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
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.