Interview

Red State Religion: An Interview with Robert Wuthnow

By | June 27, 2012

A rural Kansas church stands behind an autumn tree.

(Patrick Emerson / Flickr.com)

Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland
by Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press, 2012

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He also serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Religion & Politics. A prolific scholar, Wuthnow has written extensively on religion, culture, and civil society. From global Christianity to religious diversity, from small town America to fear of terrorism, Wuthnow’s research interests span the gamut.

His latest book, Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, comes but a year after his previous book, Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s, and somewhat picks up where the latter left off. Kansas, as Wuthnow describes it, has historically been a bastion of small-town America, home to proud families dedicated to fiscal conservatism, smaller government, and their local church. Having voted Republican more consistently than almost any other state in the country, Kansas is “red state America par excellence,” as well as “a leading player in national controversies about religion and politics.” One might think of the state’s push for Prohibition in the nineteenth century, its schools that are battlegrounds for creationism and intelligent design, its public opposition to Roe v. Wade, or the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller on the steps of his Wichita church in 2009.

Wuthnow shows with acute historical detail how, regardless of the state’s consistently red votes, its relationship with conservatism has been far from simple. “[M]y aim is not to describe Kansas simply as a breeding ground for religious and political conservatism,” Wuthnow writes. “Religion and politics in Kansas have had a complicated history.” Panning from the Civil War through the early years of the current century, he documents how the Republican Party and religious conservatism prevented radical religious and political movements from taking hold in the state. And more than just a macroscopic view, Wuthnow uses archival materials to examine its subjects at a level that is often forgotten by other researchers: that of local communities and intimate relationships between people. 

As a Kansas native, Wuthnow wrote Red State Religion out of both academic and personal interest. I met with Professor Wuthnow—who is also my academic adviser—to discuss the book in his office. —A.G.

R&P: How much of this book builds on your last book, Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s?

RW: Well, that book mostly deals with the institutions in the American heartland: the businesses, farms, schools, towns, growing suburbs, and so forth. When I started that book, I thought I would get around to talking about religion and politics. The project got too big, though, so I had to leave religion and politics for another piece. Remaking the Heartland shows more broadly how the local institutions that people founded very early, like in the 1870s and 1880s, have continued to provide strength for people even though the population has declined, people have moved to the cities, and so forth. And that’s also where the churches come in.

R&P: How does Red State Religion contribute to the larger conversations on religion and politics in the United States?

RW: One way to think about that is that religion and politics is often described by academics and journalists as a kind of knee-jerk reaction: that people are driven by ideology so much that they lose sight of their own self-interest. What seems to be happening in Kansas (and I guess in a lot of places right now in the 2012 election) is that yes, ideology influences people but it doesn’t totally drive their politics or their religion. They are thinking locally: what’s good for us, for our family, how can we make our life better, those sorts of things. In some ways that may involve moral issues; in other ways it may involve economic issues. It may matter a lot in terms of who they vote for, or it may not matter much at all. And that’s what we see in the history of religion and politics in Kansas.

R&P: On page 11, you write: “Religion was generally more significant in private life than it ever was in the political sphere.” What is it about religion and private life that is different from the way religion and politics has traditionally been discussed?

RW: This was the reason why I tried throughout the book to bring in the voices of women: the politics for so much of the period were dominated, of course, by men. Not entirely, but pretty much. And yet the women were the ones who were often dealing with the most difficult circumstances. There was the prospect of dying in childbirth, of giving birth to children who died, of dealing with being out in an isolated part of the country with their husbands away.

The story I came across that grips me the most whenever I think or read about it again is the story of Susie Crawford in 1924 [pp. 132-134]. She is a very devout woman who attends a rural Methodist church (her grandfather was one of the Methodist preachers who came in as a revivalist of sorts) and who raises a very devout Methodist family. She gets up in the morning, starts to cook breakfast for her family, and the gas stove explodes. She dies that evening, in her late 30s and with 3 small children.

The entire community, of course, turns out for her funeral. It is such a large gathering that they can’t have it at the rural church. My grandparents probably attended that funeral. It’s just so moving to think about what that meant for the community, but also about how much faith was a part of her life and a part of the people who were related to her and who mourned her death.

