Making the Bible Belt: Preachers, Prohibition, and the Politicization of Southern Religion, 1877-1918
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
H.L. Mencken coined “the Bible Belt” in the 1920s to capture the peculiar alliance of religion and regional life in the American South. But the reality Mencken described was only the closing chapter of a long historical process. Like the label itself, the Bible Belt was something new, and everything new must be made. This dissertation is the history of its making. Over the course of several decades, and in the face of bitter resistance, a complex but shared commitment to expanding religious authority transformed southern evangelicals’ inward-looking restraints into an aggressive, self-assertive, and unapologetic political activism. Late-nineteenth-century religious leaders overcame crippling spiritual anxieties and tamed a freewheeling religious world by capturing denominations, expanding memberships, constructing hierarchies, and purging rivals. Clerics then confronted a popular anticlericalism through the politics of prohibition. To sustain their public efforts, they cultivated a broad movement organized around the assumption that religion should influence public life. Religious leaders fostered a new religious brand of history, discovered new public dimensions for their faith, and redefined religion’s proper role in the world. Clerics churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a popular political movement and, with prohibition as their weapon, defeated a powerful anticlerical tradition and injected themselves into the political life of the early-twentieth-century South. By exploring the controversies surrounding religious support for prohibition in Texas, this dissertation recasts the politicization of southern religion, reveals the limits of nineteenth-century southern religious authority, hints at the historical origins of the religious right, and explores a compelling and transformative moment in American history.
History; Religion; American South