“Red State Religion,” written by Princeton University sociologist and native Kansan Robert Wuthnow, is a new book that chronicles the influence of religion on Kansas’ historical and political development. It is a 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.
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.
The beginning of this critical period dates back to the 1974 U.S. Senate election between Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Bill Roy, just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade. With its large union workforce and sizable Catholic community, Wichita 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 George Tiller’s abortion clinic. The Catholic diocese in Wichita, under Bishop Eugene Gerber, encouraged parishioners to protest. Gerber himself joined protesters, and a number of priests were arrested.
In the end, the Summer of Mercy reinforced the political changes first 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 Sedgwick County from a reliably blue area to reliably red one and hurt Kansas Democrats’ capacity to compete within the county and in statewide contests.
Wuthnow’s book is a reminder that even though today’s headlines may read that the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity engineered the conservative takeover of the Kansas Senate, the reality is that this conservative victory was more than 35 years in the making.
Religion and politics in Kansas? Now that’s a powerful mix.