December 17, 2012

There’s No Place Like Home

by Cara Burnidge

In a few short days, I’ll begin the long drive home for the holidays. Fifteen hours and six states later, I’ll complete the trek from the Sunshine to the Sunflower State. Considering how many times I’ve driven from the Florida panhandle to southeast Kansas, you would think that I would have a better answer to the question: Where is home?

Without trying to give Rick Scott more reason to privilege STEM programs over the humanities, let me explain. It’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think because of the odd role Kansas plays in the historiography of the American West. Compasses are not all that helpful: Kansas does not belong to the regional histories of the North nor the South; the East nor the West (ignoring for a moment my own efforts to situate it there). Cultural geographers have changed their minds over time too. Kansas has a part of the West, Midwest, and Great Plains as its identity shifted from a territory on the frontier (even a part of a Gold Rush) to “fly over state.” Setting aside these questions of regionalism, sociologist Robert Wuthnow places Kansas on the nation’s cultural map according to one quality that seems to endure: Kansas is a solidly red state.

It is certainly hard to disagree. As Wuthnow points out in Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Kansas has voted Republican in every presidential election between 1968 and 2008 (2). And now we can also include the 2012 election in which Mitt Romney received 60% of the popular vote and only 2 of 105 counties went blue (Douglas and Wyandotte counties for those of you playing trivia at home).  While there certainly are other states that are red, Kansas appears to be quintessentially so. Wuthnow attempts to explain why by examining the religion and politics of the state. Instead of asking “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” and draw attention to the ways religion fuels an ideological conservatism, Wuthnow asserts a “red state religion” in Kansas that is more of a “practical” conservatism. He writes:

“red state 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” (8).

It feels like Wuthnow’s assertion could be true. Growing up in rural Kansas, I know that the local community can be like an extended family. Next week, when neighbors see my car in the driveway they are likely to come over and catch up, asking about my semester and if I have finished my dissertation yet (so close, I promise!).  I understand Wuthnow’s attempt to draw attention away from a small number of (mostly male) ideological firebrands who catch headlines and toward the more private expressions of religion, especially women, in this red state. 

But the scholar in me thinks twice. For all the complexity that Wuthnow adds to the portrait of this red state, the picture is a little too neat. In particular, I wonder why the “practical” and “ideological” sides of conservatism are depicted as opposing forces at all. It seems possible to me that contentiousness can be the result of local relationships among neighbors, especially those who did not want their neighborhood to include certain neighbors. From battles with border ruffians during the Bleeding Kansas territorial period to Carrie A. Nation smashing saloons to battles over abortion clinics, pragmatic concerns about local neighborhoods are fully a part of the moral activism that has defined this red state. For instance, concern over who belongs to the neighborhood and, therefore, deserves the care and concern of others, caused Social Gospel minister, Charles Sheldon to push his congregants to cross the borders of their own neighborhood and serve the residents of Tennesseetown, the neighborhood that belonged to Exoduster migrants. In other words, is a “neighborly” and practical conservatism all that different from an ideological one?

Wuthnow leaves plenty of room for further scholarship on the complexities of Kansas and I certainly hope we see more examinations of religion in red (and blue) states on the horizon soon. It’s a good thing I have 15 hours ahead of me. 

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