DALLAS Texas is a dry place but when it comes to alcohol sales it is getting a lot wetter.
Like a growing number of "Bible Belt" communities in the South and Midwest, Texans are loosening their bans or restrictions on booze despite the local political clout of conservative Christians who frown on drinking.
This trend is occurring even though Americans are consuming less alcohol, partially due to health concerns.
Analysts say the "moistening" of Texas shows that the "Baptist battle against the bottle" has given way to other political priorities such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage -- issues which the Republican Party has deftly used to get its supporters to the ballot box.
Cold economics is also at play with even teetotaling Southern Baptists opting to back local ballot initiatives to loosen anti-alcohol laws in a bid to attract businesses, restaurants and the tax revenue they bring.
"One stripe of Texas conservative is a social conservative stripe," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"They have historically been concerned with prohibition and alcohol consumption but in recent years have been more focused on abortion, school prayer and gay marriage," he told Reuters.
The change has occurred quietly but it has been dramatic.
After the demise of prohibition in 1933, local communities maintained the right to choose whether or not to legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Anti-alcohol campaigns were a key part of Southern Baptist and more broadly evangelical Christian culture in America a few decades ago -- but that was when gays were firmly in the closet and before the Supreme Court legalized abortion.
DRY AREAS DRYING UP
Legalization of some form of alcohol sales was on the ballot in 214 local elections in Texas from September 2003 to January 2007, and it won in 81 percent of cases, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said.
By way of contrast, the sole local initiative during that period aimed at prohibiting alcohol sales failed.
The "wet revolution" was sparked by legislation in 2003 which simplified procedures for getting wet/dry issues on the ballot -- to the benefit of those in favor of alcohol sales.
Texas liquor laws are a confusing patchwork and local option elections on the question of alcohol sales can be decided at the town, county or local precinct level.
Some local areas ban the retail sales of spirits but not beer or wine; some don't allow beer on the shelves which exceed certain alcohol percentages; some ban all booze altogether.
As of August 31, 2003, before the legislative changes, there were 35 completely wet counties in Texas with no restrictions, 51 completely dry counties while the remaining 168 were somewhere in between or "semi-dry," according to TABC.
As of January 2007, only 39 totally dry counties were left and one more had become completely wet.
All of this has occurred under the watch of Republican Governor Rick Perry, an ardent Christian conservative.
"This trend under Perry further illustrates that alcohol prohibition is not a core issue for social conservatives in the 21st century," said Jillson.
BAPTISTS AND BOOZE
Southern Baptists are still uncomfortable with drink and many choose to abstain from it. But they also admit that as an issue it has faded in importance.
"Our traditional stand as Southern Baptists is that we do not use alcohol. There is an old tradition where they will have a church covenant and one aspect of that is not to participate in the use or sale of alcohol," said Gary Ledbetter, spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
"You don't see that as often in churches now except in rural areas with older people," he said.
Ledbetter also said that many of the local initiatives which have endorsed a loosening of alcohol sale restrictions would not have passed without Southern Baptist votes.
Some observers would point to "closet drinkers" among the flock but Ledbetter said it was more a case of economics.
"The thing that drives this is attracting restaurant chains and tax revenue, even for some Baptists," he said.
Retailers also play a big role in initiating "wet" votes.
"In most cases it is local restaurants, retailers and local developers," said Tim Reeves of Beverage Election Specialists of Texas, which supports local alcohol initiatives.
The same trend is occurring elsewhere in the South in states such as Alabama and North Carolina.
This is despite falling alcohol consumption in America.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, annual per capita ethanol consumption in the United States -- ethanol being the alcohol content of beer, wine and spirits -- peaked at 2.76 gallons in 1980 and 1981 and fell to 2.14 in 1997 and 1998.
It crept up to 2.23 in 2004, the last year for which there is data. But the overall trend has been down.
((Editing by Jackie Frank; Dallas newsroom, +1 972 632 7041)0