Red State Religion

Paul Harvey

Robert Wuthnow's new book Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland already is getting a lot of attention, and what could be a more American topic for July 4th? Below is a quick review of the book from Choice, and then below the fold links to a long and informative interview with Wuthnow at Religion and Politics. First the review:

bookjacketWuthnow, Robert.  Red state religion: faith and politics in America's heartland.  Princeton, 2012.  484p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780691150550, $35.00; ISBN 9781400839759 e-book, $35.00. Reviewed in 2012jul CHOICE.

  For political pundits and historians alike, Kansas state politics has long been a mystery in that a largely working-class state is the most consistently Republican and conservative state in the nation. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004) blamed the unholy alliance between religious conservatives and politicians as the core issue. Sociologist Wuthnow (Univ. of Kansas) digs further into the archival history of the state and argues that while religion and politics influenced each other from the start, Kansas politics was never monolithic. Kansas Democrats often achieved electoral success, and conservative and Republican candidates were often divided over public policy. Although Methodists and Catholics dominated the state, they frequently splintered over abolition, Prohibition, the New Deal, abortion, and education policy. Wuthnow argues that what most defines Kansas politics is its belief that civic life is best governed by local churches, families, schools, and community associations, rather than federal government engineering. . . . Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries. -- M. S. Hill, Gordon College

After the break, an excerpt from an excellent conversation with Wuthnow from Religion and Politics:

From Wuthnow's interview at
Religion and Politics:

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.


Matt Sutton said…
I reviewed this book for the AHR, which means the review will be out in a year or two. I conclude:

"Red State Religion is an excellent book. One of Wuthnow’s great strengths is that he crosses disciplinary boundaries so masterfully. He writes outstanding history, but he also has a sociologist’s eye for quantitative data. His engaging narrative is supported by vast demographic information, substantive polling results, and over a hundred interviews. The result is an important book that adds a fresh dimension to our understanding of the staying power of conservatism and the relationship between religion and politics in modern America. While numerous studies have probed rightward shifts in the west and south, Wuthnow helps us understand how faith and politics have long walked hand-in-hand in the heart of red-state America."