Politics

Church and State

In Kansas politics, the Christian Right doesn't just pressure the establishment anymore. It is the establishment.
by | July 2005

Joe Wright and Terry Fox walk around the Kansas capitol like they own the place. Hanging around before lunch one day outside the Senate chamber, the two men are offering up hugs and handshakes with the effortless familiarity of the most seasoned legislators and lobbyists. That's not what they are, though: They are Baptist ministers from Wichita. They are in the capitol to make it clear that, in the wake of their triumph in forcing a vote on a constitutional ban against gay marriage, they plan to keep using their influence on a variety of political issues to come.

For the most part, the legislators seem glad they are there. "Topeka, in my opinion, is a very dark place," says state Senator Peggy Palmer, "and these people bring some light into this building. They keep us on the right path and I appreciate their help."

Palmer has good reason to feel this way. She is a parishioner at Wright's Central Christian Church--as are two other sitting legislators--and Wright had encouraged her to make a run for the Senate last year against a veteran incumbent. Angered by the legislature's refusal to move the gay marriage issue onto the 2004 ballot, Wright, Fox and other Wichita pastors joined with allies throughout the state's religious community to register tens of thousands of new voters. They published voter guides and helped elect enough conservative legislators not only to force a referendum on gay marriage, which passed easily in April, but possibly to tip the balance of power within a long-feuding Kansas Republican Party toward the conservative side.

Honored-guest status at the legislature is gratifying for Joe Wright, who hasn't always been a popular figure there. He prompted a walkout back in 1996 when he opened that year's House session with a prayer in which he told the members, among other things, that they had "abused power and called it politics... polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression."

As recently as last spring, when Wright and Fox started coming regularly to the capitol to lobby against gay marriage, senators called them "the Taliban" and "the two Ayatollahs from Wichita." But there is little name-calling now. "The thing legislators understand is the power of who's got the votes," Fox says. "When we first came up here, some were friendly, most were cordial at best, but after the success of the marriage amendment, they not only will see us, they'll buy our lunch anytime."

Last year, in his best-selling book What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank posited the notion that lower- and middle-income people are essentially being hustled by the conservatives on social issues, enticed to vote against their economic self-interest by an agenda consisting of "God, gays and guns." Even though moral issues are hot during election years, Frank argues, little substantive change ever takes place. Republican legislators pass bills that benefit their business constituency, keeping the social issues on ice until they are needed for the next election. After more than two decades of lobbying, the conservatives have made little progress toward outlawing abortion, which they oppose, or toward the legalization of school prayer, which they favor.

That may be the case in Washington, D.C., where business groups have enjoyed a run of legislative successes this year, even as the idea of a constitutional ban on gay marriage appears all but forgotten. But it's not true in Kansas, or in other places where conservatives gained new strength at the polls in 2004.

Topeka, like several state capitals, has become a primary battleground in the "culture war" (a term both Fox and Wright embrace), the center of debate about restrictions on abortion, the teaching of alternatives to Darwinian evolution, and limits on the rights of gay people to marry, adopt or serve as foster parents.

The Christian Right isn't prevailing everywhere, but it is shaping the agenda in many states with a push to preserve or reimpose traditional values. This year, Kansas and neighboring Missouri have each considered legislation to restrict stem-cell research. Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi have passed bills endorsing the religious scruples of pharmacists wary of handing out contraceptives and morning-after pills. When Kansas voters approved a gay marriage ban in April, their state became the 14th to write one into its constitution through public referendum.

STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL

The momentum of that victory, Wright and Fox hope, will help them promote a broader agenda in the months to come. If they can do that, conservatives may reach a tipping point in their grasp for power. Kansas is dominated by Republicans, but in recent years, warring factions have fought for supremacy. In 2002, the split within Republican ranks allowed Democrat Kathleen Sebelius to win the governor's mansion.

The question is whether conservatives and Christian activists can push forward with their programs and candidates without offending the moderates who are still in office and whose votes they need to win general election battles. A big test will come next year. Sebelius is up for reelection, but so far no Republican with credentials to hold the party together has stepped forward for the challenge.

As things stand, though, Wright, Fox, Palmer and their allies have the momentum. They have taken over the state Republican apparatus and enjoy firm control of the Kansas House. There are too few Democrats in the legislature for Sebelius to enact any substantial policy agenda of her own and, while moderate Republicans remain a significant presence in the state Senate, they seem increasingly dispirited and inert, unable to generate the passion that conservatives easily summon up around key issues and election battles. "Moderates are not as organized or charged up," complains Val DeFever, a former member of the state board of education and a moderate herself. "Conservatives will stand out in the rain until they get their way, and that's the moderates' problem."

