Religion, politics a potent mix

Joseph Aistrup

By A Contributor

“Red State Religion,” written by Princeton sociologist and native Kansan Robert Wuthnow, is a new book that chronicles the influence of religion on Kansas’ historical and political development. His effort moves beyond Thomas Frank’s conclusion in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that religion is being used by Republicans to distract working class voters from their political-economic interests, to a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the ways that religion has almost always been woven into the political fabric of Kansas.

Wuthnow does a masterful job of detailing how each religious denomination approached the settlement of Kansas and the strategies they used to expand their flocks as immigrants pushed development westward. The important role of religion at that time was to spur and then anchor community development. The Methodists were particularly entrepreneurial, using itinerant ministers to tend to the spiritual needs of these new communities. If a new community survived to become a town, a Methodist church was often the first church erected. Thus, Methodism remains the predominant religion of rural communities across Kansas.  

As Kansans, we know that the religious influences were particularly strong among the abolitionists in the 1850s and 1860s. Religion was an equally potent force in the 1870s and 1880s when Methodists and a number of other protestant religions led efforts to ratify and then enforce the 1880 state constitutional amendment to ban the sale and production of alcohol. The battle over temperance would be waged on and off until 1986, when Kansans finally approved a constitutional amendment to permit liquor by the drink (open saloons).  

No discussion of religion and politics in Kansas would be complete without a conversation about abortion and the rise of the Religious Right within the Republican Party. Unlike Thomas Frank, Wuthnow has no dog in this fight. For this reason, Wuthnow’s account is unrivaled in the richness and depth of historical description.   

The beginning of this critical period dates back to the 1974 U.S. Senate election between Sen. Bob Dole and U.S. Rep. Bill Roy just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. With its large union workforce and sizable Catholic community, Wich-ita was a Democratic leaning city that Dole desperately needed to win.

The Dole campaign tagged Roy as an abortion provider and abortion proponent. With pro-life supporters distributing flyers in church parking lots, Dole won the Catholic vote and Wichita, saving his political career. Dole’s election in 1974 was a preview of the power of the abortion issue to mobilize religious people, especially Catholics.  

This power came into full view during the “Summer of Mercy” abortion protests in 1991 in front of Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic. The Catholic diocese in Wichita, under Bishop George Gerber, encouraged parishioners to protest. On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer, Gerber himself joined protesters and a number of Catholic priests were arrested.     

In the end, the Summer of Mercy reinforced the political changes initiated in 1974. Even though prior to 1991, Kansas Democrats maintained an uneasy alliance between its pro-life and pro-choice members (Democratic Gov. Joan Finney also joined the protests), after the Summer of Mercy, more Catholics found themselves voting for Republican candidates based largely on the abortion issue. This shift transformed Wichita and Sedg-wick County from a reliably blue area to a reliably red one and hurt Kansas Democrats’ capacity to compete in the county and in statewide contests.  

Wuthnow’s book is a reminder that even though today’s headlines may say that the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity engineered the conservative take-over of the Kansas Senate, the reality is that this conservative victory was over 35 years in the making.

Religion and politics in Kansas? Now that’s a powerful mix.   

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University

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