Red State Religion

By Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press. 488 pp. $35.00

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Reviewed by Alexander Heffner

In the 2008 election, to the surprise of many political analysts, Barack Obama made remarkable inroads in deeply entrenched Republican majorities, winning in North Carolina and closing the gap to five points in Georgia.

But not in Kansas, where the Obama campaign took a 15-point defeat. Indeed, Kansas is possibly the most conservative-blooded state in the union. It also has voted Republican more consistently than any other state.

To elevate our understanding of red-state politics, American scholar Robert Wuthnow, a native Kansan who teaches sociology and directs the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, has penned one of the most insightful political histories of the year. An elegantly written and impressively researched new title, Red State Religion is a real triumph.

Wuthnow explores the economic, political, and social complexities of the Sunflower State, which today is a fortress of unbreakable Republican rule.

"Only two states voted Republican in at least thirty of the nation's thirty-eight presidential elections. One of those two voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 2008. That state was Kansas," Wuthnow writes, adding, "In 2008, when Barack Obama beat John McCain by seven points in the popular vote nationally, McCain won Kansas by 15 percent."

Despite this seemingly unvarying Republican voting record, including years of GOP governors, representatives in Congress, and Republican-led legislatures, Kansas is a more nuanced beast, as Wuthnow informs us.

One of Wuthnow's central ideas is that the conservatism of Kansans is less ideological than pragmatic. Rather than thinking of Kansas as synonymous with the Christian coalition of 2011, Wuthnow urges upon readers a further-reaching view of religion and public life in the state.

Instead of simplistically deeming Kansas the birthplace of unhinged conservatism, Wuthnow portrays a state that is home to intricate rivalries between moderate Methodists and Catholics as well as among pro- and anti-civil rights factions of both major parties.

Yes, Christian evangelicals have determined much of the modern Republican agenda within the state. Yes, believers still campaign steadfastly to replace Darwinism with creationism in science classes. And, yes, the religious right has voted to ban abortion and gay marriage.

But as Wuthnow points out, Kansas' historical trajectory features an eclectic mix of personalities and causes, including John Brown, Carrie Nation, and Dwight D. Eisenhower and ranging from abolition to prohibition to anticommunism. Readers are reminded that, frequent media portrayals to the contrary notwithstanding, Kansas did not spontaneously generate into a conservative haven. Nor is the state ethos centrally focused on ideology alone, according to the native Kansan. Rather, its core has long been dedication to family and community.

After bloody and bitter division, Kansas entered the union as a free state, on Jan. 29, 1861. Feminist icon Lucy Stone heralded Kansas as home to a radical universal suffragist movement.

To what does Wuthnow attribute the radical shift that would have permanent repercussions for the state's politics? Three words: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Alternatively, another set: The New Deal.)

While initially supportive of the New Deal, in the wake of the Dust Bowl and as early as 1936 - FDR was elected in 1932 - Kansans "became increasingly disillusioned with it." As Wuthnow writes:

Fundamentalism made inroads. . . . Extremists used radio broadcasts to attract audiences, and did so among people who disliked Roosevelt and feared the one-party rule they saw in Washington.

In a state disconnected from urban life and the most immediate aid being delivered to economically devastated American cities, the despair and perhaps alienation that took root in Kansas is logical. "The motif that most characterized the region was a pervasive skepticism toward big government," writes Wuthnow. The New Deal, to many Midwesterners, was an unworkable proposition. How could sweeping government overhaul from the top be consistent with the most basic unit and pride in Kansas, the family, and by extension, local community and religion?

Today, coverage of Kansas is predominantly focused on the persistent political reality of Republican domination in the state. Sam Brownback, now governor, was furthest right on the spectrum among the GOP's presidential candidates in the 2008 campaign. Brownback's politics always have gotten more attention, and have been treated as more quintessentially Kansan, than those of Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.

With the publication of Red State Religion, we profit greatly from a majestically comprehensive account of Kansas' history. In turn, we get a truer story, one that inspires a less ideological reading of the state, perhaps freeing Kansans themselves from any notion of how they must think - or vote.

Alexander Heffner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Today.