Moderate GOP ranks in both chambers of the legislature were severely depleted last year, with nearly two dozen of the moderates losing their seats over gay marriage and a proposed tax increase. If the party seems more unified today, it's the unity of one side taking control, conservatives finally riding into power on the backs of grassroots activists such as Terry Fox and Joe Wright, and the organizational acumen of U.S. Senator Sam Brownback and some of the new legislative leadership.

"They have the upper hand--they control the party," says Bob Tomlinson, a moderate ex-legislator who is now the state's assistant insurance commissioner. "But they earned it at the ballot box. They didn't steal it. If you're a moderate, you have to consider the possibility that maybe your message is not what the public wants to hear."

There are other states, of course, where events are not playing out as social conservatives would wish. In Colorado, Vermont and Minnesota, Republicans have watched their legislative majorities dissipate or disappear because too many voters have proved unhappy with the social issue agenda, supporting centrist Democrats over Republicans tied to the religious right. Even in the more conservative constituencies of South Dakota and Arizona, there's been tension within the GOP between those who are passionate about moral issues and business interests that wish legislators would devote their attention to bread-and-butter concerns such as taxes and transportation. "We've heard a number of complaints from business leaders," says Tom Clark, of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, "that there was way too much talk about the Ten Commandments and prayer in schools and too little about the things that make Colorado competitive."

One way to explain these events is to argue that conservatives will inevitably encounter a backlash if they push their agenda too hard. But another explanation is that social conservatives in some of the other states just have not gained the sophistication they have achieved in Kansas.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Much of this year's legislative session in Topeka was spent discussing education finance, since the state was under court order to relieve regional disparities in school funding. But moral and social issues remained at or near the top of the agenda. In addition to gay marriage, legislators argued over Sunday blue laws, gambling and limits on wine production. Although Kansas has no gun control laws to speak of, a bill was passed this year preempting localities from crafting any such ordinances of their own. A proposal to toughen state regulation of abortion clinics passed overwhelmingly, although Sebelius was able to twist enough arms to muster a one-third House vote that sustained her veto.

The biggest fight of the year, however, may be one that is occurring outside the legislature. It is being played out as the state Board of Education takes up the question of teaching evolution.

Most members of the moderate Republican faction wince the minute the subject comes up. One of them, Representative Ed O'Malley, who comes from the affluent suburbs of Johnson County, cups his head in his hands as he describes the dozens of media outlets that descended on his state for the start of the evolution hearings this spring. "Why do they have to do that?" he asks.

Kansas is famous for having gone down this road before. After a conservative-dominated Board of Education voted to block the teaching of evolution in 1999, voters changed the makeup of the board in a victory for more liberal constituencies. The pendulum has now swung back. Conservatives were better organized in last year's Board of Education voting--they won a key Republican primary, and Democrats contested only one of the five seats that were up. So the creationists again hold a majority on the board. "The conservatives have six votes," laments Democratic board member Bill Wagnon. "They're going to do whatever they want to."

But the creationists have learned a political lesson from 1999. This time, they don't intend to push the evolution issue any further than they think popular opinion will allow. Rather than insisting on overtly religious dogma, they are arguing that mainstream scientific evidence lends credence to the idea that humans are the product of "intelligent design."

During this year's debate, in fact, skeptics about Darwin's theory are talking more about science than most scientists do. "My objective," says Steve Abrams, chairman of the education board and a social conservative, "is good science that's empirically based, measurable, testable and repeatable." Pastor Fox calls the evolution debate "the mother of all political battles," but even he speaks of the wisdom of not pushing the issue as hard as it was pushed six years ago.

Similarly, on abortion, conservatives are seeking to present their proposals as reasonable and their opponents as extremists. There have been two major fights over abortion in Kansas this year. One surrounded the legislative proposal to tighten state regulation of abortion clinics, which passed the House 87-36 but failed to survive the governor's veto. That bill's ultimate defeat, according to Fox, "shows that the pro-choice, liberal faction is not ready to give any ground at all on this cause, even at the cost of protecting lives. Even moderates will say the governor is way out of step."

Kansas's other abortion fight surrounds Attorney General Phill Kline's year-long investigation into rape and child abuse cases, which resulted in the subpoena of medical records from abortion clinics. The subpoenas have drawn national attention and complaints from Planned Parenthood and other organizations that say they are an intimidating intrusion on patient privacy.

