Members of the Kansas House of Representatives pray together on April 27, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
The epic church and state series published last week by Kansas Reflector shocked and surprised me. Sure, I understood the radical agenda and anti-democratic goals of religious extremists in my beloved state. But I hadn’t appreciated the way a group of fervent bullies — folks wanting to drive people with different beliefs out of the state — see themselves as the true victims in today’s political climate.
No one should fall for this rhetorical trick, least of all believers in religion that prohibits bearing false witness.
Republicans control nearly every lever of power in Kansas government. The party enjoys supermajorities in the Legislature and has made common cause with right wing evangelism. The Reno County Republican meeting that served as a starting point for our series was held at Hutchinson’s Riverside Baptist Church. By any measure, folks like Adam Peters — the Ellis County GOP chairman who addressed the party meeting — hold more power and enjoy greater influence over the state than anyone else.
Yet you wouldn’t know it from their paranoid ramblings. As Reflector editor Sherman Smith and reporter Rachel Mipro documented over the course of six days, these Christianists imagine persecution from every side. Kansas must be purged of malign liberals. Schools must educate children correctly, so little Bobby or Susie never question their parents’ beliefs. LGBTQ rights must be restricted or repealed, abortion barred and racism denied.
Nothing in this rhetoric suggests that Christians could be Democrats — or even liberals. Yet, amazingly, they can.
Democratic Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen serves as senior minister at First Congregational Church in Topeka. He told Smith that: “Playing the victim is always a powerful position. And it’s eminently exploitable politically. And that’s the problem. And the more money you have, and the more media you can garner, the more you can reiterate these ideas over and over again, and essentially kind of brainwash people who frankly don’t think that much about these kinds of things until someone suggests to them that they should be thinking about these things.”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, wrote in a Kansas City Star op-ed inspired by the series: “They fill supporters with hatred toward others and absolve them of their sins by declaring that they’ve got God on their side.”
Last week’s stories all show a motivated extremist group’s quest to gather more and more power. The leaders involved don’t just want to win an election every couple of years or see favored legislation become law. They also want to crush their opponents. In the case of Peters’ comments from March 2, one might be tempted to think they mean it literally.
“So for example,” he told the group, “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.”
That raises an important theological question: What car would Jesus use to run over liberal protesters?
My understanding of Christianity was shaped by countless Sunday school lessons in the Presbyterian church of my youth. This yen for domination has nothing to do with what I learned, or what I heard preached from the pulpit every Sunday. Indeed, the more one reads the actual words of Jesus in the Christian Bible, the more one realizes that he put himself at odds with the government of his time and preached a message of love and acceptance. Those who would meld their religious beliefs with the government of Kansas aren’t Christians, at least not traditional ones. They’re the Romans of our day and age, men and women obsessed with their own authority.
“Jesus was crucified by Romans after all,” Schlingensiepen said. “He wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy. He was crucified for, potentially anyway, representing a threat to Roman authority. The kingdom of God is a direct assault on the Roman Empire. He’s not a revolutionary. That much is clear. But he is speaking truth to power.”
If Christianists in Kansas believe their grip on power has loosened, they may want to examine their own hearts rather than those of political opponents.
Fewer Americans than ever before attend church or believe in God. Our society has become more secular. This has been at least partially driven by rightwing churches’ exclusionary rhetoric and fixation on social issues. The willingness of Peters and his ilk to drive out people who would otherwise want to live in Kansas shows how narrow-minded they have become. They would rather have a smaller, purer state than a larger, more diverse one.
I’ll have more to write about the series within the next few days. Until then, don’t let bullies get away with claiming they’re victims.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, 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.
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