It is no longer possible to dismiss American religiosity as an odd residuum of hillbilly culture. It is now a vivid and organizing force in a mobile America defined by McMansions and office parks. Indeed, the alliance of advanced capitalism and religious fundamentalism is the most remarkable feature of the landscape of American power today. The superchurch and the televangelist are at least as integral to the current culture of American capitalism as Silicon Valley and Las Vegas. More clearly than ever, America has rejected the European understanding of Protestantism as the carrier of rationalization and secularization—as in Max Weber’s austere Calvinist capitalist. How are we to understand the transubstantiation of the flinty Yankee, once the incarnation of American capitalism, into the casino capitalist or the indebted but born-again shopper? The rise of the Sunbelt is of course a key component, but, within that larger transformation, the specific weight of Texas power is crucial.
The geographic axis of the transformation of American society is recognizable enough in the increasing political and economic clout of Sunbelt states, such as Florida and Texas, nicely encapsulated by the Bush family’s relocation from Connecticut and Wall Street to Midland, Houston, and Miami (home of Jeb Bush). The specific conjunction of oil and fundamentalist religion that has shaped Texas politics since the 1930s explains this familial migration. Oil brought the Bushes to Texas in the first place; the second generation has apparently taken the area’s religiosity to heart, providing the Republican Party with a symbolic accord between business and social conservatives. This is less a “Southern takeover” of American politics as described by Michael Lind than the result of a long-term convergence between Wall Street and the interests of Texas oil owners: not the revenge of the old plantation, but a new dynamic within American capitalism.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially in the 1920s (the time of the Scopes trial), commentators such as H. L. Mencken saw the central conflict of U.S. politics as one between a backward agrarian South and scientific modernity. This is no longer so clearly the case. Modernization in Texas and the South is locked into an embrace with its old adversaries, fundamentalism and right-wing populism, that is perhaps unique in advanced capitalist economies. Even modernist anomie is included in the embrace. Divorce rates are currently falling across the United States, but remain significantly higher in the Bible Belt than in the Northeast, which has the lowest rates (Massachusetts the lowest among all fifty states). I remember being told in the late seventies or early eighties that the area of Dallas around Greenville Avenue, by then a sea of apartment complexes and singles bars, could boast the highest rate of divorce in the country. This plausible claim has the virtue of making sense of the ge...
For just $18 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $30 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our online archives.