Kline, a conservative loyalist and battle-scarred veteran of the internal warfare in the Kansas GOP, allows that there can be a reasonable argument about whether abortions should be allowed in certain circumstances, such as when a pregnant woman has been abandoned. But Kline, like Fox, insists the desire to preserve that right has led the pro-choice side to abandon all reason. "I think they lose this battle," Kline says. "Americans do not support child rape and do not think privacy concerns should shield child rapists."

450-POUND GORILLA

Abortion is the issue that sparked the modern conservative movement in Kansas. In 1974, U.S. Senator Bob Dole ran one of the first major campaigns to trade heavily on the issue, narrowly defeating an opponent who had performed a handful of abortions as a physician. Pictures of aborted fetuses were stuck on car windshields in church parking lots the Sunday before the election. Ever since then, the issue has been a crucial mobilizing force not only for religious conservatives within Kansas but for activists around the country.

During the 1991 "Summer of Mercy," thousands of abortion protesters descended on Wichita, leading to 2,700 arrests. In the aftermath of that event, abortion became a political presence even on subjects where one would not expect it. At a legislative hearing on the topic of transporting natural gas, a producer was asked his opinion about abortion, the suggestion being that pro-life legislators expected him to come down on the right side of the question even if his business before the state was unrelated. Today, says state Senator Phil Journey, abortion may no longer be the 800-pound gorilla of Kansas politics, "but it's about 450 or 500 pounds."

This year, after the House failed to override Sebelius' veto of the abortion clinic bill, Pastors Fox and Wright worked the hallways outside the chamber, telling reporters that the governor and those who sided with her would soon find their punishment. "The vote taken today will be the driving force behind the governor's election in November 2006," said Fox. "It is these very issues that will motivate and energize conservatives like Governor Sebelius has never seen."

That's possible, of course. The state's church leadership is not only aroused but sophisticated, some 1,200 ministers in constant electronic communication about politics. Many of their parishioners are activists as well. "If we represent the numbers we do in this state and we pay taxes, we ought to have a voice like everybody else," says Jerry Johnston, a politically prominent conservative pastor in Johnson County.

Not all Kansans--not all Republicans--feel that is what the state's clergymen ought to be doing. "I'm uncomfortable with my preacher telling me how to vote, and mine doesn't," says Sheila Frahm, a former lieutenant governor and U.S. senator who lost her Senate seat in 1996 to Brownback's conservative challenge. "Our country was built on the separation of church and state," Frahm insists. She and other moderates admit, however, that their point of view is losing steam.

But the Christian Right now faces a challenge endemic to party politics. Can conservatives keep their most ardent supporters fired up and invested, while maintaining a stance temperate enough to occupy a leading role on a broad range of issues?

So far, the evidence seems to suggest that they can find that balance. On school funding this year, for example, the conservatives engineered a skillful legislative compromise that left little room for dissent from either the governor or the moderate Republican legislators who originally favored a different approach. The deal was later rejected by the state Supreme Court, but it did demonstrate that conservative activists knew to operate in a demanding legislative environment. As seen in the evolution battle, even the most militant preachers are learning to take a careful, incremental approach on highly charged issues.

STAYING TOGETHER

The image of newfound pragmatism may change, however, if the different wings of the party can't coalesce behind a challenger to run against Sebelius. Candidates who have broad appeal within the GOP have already backed away, although one, Congressman Jerry Moran, may still decide to run. Further blood may be shed if conservative Republican legislators make good their threats to run against incumbents from their own party in primaries next year. Some of them are determined to follow through, no matter how much intraparty bitterness the move might create. "I am a conservative," says state Senator Kay O'Connor, who may challenge Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh. "Does that mean I have to be quiet? That's not the American way, as far as I'm concerned."

It may not be the American way, but it's the winning way, warns Senator Phil Journey, a leading conservative strategist. He points out that many of the pivotal votes in any state election continue to be cast by moderate Republicans in Johnson County, the state's richest and most populous jurisdiction, who can easily be made uncomfortable by the militance of the conservative wing. Their disaffection provided a needed boost to Sebelius in her first run for governor--a scenario Journey hopes to avoid repeating next year. He has worked hard to build alliances with moderates--relationships that he admits are fragile and "a lot easier to destroy than they are to build. If we have conservative candidates running against moderate Republicans, all that will have been for naught."

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