A scholar who wanted to portray Kansas, a state widely known as “a bastion of Protestant Republican conservatism,” in a less right-wing light might turn to Arlen Specter. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Robert Dole would also work for showing that not all Kansas Republicans hail from the hard right—the 32nd president of the United States and the GOP’s 1996 standard-bearer fit squarely in the mold of political moderation that many intellectuals admire. But Specter, who was born in 1930 in Wichita before moving cross state to Russell—also the hometown of Dole, who is seven years older—may be a better weather of Kansas Republicanism, unlikely as that might sound.
After transferring from the University of Oklahoma to the University of Pennsylvania, Specter established ties to the state from which he would launch his political career. In 1965, when he decided to run for Philadelphia’s district attorney, Specter was registered a Democrat, but he switched to the Republican ticket with pledges to uphold law and order. By the end of his career, after serving five terms as one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, he transferred back to the Democrats. Specter believed his former opponents would be more receptive to his brand of political moderation than the extremist ideologues who dominated the GOP. He failed to gain a sixth term in the Senate because he could not survive the 2010 Democratic Pennsylvania primary.
As weaselly as Specter’s career might be, his effort to avoid extremes provides a perfect case of the common-sense politics underneath his native state’s ideological exterior. Yet Specter fails to surface in Robert Wuthnow’s latest book on faith and politics in Kansas, Red State Religion. Understandable was Thomas Frank’s avoidance of the Pennsylvania Senator in What’s the Matter With Kansas, since Specter’s example would not support Frank’s account of the state’s shift to the right under pressure from highly contested issues such as abortion. But Wuthnow is interested in a different side of Kansas politics and its religious influences, one less radical and ideological. Specter never lived in the Sunflower State as an adult, but his instincts were formed during his youth, when a fundamentally Kansas-style moderation took root.
Wuthnow is one of the premier sociologists of religion in the United States. Instead of looking to moderate national GOP leaders from Kansas to explain the state’s politics, he plays to his strength— analysis of religion. This approach to red state politics allows him to deflect from Kansas Christians the typical charge that religious devotion in the forms associated with the religious right is responsible for the extremes of Kansas-style conservative Republicanism. Wuthnow does not deny the obvious. Since 1960, Kansas has been at the center of the contests and controversies that put the religious right on the national map. With the exception of 1964—an intriguing anomaly for alert conservatives—when Kansas favored Lyndon Baines Johnson over Barry Goldwater, the state’s voters have backed all of the Republican Party’s nominees of the last half-century: Richard Nixon by a 20 percent majority in 1968 and a 38 percent majority in 1972, Gerald Ford by 7 percent, Ronald Reagan by 24 percent in 1980 and 33 percent in 1984, Bush Sr. by 13 percent in 1988 and 5 percent in 1992, Robert Dole by 18 percent, George W. Bush by 21 percent in 2000 and by 25 percent in 2004, and John McCain by 15 percent. This places Kansas alongside Indiana as the only states in the union to vote for Republicans in 30 out of 38 presidential elections.
As Kansas became predictably Republican, local politics became increasingly hostile. Protests against abortion won national coverage in 1989 when 79 people were arrested for blocking access to a clinic in Wichita. Twenty years later, Kansas opposition to abortion took extreme form when troubled activist Scott Roeder gunned down Dr. George Tiller, a director of one of Wichita’s abortion clinics, just before a service at a local Lutheran church. (In 1993, Shelly Shannon, another anti-abortion activist, shot and wounded Tiller.)
Teaching evolution in public schools was another front in Kansas’s culture wars. Between 1999 and 2006 religious conservatives were successful in controlling the state Board of Education and rewriting school standards to include alternative accounts of the human race’s origins. Religion-based activism also spawned in Kansas a movement to make gay marriage illegal. In 2005 this effort succeeded in gaining voters’ approval for a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. Kansas’s version of red state politics offers scholars the triple crown of social conservatism: pro-life convictions, Creation Science, and family values.
