Church and state: Republicans revel in divine plan to turn Kansas into ‘conservative sanctuary’

Weeklong series to examine influence of religious beliefs on policy decisions at Statehouse

By: - May 15, 2023 3:55 am
Members of the Senate, seen here in May 2021, and House begin daily sessions with invocation from a chaplain

Members of the Senate, seen here in May 2021, and House begin daily sessions with invocation from a chaplain. Their religious beliefs routinely influence policy decisions. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Adam Peters laced his sermon for Reno County Republicans with conspiracy theories about a liberal plot to turn their children against them, LGBTQ-friendly church pastors who signed a contract with Satan, the ubiquitous travesty of critical race theory, and make-believe enemies working to “foment violent conflict.”

Church and State

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.

Peters, the GOP chairman in Ellis County and an author for far-right publications, talked for two hours at the March 2 meeting at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson, where he was joined by two state legislators and local GOP officials. He outlined his plans — tinted by hints of violence and the assurance that God is on their side — to turn Kansas into a conservative sanctuary.

The conversation, secretly recorded and shared with Kansas Reflector, celebrated religious beliefs that correspond directly with policies embraced by the Legislature during this year’s session. From the meeting’s opening prayer to the ending prayer, a divine calling was made clear: Republicans must purge the state of anyone who disagrees with their extremist positions on the LGBTQ community, reproductive health care, education and race.

“If you can make it hostile to that group of people, that small sliver of society, and have them move elsewhere, that does a huge amount to shut this down,” Peters said. “It’s both sides of it: You need to attract the good people here, and you also need to make it clear to the bad people, this isn’t gonna go well for you.”

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.

With supermajority control of both the Senate and House, Republican lawmakers routinely entertain policy ideas shaped by fringe religious views — restrictions placed on transgender residents, anti-abortion propaganda, tax dollars for private schools, a refusal to acknowledge systemic racism.

A religious pulse shakes every pillar of the Statehouse, from invocations that begin daily sessions to competing morning prayer groups to a spiritual adviser who roams the halls to the Bible clutched in John Brown’s hand in the famous mural on the second floor.

The application of religion takes various shapes in legislative debate — as justification for attacks on marginalized people, or a rebuke to the prevailing vote.

Tobias Schlingensiepen appears at an election night watch party for Gov. Laura Kelly in downtown Topeka.
Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat, appears at an election night watch party for Gov. Laura Kelly. The senior minister at First Congregational Church, Schlingensiepen takes issue with those who “misunderstand themselves as the moral gatekeepers of society.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

For Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Democrat who serves as senior minister at First Congregational Church in Topeka, there is a right way and wrong way to combine religion and politics. He said a Christian politician should be looking out for people who don’t have a voice and criticizing those who have all the money and power.

In an interview for this series, Schlingensiepen responded to Peters’ comments from the meeting in Hutchinson. Schlingensiepen condemned those who “misunderstand themselves as the moral gatekeepers of society,” the ones who want to decide “who’s good with God and who isn’t.”

“We’re not talking about religion as people’s personal way of navigating life and dealing with life’s difficulties,” Schlingensiepen said. “We’re talking its exploitation, where it’s being used in order to suggest to someone that something’s being taken away from you, or that somehow you’re being harmed.”

Peters, who founded Right Edge Magazine and writes for Conservative Institute, depicted political conservatives as victims as he addressed the gathering of Reno County Republicans. They were being threatened, he said, by people who wield critical race theory, as well as critical gender theory and queer theory, with the goal of deconstructing societal norms.

“We need to use the tools that are at our disposal,” Peters said. “You know, if we look in scripture, there was a time when the nation of Israel had to take up arms in defense of themselves.”

Peters did not respond to an email seeking comment for this series.

Adam Peters testifies via video on Feb. 1, 2023, before a legislative committee.
Adam Peters, GOP chairman in Ellis County, testifies via video on Feb. 1, 2023, before a legislative committee. Peters outlined his five-point plan to turn Kansas into a conservative sanctuary during a meeting of Republicans in March in Hutchinson. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature video)

His five-point plan to turn Kansas into a conservative sanctuary starts with “some ideas in it to make things less than ideal for the folks involved,” Peters said.

“So for example,” he said, “I believe we need to absolve drivers from both civil and criminal liability if they strike rioters who are blocking a public right of way.”

Peters falsely claimed “many people were dragged to other vehicles and savagely beaten” during riots in 2020, which were inspired by the police murder of George Floyd. Those tactics, Peters warned, “could easily come back.” In fact, he said, “things are probably gonna get worse before they get better.”

Amber Dickinson, an associate professor of political science at Washburn University, said Peters’ “troubling” comments about taking up arms and legalizing vehicular manslaughter could be considered hate speech.

“They’re asking people to martyr up … and that is really scary to me,” Dickinson said.

She said the religious views expressed by Peters go “way beyond” beliefs held by most Kansans who identify as Christian and are “just trying to live their life in a way that they think is good and right.”

“It is normal to have a belief in a higher power, if you choose to have that belief,” Dickinson said. “It is not normal to create an army for this higher power and then do vigilante justice, in your opinion, on Earth. That is well beyond the tenants of what most people believe. I mean, goodness. That’s really scary.”

Other points in Peters’ plan include making it a felony for a mob to invade a business, allowing the attorney general to initiate criminal charges when local prosecutors decline, changing the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed because the Kansas Bar Association currently plays an outsized role, and adopting rules that ban critical theory from being used in workplace training.

“It’s hard to argue that critical theory is not a main driver behind much of the degradation that we’re seeing in society today — whether it’s rising crime, whether it’s rising suicide rates, whether it’s racial strife, whether it’s just about anything else,” Peters said.

The problems won’t be fixed overnight, Peters said. It would take work, courage and, most importantly, prayer.

“The only thing that will ever save America or save any nation is our lord and savior,” Peters said.

Peters praised legislation introduced this year by Sen. Mark Steffen, who was in attendance, to ban gender-affirming care.

Sen. Mark Steffen, left, appears at his desk during an April 6, 2023, session of the Senate.
Sen. Mark Steffen, left, rests at his desk during an April 6, 2023, session of the Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Steffen campaigned in 2020 on the idea that “following God’s ideals Biblically guarantees a nation’s success.” This year, he offered to convert a Muslim woman who asked him how he planned to represent non-Christian constituents. Steffen denied making the offer, despite audio of the conversation that proved he did. He later said he felt overwhelmed by news coverage of his lie, then realized the experience was “a gift the good Lord gave me.”

Speaking alongside Peters at the March meeting, Steffen said Kansas has an opportunity “to be the bastion of our traditional values.”

Reno County GOP chairman Ryan Patton opened and closed the meeting with a prayer. The county has lost its way, Patton said in his closing prayer, and only God can help.

“We just anxiously await your return so we can just get past all of this in your name,” Patton said.

John Whitesel, a Reno County commissioner, urged the 50-75 Republicans who attended the meeting to help spread the gospel.

“There are a lot of people in this county that are willing to put their life and their honor on the line to fight against some of the stuff,” Whitesel said. “So now what you need to ask yourself is what can I do?”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.