A high-resolution, regional passive seismic experiment in the Rio Grande rift region of the southwestern United States has produced new images of upper-mantle velocity structure and crust-mantle topography. Synthesizing these results with geochemical and other geophysical evidence reveals highly symmetric lower-crustal and upper-mantle lithosphere extensional deformation, suggesting a pure-shear rifting mechanism for the Rio Grande rift. Extension in the lower crust is distributed over a region four times the width of the rift's surface expression. Here we propose that the laterally distributed, pure shear extension is a combined effect of low strain rate and a regionally elevated geotherm, possibly abetted by pre-existing lithospheric structures, at the time of rift initiation. Distributed extension in the lower crust and mantle has induced less concentrated vertical mantle upwelling and less vigorous small-scale convection than would have arisen from more localized deformation. This lack of highly focused mantle upwelling may explain a deficit of rift-related volcanics in the Rio Grande rift compared to other major rift systems such as the Kenya rift.