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Robert Wuthnow, Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 26, Numbers 1–2

Robert Wuthnow, Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 504 pp.

Robert Wuthnow, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has written numerous books and articles in the field of sociology of religion. A student of Robert Bellah, he refined and further developed the concept of civil religion. In Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Wuthnow convincingly argues that being a “Red” state, namely, consistently voting for Republicans may be best understood as part of the framework of religious loyalty, and more accurately—civil religious loyalty.

The state of Kansas, the topic of Wuthnow’s study, always has been more Republican than any other state. The allegiance of Kansans to the Republican Party has become legendary since they consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates and also elected Republicans in most of the state’s gubernatorial and congressional elections. Reviewing the history of partisan politics in Kansas since the 1850s, Wuthnow shows that while voters in Kansas occasionally strayed from electing Republicans, such defection was temporary and the Republican Party always would make a comeback. Therefore, he wonders how despite the profound changes that have taken place in American society, particularly in the Midwest, such partisan loyalty persists.

According to Wuthnow, the study of voting patterns in Kansas is important for Americans and others. Kansas serves as an ideal case study of white Protestants and Catholics in small-town America. He quotes the editor of a Kansan newspaper who wrote in 1923 that “Kansas is the political experiment station of America. Try it on Kansas and if it doesn’t work there it won’t work anywhere” (154). Indeed, the Kansan experience presents a unique paradigm for creative analyses of democratic political systems all over the world: the paradigm of civil religion.

The author maintains that the religious factor in supporting the Republican Party is based upon the idea that public officials in Washington were remote, indifferent, bureaucratic and mainly Democrats. They were regarded as more interested in the big cities of the East Coast and in international affairs. In contrast, Republicans were viewed as the eternal underdogs and regarded as incapable of influencing the administration’s national policies. The exception was Dwight D. Eisenhower. For Kansans, his presidency (1953–1960) signified more than pride in a “native son.” In the struggle of “us” against “them,” Eisenhower symbolized their state at its best: a war hero, a plain-spoken man of the people, from a poor family from Abilene. Nevertheless, Washington remained remote and estranged. Only during the Eisenhower administration and perhaps, during those of other Republican presidents, did Kansans feel that their views in national politics mattered. In turn, Republicans regarded themselves as the party of Kansas’ proud past and as the architects of its future progress.

The sense of political distance from Washington went along with faith in associational grassroots democracy where families, homes, hometowns, churches, schools and local communities formed the building blocks of civic life. Thus, the soul of Kansans, which is clearly described throughout the whole book, is committed to conservatism and dedicated to preserving plain moral virtues. In the 1998 gubernatorial race, 79% of Kansans polled expressed their concern with the moral decay of their communities. These major themes of “red state religion” may be found in the vocabulary of some of the latest Republican presidents. Richard Nixon spoke of the need to overcome the spiritual and moral crisis and preached national loyalty. Ronald Reagan also called for national renewal and emphasized the values of religion, education, community and family. To a large extent, the religion that Republican presidents advocated was civil religion, described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s.

Wuthnow discusses the secularization of the American society in the early twentieth century, when religion became a more private matter and its public authority weakened. There was a decline in church affiliation and participation in church services. However, the situation in Kansas was somewhat different. Civic organizations and voluntary associations flourished and churches continued at the forefront of social networking. Wuthnow asserts that the reason for the success of the churches as the bastions of civil religion in twentieth-century Kansas was that, despite their traditional rivalry, both Catholics and Methodists were interested in promoting good citizenship and developing a moderately conservative civic ethos across the state. The denominations of the Great Plains were well-run and highly motivated in constructing the democratic social policies that led to their systematic expansion. Churches became symbols of prosperous towns because they provided places where people made friends, conducted business, and cared for the needy. Thus, congregations turned into an important source of social capital. On the whole, according to Wuthnow’s Red State Religion, the story of Kansas constitutes a narrative of hard-working, Midwestern communities that always were at a disadvantage as far as Washington politicians were concerned. Both the Methodist and Catholic churches were dominated by a mainstream conservatism that resulted in support for the Republican Party.

Through his careful historical analyses of Kansan politics, Wuthnow constructs the contours of a new paradigm for the comprehension of political division and voter behavior. He could have referred to other scholarly works which deal with similar subjects. For example, sociological explanations rely upon the perception that groups define the very meaning of objects in the social world and that social groups serve as a primary source of personal values. An important term that relates to this connection between the collective and the individual is reference group. The reference group is the social group to which a person relates or aspires to relate psychologically. The group becomes the frame of reference and the source for organizing one’s personal experiences, perceptions and cognition. Reference groups serve as the standard for self-evaluation and form benchmarks for behavior.1 As far as our specific field of interest is concerned, reference groups have proved to be a key factor also in people’s political preferences.2

The group reference theory from the field of sociology frequently corresponds with group identity research made by political psychologists. During the last decade collective identities based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender and other demographic characteristics have proved to be important factors that generate political cohesion through a shared outlook and conformity to norms of political activity.3 Along with other scholars, Wuthnow includes public opinion, electoral choices and political behavior as a type of collective identity that shapes the dynamics of public opinion, electoral choice and political behavior. These identities are: Republican vs. Democrat in the United States; Conservative vs. Labour in the United Kingdom; Social Democrats versus Christian Democrats in Germany and Likud versus Labor in Israel.4

Wuthnow’s new paradigm is that voter preferences emerge from a historically rooted civil religion. Although the civil religion paradigm dates from the French Revolution, it was developed by Wuthnow’s teacher, Professor Robert Bellah and others, in the 1970s. They used it in order to analyze modern societies. Wuthnow and his contemporaries contend that a different, new civil religion was in competition with an older one and pushed it aside, thereby reshaping the structure of politics in the Western world.

Furthermore, the civil religion paradigm may well explain patterns of voting and results of political contests in democratic countries all over the world when explanations based upon sociology or political psychology do not provide sufficient answers. For example, Wuthnow’s paradigm is highly relevant for understanding long-term trends in Israeli society. Israeli politics, particularly regarding substantive issues, defy traditional right wing—left wing typologies. At times, left-wing voters support conservative policies on the part of the leaders, while right-wing voters may follow their leaders’ occasional liberal tendencies. The political map in Israel often is blurred and confusing and the civil religion paradigm may provide a key to understanding it.

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1 Pamela Johnston Conover and Stanley Feldman, “Group Identification, Values and the Nature of Political Beliefs,” American Politics Quarterly, 12 (1984), 151–175; Ann B. Bettencourt and Deborah Hume, “The Cognitive Contents of Social Group Identity: Values, Emotions, and Relationships,” Journal of Social Psychology, 29 (1999), 113–121; Patrick C. L. Heaven, “Group Identities and Human Values,” Journal of Social Psychology, 139 (1999), 190–195.

2 Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 5 (2003), 808–822.

3 Michael S. Lewis-Beck, William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The American Voter Revisited (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008); Bernd Simon and Bert Klandermans, “Politicized Collective Identity: A Social Psychological Analysis,” American Psychologist, 56 (2001), 319–331.

4 Leonie Huddy, “From Group Identity to Political Cohesion and Commitment,” in Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears and Jack Levy, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 511–543.