Accomplished sociologist that he is, Wuthnow wants to deprive us of still another ready-made stereotype, this time that phrase that summed up the liberal (forgive the stereotype) dismay with the results of the 2004 election, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank, Metropolitan Books, 2004). Kansas serves both coasts as the standard example of traditionalists who resist both reason and even self-interest as they “dig in their heels against enlightened, progressive, egalitarian ideals”. Using a wide range of sources that includes electronic data files, election results, public opinion polls, and personal networks, Kansas-born Wuthnow’s answer is something like, If you’d bother to look closely, not much. In Wuthnow’s portrayal, Kansas and its religion is more bathetic than pathetic. “Most of the time they (churches) were not about politics at all but instead focused on the ups and downs of daily life, helping people mourn and celebrate, and forging social ties that reminded them to be decent citizens” (9).
Rather than “conservative” Wuthnow would have us view Kansans as “de Tocquevilleians,” who operate on the principle that voluntary associations – what we now call “mediating structures” - prevent centralized government from becoming authoritarian, if not totalitarian, by enabling citizens to perform many of the “tasks needing to be done in their communities, such as caring for the sick and organizing schools, by themselves” (286). In short, after they vote, even the most enlightened liberals would want to go home to a place where his neighbors were like Kansans.
Wuthnow’s tone is careful as he deflates free-floating generalizations with the pointed complexity of data. He tells us that his “argument is that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two dominant religions – Methodism and Catholicism – actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining much ground during most of the state’s history” (xii). A major factor in Kansas’ perennial estrangement from an activist federal government has been its historic reliance on agriculture and its rural and small town demographics. But these Republican-leaning small government factors have greatly eroded. Unlike more isolated farming regions, mid-sized cities and urban churches largely tend toward a cultural and political centrism.
OK. Sure, there are some contrary facts that “knowledgeable” people sort-of know. Like Kansas is only one of the two states which have voted republican in at least 30 of the last 38 presidential elections. In 2008 when Obama beat McCain by seven points in the national vote, McCain won Kansas by 15 percent. Since I began reading Wuthnow a month ago I’ve found no mention of either Obama or Romney scheduling a Kansas campaign stop. Kansas doesn’t even merit the status of “swing state”. So far the only The New York Times mention of Kansas I’ve read about the election is the “birther” effort to remove Obama’s name from the state’s election ballot because he doesn’t meet citizenship requirements. Further back, the Board of Education in the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education was in Topeka. But Kansas “backwardness” has made some contemporary headlines, notably with their school boards voting to include intelligent design in the teaching of evolution and Wichita becoming the site of Operation Rescue’s longest siege and the place where on May 31, 2009 Scott Roehner killed the abortion provider Dr. George Tiller while he was in church.
But, for complexity, consider that Kansas rejected Barry Goldwater, elected Kathleen Sebelius, the present Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, governor in 2002 and reelected her for a second term. In the 2004 presidential election one voter in two claimed to be either a Democrat or an independent; in 2008, Obama received more than 514,000 votes. And Obama’s name remains on the ballot. Earlier we looked back at Brown vs. Board of Education. Wuthnow looks even further back and informs us that Kansas colleges and universities admitted black students from 1870 onward and was the first state giving women the vote.
Wuthnow reports that far more than other social conservative causes that bring Kansas voters to put aside their economic self-interest and to side with the fiscal conservatives who remain at the core of the Republican party is the issue of abortion which by the late 1970s was “the most hotly contested issue in state politics” and “the issue with the longest consequences for religion and politics in Kansas as in much of the nation” (p. 265). The way he treats abortion is similar to the way he reports on the other "social conservative" issues.
Again, Wuthnow finds complexity. “Abortion,” he writes, might be reprehensible, but Kansans knew there were circumstances when it might be the only reasonable option” (9). He reports that a 1989 representative survey of Kansas gave ammunition to both sides, with “a majority of those surveyed expressing approval of the state’s current policies and saying they would not want Roe v. Wade overturned. Opponents of abortion noted that a majority favored parental consent for teenagers seeking abortions, wanted doctors to perform tests to determine whether fetuses could survive outside the womb, and approved of abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life was in danger” (285). Here Kansans and most of the states could ask, What’s the matter with the East and West Coasts?
The impact of the abortion issue on voting? Once again, considered rather than considerable. “Nearly everyone thought that abortion was wrong, yet few regarded it as the sole issue guiding their political decisions or deriving from their religious convictions. They felt strongly enough that given the option, they would vote for a pro-life candidate over one who was pro-choice. But it bothered them when antiabortion activists took to the streets. They thought it was uncalled for when a church official suggested that the governor should not be allowed to receive communion because of her views” (353). Wuthnow reports that in the new millennium pro-life activists shifted increasing toward achieving abortion regulations that centered around the humanity of the fetus and the need for women to have real choices – both through volunteer groups providing alternatives to abortion and local and state agencies so that they might better follow their consciences and choose birth rather than abortion.
So, What’s the Matter with Kansas and red state religion? According to Wuthnow, the polity everywhere would be better if it suffered from the same thing. It’s time for a little bathos.