R&P: The church as an institution plays a significant role in this book: from Lincoln’s address in the opening of the book to pro-life mobilization in the final chapters. What is it about the church in Kansas, as an institution in particular, that shaped religion, politics, and civic life? 

RW: In Kansas, the church is the place people go to be good, to know how to do good, to be seen as being good. Let me offer another anecdote. There’s a wonderful documentary film called Zenith by Kristen Tretbar. In this film, which is filmed in the little town of Zenith, Kansas, there’s a scene in a wheat-growing area. The farm woman is standing on her porch looking out at this storm that comes up and starts a terrible hail storm. She knows at that moment that the wheat crop is gone. They have nothing left.

The film then flips over to the farmer’s coop where these guys in their 20s and 30s are sitting around talking about their struggles with drugs, marital issues, and so on. But they have been going to Promise Keepers and have also started attending this woman’s Sunday school class at the local Methodist church. So you can see the kind of moral climate in the community. It’s very divided between images of light and dark, images of good and bad, images of doing the right thing and the wrong thing. Part of what it means to go to the Methodist church is that you’re doing the right thing for yourself, for your family. It’s a place where you can make a difference. You can’t stop the hail from ruining your crop, but you can make a difference in these moral ways.

R&P: You also focus a lot on the actual physical structures of the churches: their architecture, their size, etc. What is it about the physical spaces that made them important fixtures in the makeup of Kansas?

RW: It was the physical structures that created sanctified space that told people that this is important. They really believed that these were God’s houses, God’s places, places of worship and that they should be built both as utilitarian but also as architecturally attractive as was possible given the economy. So I spent a lot of time in the book talking about some of the early churches and how they got started. People saw the possibility of having churches in their communities as adornments that would attract newcomers. A church was the kind of thing any good community should have.

Over time, the Methodists and the Catholics, the two main groups in early Kansas, were very good at adapting to the demographic changes. Protestant churches in towns were often small but shifted from wood to brick structures and installed electricity as soon as they could. Catholic churches out in the plains were much larger, but to this day you can still see some of these gigantic churches from miles and miles away. And today, of course, there are now places like Church of the Magdalen, an impressive church in Wichita. Most of the population in Kansas today either lives in Wichita or suburban Kansas City, so megachurches have grown to adapt to these populations as well.

R&P: Yes, at several points you discuss the way that churches were not just places for faith and religion: they were also places of civic engagement, socializing, and, of course, hearing about politics.

RW: Sometimes people heard political speeches, like with Lincoln, in their churches. In other cases they heard people talk against the Ku Klux Klan, which is what William Allen White meant in the 1920s when he wrote about churches. In a few cases, they heard from Klansmen who would come marching in to church and basically make a show of themselves (whether by intimidation or people-approved), but the Klansmen tried to connect the churches. So this recent mixing of religion and politics that we have seen so much in relation to the pro-life movement, the anti-gay movement, creationism, intelligent design, and so forth, may be more pronounced, more extreme, and different in that it is driven in and by megachurches, but it’s not entirely new. People have dealt with that question about what it means to be a good citizen and a good person of faith from the very beginning.

R&P: One of the big changes in the book is the role of the clergy and their pronouncements on politics. Early on, both clergy and lay people wanted clergy to stay out of politics. But as the book progressed and as history changed, it became much different.

RW: One of the dynamics that led clergy for many years to stay out of politics was that it was dangerous in some ways to mix church and state. There was a certain risk in getting too involved with politics because politics were always dicey. Even in a state that was overwhelmingly Republican, you could be the wrong kind of Republican and get yourself in trouble. And with Methodists and Catholics alike, with a similar church polity of bishops being in control, a local pastor or priest could fall into disfavor with the bishop and be moved to an undesirable location.

The big change, then, that started happening in the 1960s and then increasingly by the 1980s, was twofold. First, Roe v Wade got everybody interested (or more interested) in politics. But the second, even more important, change was that the dominant Protestant group was no longer the Methodists. It was now Southern Baptist. Kansas was always considered a northern state. There were no Southern Baptists until after WWII when jobs opened up and the aircraft industry brought people from surrounding states. Kansas was surrounded on two sides with states that had hundreds of thousands of Southern Baptists who decided to open churches in Kansas. The Southern Baptists were much better at starting churches in urban areas and were very entrepreneurial, so their churches grew.