If onlookers see these recent developments as an aberration, Wuthnow is quick to point out that the origins of Kansas itself are shot through with forms of radical politics that were prevalent at the time of the Republican Party’s birth. The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854, which gave settlers the ability to determine through popular sovereignty whether these newly created states would allow or prohibit slavery—and in the process destroyed the Missouri Compromise of 1820—was crucial to the rise of the GOP and its abolitionist constituency. Not only were Republicans responsible for establishing Kansas as a free state, but they were also advocates of women’s suffrage: Kansas became the first state to grant women the right to vote in school elections (1861) and to hold municipal office (1887), and it was one of the first to embrace universal suffrage (1912). Given the ties between evangelical Protestantism and the Republican Party, observers might be warranted in seeing great continuity between the radicalism of early Kansas politics and the state’s contemporary reputation for taking religious zeal into the public square.
Between the fire of 19th-century reformers and the brimstone of contemporary religious activism was a period when moderation prevailed. To be sure, Kansas still displayed a propensity for religiously-inspired political activism—in the service of Prohibition, for example, a cause also associated with the wing of the GOP that opposed slavery and advocated women’s suffrage. Carrie Nation’s campaign against saloons at the turn of the 20th century is another instance of Kansas’s addiction to political extremism. But Wuthnow stresses that Kansas also owned a political style more calm than harried. He attributes this to a historic religious rivalry between Methodists and Roman Catholics, perennially the two largest religious bodies in the state.
Red State Religion follows the comings and goings of these churches, how they benefitted or suffered from Kansas’s demographics and economic development, and somewhat awkwardly overlays the state’s politics—local and national—on top of its church history. As the churches expanded, they created administrative structures and institutions that cultivated civic participation and restrained “fringe groups and radical factions.” To be sure, the Methodists voted for Republican candidates, some of whom were more moderate than others, and Roman Catholics supported Democrats. But until Roe v. Wade, Kansas’s Christians were more of a moderating than a radicalizing element in politics.
Wuthnow, whose charitable interpretation may partly owe to his own upbringing in Kansas, concludes that two elements characterize the state’s politics, thanks to its religious adherents. First, Kansans exhibited a “pervasive skepticism” toward big government. Second, they embodied an “associational grassroots democracy,” which according to Wuthnow makes “families, churches, schools, and community organizations … the core ingredients of civic life.” He goes on to explain that rather than heightening political antagonism, in Kansas “religious organizations serve as mediating structures between the individual citizen and the national government.” Instead of proving how extreme Kansas (and by implication, red state faith) is, history shows that religion, especially in the form of denominational institutions, softens politics and encourages civic participation. Only with the rise of national issues like abolition, alcohol, or abortion has the localist orientation and good sense of Kansans receded and faith turned activist.
What is striking about Wuthnow’s conclusion is the gap between his description and his understanding of conservatism. As readers of this magazine well know, Wuthnow’s depiction of mediating structures and local politics comes straight out of the traditionalist conservative playbook. In fact, the greatest weakness of Wuthnow’s analysis is that he identifies political conservatism with the GOP and religious conservatism with evangelical Protestantism. In a two-party system, paleoconservatives and traditionalist or liturgical Christians only have so many options; they may be forced to hold their noses with one hand while pulling the GOP lever with the other. But in the history of political thought and the Christian tradition, the GOP and religious right only faintly resemble anything that can be called conservative. No real conservative would ever countenance prohibiting alcohol as a remedy for human infirmities, just as no genuine Christian would consider grape juice a suitable substitute for wine. Associating conservatism with Republicans is particularly annoying given the party’s radical origins and current ideological posture.
Still, conservatism is an acquired taste, and if scholars from Ivy League universities don’t know the difference between Russell Kirk and Jerry Falwell, or between J. Gresham Machen and Randall Terry, why should anyone expect residents of America’s heartland to do so? Whatever is wrong with Kansas, it is not a condition that afflicts Kansans alone.
D.G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College and is the author, most
recently, of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.