Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Following in His Steps: Kansas, the Kingdom of God, and Charles M. Sheldon's Homiletic Novels

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Following in His Steps: Kansas, the Kingdom of God, and Charles M. Sheldon's Homiletic Novels

Article excerpt

As the 2012 presidential election eclipses national media coverage, Kansas is far from a swing state. As with the previous eleven presidential campaigns, the Sunflower State remains poised to be solidly red. In the past year, Governor Sam Brownback has signed into state law a bill allowing pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraception based on a pro-life pharmacist's conscience, a bill banning Shari'ah law within the state's borders, and a new income tax rate approved and promoted by Tea-Party-backed state legislators. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Kansas earned its conservative stripes on both economic and social issues. In the twenty-first century, conservative-minded reform efforts have increased exponentially with the rise of the Tea Party movement, yet, in the same year as these conservative victories, Brownback apologized for a century of segregation in his home state in recognition of the fifty-eighth anniversary of the landmark Oliver Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Supreme Court decision.

To many, the acknowledgment of racial segregation and its essentially dehumanizing nature by a conservative leader in a conservative state is surprising. Kansas's complicated history of racial tensions suggests otherwise. In history textbooks, Kansas is built upon two famous Browns - radical abolitionist John Brown and African-American schoolgirl Linda Brown - and their respective paradigms toward race. Each figure represents, for Kansans, the powerful civil and religious values of "freedom" and of "equality" as well as the state's ostensible commitment to such values. The territorial period known as "Bleeding Kansas" and the segregation that necessitated Brown v. Board propelled the state into the national spotlight, making Kansas crucial to understanding what historians Rusty L. Monhollon and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel called the "long struggle for freedom and racial equality in the United States" (117). Kansans were not merely thrust into the limelight, but placed themselves at center stage in order to shape the values of the nation. Central to these bookends and to Kansas's peculiar racial history is the role of religion.

Kansas's religious climate shaped, and was shaped by, the history of race relations within its borders. Between John Brown and Sam Brownback lies the little known yet quite formidable figure of Charles Monroe Sheldon. As the pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas from 1889 to 1920, Sheldon stood at the forefront of progressive reforms in the state. He is better known, however, for writing one of the most popular novels of the twentieth century: In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Through his reform initiatives and bestselling homiletic novels, Sheldon ensured that the state defined itself according to its ability to be what literary giant and fellow Kansan William Allen White explained as the nation's "spiritual tuning fork" (6). When journalists like Thomas Frank ask "What's the matter with Kansas?", the answer lies within an examination of the state's religious life. In many ways, the actions of Sam Brownback and other things that are the "matter" with Kansas are best understood by examining Sheldon and his unique impact in Topeka specifically and the state more generally. An important exception to Robert Wuthnow's rule that "religion and politics in Kansas had less to do with contentious moral activism than it did with local communities and relationships among neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers," Sheldon pointed to the way in which communities in Kansas were divided by race and offered a way to bridge those divides through religious activism (8). Just as Kansans in 2012 make moral arguments based in Christianity to sway the political tides of the nation, Kansans in 1912 found the motivation for sweeping progressive-minded reform from their religious life. In this way, the twenty-first century red state has more in common with progressive politics than many would admit, yet the purpose of those reforms has changed dramatically even while maintaining their foundations in Christianity and the Republican Party. …

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