R&P: The last 30 years seem like more of a whirlwind in Kansas history in the book. It felt as though Kansas was swept up to a considerable degree into vociferous national politics. It somewhat surprised me.

RW: And it surprised a lot of people in Kansas as well, from what they told us when we interviewed them. At the grassroots level, at the local community level, yes: they were against abortion and if they had to choose in the political arena they would always vote for somebody who was pro life. But it was not a driving issue for them. They would say “personally I would never have an abortion as a woman, but I understand the situations where somebody might.” And then there’s the schoolteacher that I quote in the piece [pp. 353-4]: a hardened Korean War vet who is tough on his kids for drinking, smoking, etc. Yet he says to let the women decide this.

And so it was a whirlwind. It was so shocking to people in Wichita, especially in the early 90s when Operation Rescue moved in big time and basically took over their town and cost them thousands of dollars just for police detail. Of course they are distraught of the image of Kansas that creationism and the schools have made, and so that’s why they’ve repeatedly voted out the conservative members of the school board. They are also very distraught of being the state where Dr. George Tiller was murdered. They know that that cast the state in a negative light. And that doesn’t mean that they’re saying that they should switch to being pro-choice. I was very critical in the book about the incredible focus on Dr. Tiller and his clinic, just demonizing that one person so vehemently that it was not that surprising that somebody decided to kill him. And at a church! It was indeed a whirlwind.

R&P: What role does demography play in how religion and politics have changed in Kansas?

RW: The small towns and the farms in the rural counties have declined significantly in population whereas the suburban areas around Wichita and Kansas City have grown to the point that Johnson county, the most populous suburban Kansas City county on the Kansas side, has as many people as the entire Western third of the state. So where are the megachurches located? In Johnson county near Kansas City and in Wichita, of course. And that has meant that the Southern Baptists who came in and started churches have done very well. It has also meant that Catholic and Methodist churches in those areas have also done well: those are the largest congregations by far in the state.

If we think about moral politics and the role of the Religious Right, then yes: it is still the case that a lot of people in the small rural parts of the state are conservative and will vote for a pro-life candidate over a pro-choice candidate. But the dominant thrust of moral politics has to be where the population is: in those areas with larger churches and larger voting blocks.

But another thing is that there are people in the cities and suburbs whose economic interests are likely to be different from the farmers. This is why Kansas was able to vote in a Democratic governor a number of times since the 1960s, like Kathleen Sebelius. She was not able to just ignore the Republican tradition in the state by any means, but she was able to appeal to lots of people who are very well educated, who have good jobs, and understand that it’s important to fund the colleges, etc. So politics in some ways have gotten a whole lot more interesting and a whole lot more bipartisan than it ever was in the past.

R&P: How has this demographic change contributed to the cultural distancing that you discuss in the piece: the sense of isolation from Washington, D.C., the division between urban and rural cities in Kansas, etc?

RW: One new dynamic is the cultural and political distance between people in the large cities and suburbs and the people in the farming areas. This has led to redistricting. And so one could ask, for instance: what has been the power base of Sam Brownback? Brownback is from a rural background in Kansas and when he was elected to the Senate, repeatedly, he was getting a lot of votes from rural Kansas where they knew him. But he also got a lot of votes from Catholics and conservative Protestants. And so now that he has gone back and become governor he has that very large base to rely on and he is also able to pick up a number of people in the cities as well. So in some ways even though there is that gap between the urban and the rural, somebody like Brownback spans that gap.

The other dynamic, though, is the increasing Hispanic population, especially in Western Kansas. In Garden City, Kansas, the majority of the population is Hispanic. It is also one of the fastest growing smaller towns in Kansas. So at this point, the Hispanic population in terms of the state is not large enough to make a difference, but in local politics, it’s making a considerable difference. Garden City’s mayor, several times over now, has been Hispanic. And Brownback’s local chief staff person in Garden City is Hispanic. This presence has influenced debates on creationism and intelligent design, immigration, and has raised questions especially for the Catholic leaders on providing sanctuary and social services for immigrant populations.

R&P: Thank you for your comments, Professor Wuthnow. I really appreciate you taking the time out to discuss the book with me.

RW: I really appreciate the time you spent on reading the book and doing the Q&A. I haven’t had that many opportunities to discuss it with anyone yet, so it was a special treat for me.

Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University. 

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