Joseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?
JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?
JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today.
JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?
JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest.
JF: What is your next project?
JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century.
JF: Thanks, Joseph!