invoked a long tradition in American life of valorizing small-town life and small-town values. Wuthnow's study suggests that there's no such thing as "real America":

Efforts to strengthen civic values in larger places have to be different. They have to take into account the wider scale in which social interactions take place, greater diversity of needs and interests, and more open-ended meanings of community.

Strengthening civic values is no easy thing to do. Neither is finding a middle ground in the religious culture wars that continue to be waged in America today. Wuthnow laments the "penchant for generalizations" in today's culture, the desire for "quick answers that can be gleaned from books turned into sound bites." Undoubtedly this is true. Yet as I was working my way through the nearly 1,500 pages of these three studies, I couldn't help but think that perhaps a sound bite or two wouldn't be so bad. Wuthnow relies on the old-school Protestant work ethic: if you want to know about conservative religious and political culture today, he seems to be saying, then you've got to roll up your sleeves and read about it in all of its particularity in the many varied situations in which it arises. Unfortunately, I think few people other than scholarly specialists are going to be up for the task.

For those who are, however, there are rewards to be had, particularly when Wuthnow's studies of Kansas and Texas are read alongside a number of important recent works in religious history—books such as Darren Dochuk's study of the southern California Bible-Belt, Bethany Moreton's investigation of Christian capitalism in Wal-Mart Country, or Carolyn DuPont's book on Christianity and the color line in Mississippi. We may not end up with 50 books for 50 states, but all of these works make for important reading for anyone interested in the sources of religious and political conservatism in modern America.

Joseph Crespino is professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of Strom Thurmond's America (Hill & Wang) and In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton Univ. Press).

Books by Robert Wuthnow discussed in this essay:

Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012)

Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (Princeton Univ. Press, 2014

Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013)

Most ReadMost Shared