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American Christianity and the re-election of George W. Bush.

Thomas Frank

What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

Metropolitan Books, 2004. 306 pp. $24.00

George Lakoff

Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

Chelsea Green Publishers, 2004. 124 pp. $10.00

In the late 1960s, during the civil rights and anti-war movements, I chose to earn an undergraduate degree in Christian theology. Influenced by secularization theory, many in my cohort found this decision incomprehensible. (1) "Why would anyone study religion?" they asked. "Religion is on its way out."

In the weeks following the re-election of George W. Bush, it's hard to believe that anyone in the US thinks religion is "on its way out" anymore. Admittedly, it is less than clear what the post-election selection of "values" as the prime motivator of 22% of American voters actually means. There can be little doubt, however, that the turnout in 2004 of an even larger number of conservative Christians than in 2000 strongly influenced the outcome of the election. As one commentator observed, the Christian Right in the US now undergirds Republican power as labor unions undergirded Democratic power in the decades after World War II. (2)

US progressives find the outcome of the election especially baffling because many of the Christians who voted for Bush are working-class Americans whose economic interests will certainly be harmed by Bush policies. In an attempt to resolve this conundrum, many progressives are reading What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by journalist and cultural historian Thomas Frank. (3) Four weeks after the election, What's the Matter with Kansas was #7 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and had been on that list for 12 weeks. In this article I focus on Frank's book and another New York Times bestseller to explore the current complex interaction between religion and politics in the US.

Frank presents the shift to the right in the historically Democratic Midwestern state of Kansas as a case study of right-leaning working-class Americans across the country. (4) As Frank sees it, conservative think-tanks and the right-wing media have convinced ordinary Kansans that university-educated, "latte-drinking" liberal urban elites are responsible for every offense and difficulty in their lives. However, these offenses are perceived as entirely cultural, that is to say, totally disconnected from economic issues. Conservative candidates, funded by corporate interests, campaign on their opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but once elected, ignore these issues, even as they cut taxes for the wealthy, privatize public services, and deregulate the market. Working class voters then move even farther to the right, attributing these ongoing cultural offenses to the all-powerful liberal elite. At the same time, they accept the decline in their standard of living as inevitable, since they believe the free market to be divinely ordained, the order of nature.

Christianity plays a critical role in Frank's analysis. The move to the right by working class Kansans began with the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" when protests by thousands of Christian pro-life activists in Wichita, the state's largest city, met unprecedented success. Operation Rescue temporarily closed down all of the city's abortion clinics and filled the university stadium with supporters. A massive political organizing drive throughout the state to recruit conservative pro-life Christians as precinct captains and political candidates followed. The election to the US Senate in 1996 of Sam Brownback, a pro-life right-wing Catholic, capped this trend.

Yet Frank's treatment of conservative Christianity undercuts his claim that what's happening in Kansas explains American politics nationally. Early on, Frank presents Kansas as a "freak state" crawling with "religious fanatics, crackpot demagogues, and alarming hybrids of the two," beginning with the violent 19th abolitionist, John Brown. (5) While this makes for a colorful and historically accurate rendition, it falls far short of the complexity of American religious support for Bush et al.

Frank's depiction of conservative Kansas Roman Catholics is a case in point. Senator Same Brownback converted to Catholicism under the influence of the right wing Catholic organization Opus Dei, while two other Catholic activists profiled in the book are "Latin Mass" Catholics. One of them is a sedevacantist, that is, a member of a group convinced there hasn't been a true pope in the chair of Peter since before Vatican II. But 52% of American Catholics voted for George W. Bush, the vast majority of whom never heard of Opus Dei, happily worship in English, and would perceive sedevacantism as quite mad.

Frank represents conservative Kansas Protestants as extremist as well, taken up with "barking idiocies" such as eliminating evolution from the state high school curriculum because of its corrupting influence. But this portrayal of Kansas evangelicals backing nonsense against their own interests ignores the fact that evangelical churches around the country offer not only a sense of religious righteousness to their downwardly mobile members but also much needed services such as low priced meals, "career ministries" for the unemployed, childcare, English lessons for immigrants, and after-school programs. Recipients come to believe that these "faith-based services" are religiously preferable to the public services that poor Americans have depended upon for decades, and vote against the Democrats who support those services. (6)

Nor does Frank's portrayal explain the urban Hispanic and African-American evangelicals who are voting for Republican candidates in increasing numbers. Some of this is indeed attributable to cultural issues; in March 2004, 8000 Bronx Hispanic evangelicals, for example, protested same sex marriage on the steps of the New York State Supreme Court. (7) But Black and Hispanic evangelicals also voted for Bush out of a time-honored American belief that individualism and the free market are the way to personal prosperity. It's trickier than you might think to argue the contrary with a Black Bush appointee serving as US Secretary of State.

