Religious Middle

By Hart, D. G. | The American Conservative, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Religious Middle

Hart, D. G., The American Conservative

Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Press, 488 pages

A scholar who wanted to portray Kansas, a state widely known as "a bastion of Protestant Republican conservatism," in a less rightwing 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 commonsense 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. …

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