Opinion

As a ‘Free State,’ Kansas has a long history of deciding who should wield political power

July 31, 2022 3:33 am
Kansas abolitionist John Brown seizes the attention in the middle of John Steuart Curry's famous "Tragic Prelude" mural at the Kansas Statehouse. (Dave Kendall)

Kansas abolitionist John Brown seizes the attention in the middle of John Steuart Curry’s famous “Tragic Prelude” mural at the Kansas Statehouse. (Dave Kendall)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

Kansans take pride in our heritage as a “free state.” It’s an integral part of our origin story, which put us in the middle of a prolonged struggle to end slavery in this country. 

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, some had assumed that Kansas would align with its neighbor to the east, adopting a pro-slavery position as Missouri had. But following a process of “popular sovereignty,” it was left up to the residents of the territory to vote on the matter.

This led to considerable violence as conflicts between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces put the national spotlight on “Bleeding Kansas.” Indeed, much blood was shed and our path to statehood proved to be a rocky road.

The U.S. Congress had to approve the admission of Kansas into the Union, which it did in January of 1861, but not before four different conventions, convened by opposing forces, were held to debate and craft a constitution. To say it was a contentious process would be putting it mildly.

Since that constitution was ratified, it has been amended 98 times. On Aug. 2, Kansans will have the opportunity to vote on what may or may not become number 99.

By now, you most likely know what this amendment involves and perhaps you know how we got here.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued a decision three years ago ruling that our state’s constitution protects the right to abortion. This did not sit well with many in the Republican-controlled Legislature, so they initiated legislation that led to a proposed amendment they have officially titled “Value Them Both” (HCR 5003).

The national spotlight again shines on Kansas as we become the first state to vote on a measure related to reproductive rights since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its position in Roe v. Wade, ruling that the U.S. Constitution does not confer a right to abortion and tossing the matter back to the states.

In a way, we’re back where we were in the 1850s, grappling with an issue that relates to bodily autonomy. It’s not as proprietary as slavery in that one human being will not be permitted to claim ownership over another, but if you’re a woman, it would essentially confer to the state the right to control your body and the options available to you and your family.

Will Kansas remain a “free state” in regard to reproductive rights? Will those who live here retain the liberty to pursue the “happiness” we celebrate in the Declaration of Independence?

Those advocating a “yes” vote on the proposed amendment would likely point to the Declaration and assert that it’s “life” that remains first and foremost, arguing that we must extend the right to life to “the unborn.” 

“It’s a child; not a choice,” say the signs along the road, especially in rural parts of the state. They’ve been in place for many years. Those signs have recently been joined by a plethora of “Value Them Both” signs promoting a “yes” vote.

Do we doubt that those who express these sentiments are acting in accordance with what they sincerely believe to be true? For them, it relates to deeply held beliefs about the essence of who we are as human beings and when our lives begin.

As the organization called Right to Life of Kansas puts it: “We believe that each person was created in the image of God, each with a divine purpose.” They go on to state their organizational mission: “We declare our need to rely on the Lord’s wisdom and strength to do battle for the lives of the pre-born and the families of Kansas.”

Doing battle … as in “Onward Christian Soldiers?” I remember the hymn well. In the church of my youth, we sang it enthusiastically with the belief we were engaged in a righteous crusade of good against evil.

But my views have evolved over the years. I now have more knowledge of the diversity of faith traditions in the world and appreciate the fact that this nation has provided us with the freedom to live our lives in accordance with our own sense of the sacred — or not.

Although the Kansas Constitution expresses gratitude “to Almighty God” in its preamble, it also forbids that “any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, makes no explicit reference to “God,” opting instead to use the word “Creator.”

You have likely heard someone say that all the problems today relate to the way we have “turned our backs on God” and that we must return to our roots as a Christian nation. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) recently went so far as to say: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.”

This was one of the topics we explored in a program about “Church & State” included in a television series called “Beyond Theology,” which was produced by KTWU and distributed nationally on the PBS World channel in 2007. We traveled from coast to coast speaking with a number of theologians, philosophers and educators, including Diana Eck, professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School.

“One of the real gifts of the Constitution and those who framed it was they did not frame it explicitly as a Christian document,” she said. “The Constitution does not contain the word ‘God.’ And that was not because our founding fathers did not care deeply about God and about their faith. 

‘“But they cared so deeply, in a sense, that they realized that the framework of freedom that the nation would be founded on, needed to be one in which faith itself was left free.”

‘“So it’s a myth to say that we were founded as a Christian nation,” added John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal Bishop who has since passed on. “We were founded as a group of refugees getting away from religious persecution.”

So where are we now?

The separation of church and state, which has always been somewhat sketchy, has been further eroded by recent decisions of the Supreme Court. This comes at a time when a movement called Christian nationalism has gained traction in this country.

Writing in “Christianity Today,” Paul D. Miller defines it this way: “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”

As Miller goes on to say: “Some are beginning to argue that American Christians need to prepare to fight, physically, to preserve America’s identity, an argument that played into the January 6 riot.”

Those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, intending to disrupt the peaceful transition of power from one presidential administration to another, appeared to be acting in accordance with the belief that they were “saving America.” They were motivated by the false claim that the election had been “stolen.”

While the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack continues to uncover the facts behind this assault on our democracy, many of our elected representatives continue to maintain their political posturing in support of the man who delivered three Supreme Court justices he chose expressly to overturn Roe v. Wade.

As reported by Politico, former President Donald Trump said in a recent interview on Fox News in regard to that ruling: “God made the decision.” And he then added: “This brings everything back to the states where it has always belonged.”

So that’s where we are now — each state sorting out its own stance on the issue with Kansas being the first state to vote on it.

In case it’s not clear, the “Value Them Both” amendment is not really about the value we place on mothers and their babies, as the imagery on yard signs suggest. It’s about whether or not we will give our legislators the power to “pass laws regarding abortion” however they see fit.

A relatively small, but growing movement in this country contends that women who terminate their pregnancies should be treated as criminals and charged with homicide. They refer to themselves as “abortion abolitionists,” which brings to mind the iconic image of John Brown in John Steuart Curry’s painting holding a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.

The outcome of this election promises to be as consequential as our historic stance on slavery. Will we maintain our standing as a free state when it comes to reproductive rights and self-determination? Or will we witness a tectonic shift tilting us toward a more theocratic system of government, with the state instituting laws based upon a particular set of religious beliefs?

What will you say, Kansas?

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. “The Road to Santa Fe: A Convergence of Cultures” is being distributed to PBS stations across the U.S. and is made available for use in schools. The production has received an award of merit from the Santa Fe Trail Association.

MORE FROM AUTHOR