Despite its brilliance, Frank's analysis of loony Christians voting against their own interests reflects the Enlightenment conviction that rationality trumps all other values; it also reinforces US progressive contempt toward churchgoers, a contempt that contributed to John Kerry's downfall. (8) To defeat Republican neoliberalism, however, progressives must win the allegiance of American Christians, not despise them. More helpful in accomplishing this task is another current US bestseller, Don't Think of an Elephant by University of California linguist George Lakoff. (9) While acknowledging that working-class Bush supporters voted against their economic interests, Lakoff's purpose is to help progressives understand why this is so and change it. Central to Elephant is the notion of frames, the unconscious cognitive structures that shape the way people see the world. Frames invoke and reinforce values, not facts, Lakoff argues.

At the center of American politics, for Lakoff, is the frame of the family as a model of the nation. The conservative version is the "strict father" frame, in which the male defends wife, family and nation from harm by physically disciplining children and economically disciplining the citizenry and the rest of the world. The fear instilled by 9/11 made the strict father frame especially compelling for Americans. Bush is the pre-eminent strict father. Abortion and gay marriage are special offenses against the strict father frame. The progressive version, on the other hand, is the nurturant family frame, in which both parents teach empathy and responsibility to their children, and by analogy, to the nation.

US progressives attack the strict father frame with rational arguments but this doesn't work, Lakoff tells us, because individuals accept only those facts that are compatible with the frame that shapes them. In the case of gay marriage, for example, for most Americans, the value of the sanctity of marriage far outweighs arguments about the economic unfairness of heterosexual marriage laws. The progressive task is to reframe the sanctity of marriage in light of nurturing family values.

For Lakoff, conservative Christianity plays a critical role in the maintenance of the strict father frame, with a punitive God sending sinners to hell and rewarding the disciplined. (10) Books, columns, and daily radio broadcasts by conservative Christian psychologist James Dobson and his huge organization Focus on the Family has been especially successful at inculcating strict father values--spanking children to teach them self-esteem, for example. (11) Instead of expressing contempt for religion, however, Lakoff argues that liberal Christianity with its understanding of grace as unconditional nurturing love has much to contribute to the reconfiguring of the strict father frame. It has not done so thus far, according to Lakoff, because conservative Christians are highly unified, while progressive American Christians are divided over programs and issues. At the same time, many secular progressives see all Christians, even liberals, as the enemy. This, Lakoff says, must stop. (12)

In the wake of the devastating defeat of John Kerry, it seems that some secular progressives in the US are, indeed, considering the need for an alliance with church people. In an article in late November in the secular progressive magazine, The Nation, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich announced that Jesus was on the side of those who oppose pre-emptive war and the upward redistribution of wealth and that secular liberals should not be afraid to invoke him. Similarly, attendees at the November meeting of the massive American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature, many of whom were preoccupied with theologies of identity four years ago, flocked to sessions on Paul and empire, globalization, and evangelical Christianity. I myself have set aside a post-structuralist manuscript to work with local churches on responses to the neoliberal drive to privatize essential services like water and education. The election may be lost, but the progressive struggle for the hearts and minds of American Christians has just begun.


1. "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction," anthropologist Anthony Wallace proclaimed in 1966. Religion: An Anthropological View (New York: Random House, 1966), 264-266. See also Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Doubleday 1967).

2. Calvin Skaggs, "The Religious Right's Rise, On Film." Interview with Terry Gross, National Public Radio "Fresh Air." Dec. 2, 2004. Online at

3. Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004). See also

4. Frank titles his introductory chapter "What's the Matter with America?" (emphasis mine).

5. Frank, 31.

6. Barbara Ehrenreich, "The Faith Factor," The Nation, 279.18 (Nov. 29, 2004): 6-7.

7. Andrea Elliott, "The Political Conversion of New York's Evangelicals," The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2004.

8. See also the contemptuous "Jesusland" cartoon that circulated widely among American progressives after the election.

9. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, The Essential Guide for Progressives (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004). Several chapters are posted at

10. Lakoff, 102.

11. Lakoff, 6. See also the Focus on the Family webpage at

12. Lakoff, 104.

13. Ehrenreich, 7.
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Title Annotation:What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America; Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
Author:Ronan, Marian
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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