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Making the Bible Belt

Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion

Joseph L. Locke

Publication Date - 01 August 2020

ISBN: 9780197532911

296 pages
6.14 x 9.21 inches

In Stock


Making the Bible Belt upends notions of a longstanding, stable marriage between political religion and the American South. H.L. Mencken coined the term "the Bible Belt" in the 1920s to capture the peculiar alliance of religion and public life in the South, but the reality he described was only the closing chapter of a long historical process. Into the twentieth century, a robust anticlerical tradition still challenged religious forays into southern politics. Inside southern churches, an insular evangelical theology looked suspiciously on political meddling. Outside of the churches, a popular anticlericalism indicted activist ministers with breaching the boundaries of their proper spheres of influence, calling up historical memories of the Dark Ages and Puritan witch hunts.

Through the politics of prohibition, and in the face of bitter resistance, a complex but shared commitment to expanding the power and scope of religion transformed southern evangelicals' inward-looking restraints into an aggressive, self-assertive, and unapologetic political activism. The decades-long religious crusade to close saloons and outlaw alcohol in the South absorbed the energies of southern churches and thrust religious leaders headlong into the political process--even as their forays into southern politics were challenged at every step.

Early defeats impelled prohibitionist clergy to recast their campaign as a broader effort not merely to dry up the South, but to conquer anticlerical opposition and inject religion into public life. Clerical activists churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a powerful political movement and elevated ambitious leaders such as the pugnacious fundamentalist J. Frank Norris and Senator Morris Sheppard, the "Father of National Prohibition."

Exploring the controversies surrounding the religious support of prohibition in Texas, Making the Bible Belt reconstructs the purposeful, decades-long campaign to politicize southern religion, hints at the historical origins of the religious right, and explores a compelling and transformative moment in American history.


  • A wide-ranging first book on a topic of perennial fascination--how the Bible Belt was made.
  • Focuses on the largely unexplored territory of Texas history, prohibition, and religion to uncover the "pre-history" of the religious right.
  • Shows how the marriage of evangelicalism and southern politics occurred far later--and with more difficulty--than typically imagined.
  • Demonstrates how many southerners actively fought against the influence of religion in public life before the triumph of prohibition.

About the Author(s)

Joseph L. Locke is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston-Victoria.


"Only a few monographs force historians to reconsider something we all 'know.' Making the Bible Belt is one of those books. Joseph Locke argues convincingly that the critical role played by clericalism in the political life of Texas, rather than having always been present, actually dates only from the era of prohibition. Texas did not join the Bible Belt until the battle against alcohol allowed clericalism to overcome a long-standing tradition of anticlericalism and give religion its currently pervasive role in the state's public life." -- Randolph B. Campbell , author of Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State

"In this bold and informative book Locke poses a vital question: How did the religious world of late-nineteenth century Texas--freewheeling, iconoclastic, and skeptical of preachers in politics--become in the twentieth century a hub of the Bible Belt, with its conformist 'Texas Theology' and politically aggressive church establishment? His answers will be of value to anyone interested in the history and current role of religion in American politics." -- Charles Postel , author of The Populist Vision

"Many talk of the Bible Belt, but few understand its origins. Joseph Locke's book describes a forgotten anti-clerical culture in Texas, then explains the emergence of political preachers, provides an insightful account of the fight over prohibition there, and demonstrates the importance of a neglected historical figure-Senator Morris Sheppard. Locke's fascinating book reveals how conservative evangelicals came to exercise such influence in America. It tells a compelling story that explains the past and speaks to the present." -- Gaines Foster , author of Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920

"With rigor and flair, Joseph Locke shatters the presumption, passed down by generations of pundits and scholars, that the South has always been the Bible Belt, a natural hothouse of fundamentalist zeal. It was only through the relentless crusading of a rising clerical class, capped off by the political triumph over rum, that the region we now recognize as evangelical orthodoxy's dominant hub assumed its reigning religiosity. This is a beautifully crafted book by a talented historian." -- Darren Dochuk , author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism

"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." -- James Ivy , The American Historian

"Crisply written and studiously documentedâMaking the Bible Beltâpresents a compelling argumentâ[about] late nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Texas, revealing a contentious, competitive religious milieu." -- John Hayes , Journal of Southern History

"Many people mistakenly believe the American South was always a hotbed of religious fervor. In his meticulously researched andartfully written Making the Bible Belt, Joseph L. Locke demonstrates how recent a development the Bible belt phenomenon is and tracesit to determined opposition of church people to anticlericalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." -- David Stricklin , Journal of American History

"This book should be required reading for anyone wishing to assess patterns enacted by elements of the Christian church that engage themselves in political rhetoric and the lust for power that comes from wishing to dictate cultural morality. Locke does a fantastic job ordering historical material in a way that the reader feels as if they are reading a book about a contemporary social concern, all the while explaining the foundation of the "Bible Belt" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century." -- Joshua Slade Lewis, PNEUMA

"Joseph L. Locke's eye-opening monograph shatters erroneous and too-long-held assumptions regarding the role of religion in Texas political history This nuanced volume should be read closely not just by historians of American religion, but political scientists and sociologists as well."--Michael Phillips, The Journal of Southern History

"...Locke's study of Texas politics in the Prohibition era adds another strategic piece to the puzzle in understanding its historical contours....Highly recommended."--CHOICE

"Joseph L. Locke's eye-opening monograph shatters erroneous and too-long-held assumptions regarding the role of religion in Texas political history....A gifted storyteller, Locke introduces us to a wide range of colorful figures and reminds readers of the little-known Texas connections of major Prohibitionist leaders....This nuanced volume should be read closely not just by historians of American religion, but political scientists and sociologists as well."--The Journal of Southern Religion

Table of Contents

    Chapter One: Heretics, Infidels, and Iconoclasts: The Freewheeling Religious World of the Late-Nineteenth Century
    Chapter Two: Subduing the Saintly: The Anticlerical Tradition
    Chapter Three: Of Tremor and Transition: Crisis and the Origins of Southern Clericalism
    Chapter Four: The Road to the Bible Belt: Mobilizing the Godly
    Chapter Five: Triumph in the Churches: The Clerical Insurgency
    Chapter Six: Marking Morality: Gender, Race, and Righteousness
    Chapter Seven: Unto the Breach: The Politics of Clericalism
    Chapter Eight: Anything That Ought to be Done: The Triumph of Clericalism