on July 1, 2012
Robert Wuthnow, America's leading church historian, has written a finely crafted piece on his native state (Kansas), that covers the often misunderstood intersection of religion and politics. This book is an indirect refutation of the confused 2004 work of Thomas Frank, "What's the Matter With Kansas?". Kansas/Midwestern political types would be wise to read this, Church historians who want to see an excellent local study, and any native Kansans who want a better grasp on their home-states many social/historical nuances.
Bleeding Kansas was a cultural bell-weather in the 1850s with militant abolitionists, in the 1880s-90s with populist discontent, and in the early 20th century with the (then) progressive appeal for prohibition. Wuthnow brings out the religious underbelly of how Catholics and Methodists (Kansas two largest denominations) were part of this historical process. He does a lot of small statistical studies to prove/disprove popular stereotypes (check his footnotes and you will be amazed how many numbers he crunches).
Wuthnow is very attuned to changes in religious demographics (as caught in the 1896-1936 Federal Religious censuses, and since 1950 by Glenmary researchers every decade report-the 2010 version is now out). He charts the post 1930s rise of Southern Baptists (Vs. American); Churches of Christ (vs. Disciples) and the various parts of the evangelical coalition that have (in the last 20 years)now displaced the old "mainline" Protestant churches as the dynamo in Kansas Christianity.
The strengths of this book include his look at long forgotten "controversies" in the 19th century (and early 20th century) relating to Catholicism, the case studies of certain well-known Kansas "mega-churches", and a relatively dispassionate telling of 1990s abortion, science & religion controversies, (extremely easy to misconstrue topics).
Weaknesses, in my view, are that the 1990s controversies are not so clearly tied to the underlying religious demographics (he did very little number crunching or personal biography telling here), he ignores the debates over capital punishment in the 1960s-1990s (which many Catholic/mainline Protestant leaders played a big part in); he doesn't examine the rise of secularism in Kansas as a factor, he doesn't look at the religious beliefs of post 1960 Kansas governors (he has many wonderful quotes from earlier governors and at the very least should comment on Sam Brownback who is now a Catholic but also attends, with his family, the evangelical Topeka Bible Church).
But saying this almost seems like quibbling. Wuthnow has done Kansas a huge favor in facilitating informed understanding on faith and politics, and illuminating how Kansas both reflected and rejected national trends.
Books like this are why God made church historians, even Berkeley trained ones to boot!