You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Christian Right Moves to the Suburbs

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, August 16, the city of Olathe, Kansas, demolished its oldest grain elevator. A crowd watched as dynamite tore through the edifice, reducing it to rubble. The Olathe Daily News reported that the city was considering building a parking lot on the property to help relieve traffic congestion.

The elevator had stood barren for years, and its destruction left the city with one remaining silo, also unused. But, for most of this century, grain elevators dotted Olathe's landscape. Farmers journeyed from surrounding districts to deposit corn in the vast structures, where it would sit until loaded onto railroad cars for transport to Kansas City, St. Louis, or Wichita to fatten livestock destined for slaughter.

For close to 100 years, Olathe lived off silos and off two gifts from the Kansas legislature. In 1859, following a fierce struggle, the legislature named Olathe the seat of Johnson County, which meant a county courthouse and the jobs that came with it. A few years later, after another nasty fight, Olathe landed the state school for the deaf, which provided yet more jobs. The courthouse marked the center of town, and Olathe's other businesses, which included a general store that catered to visiting farmers, radiated out for several blocks. Beyond the businesses were houses. And beyond the houses, for miles in every direction, were farms.

When the United States declared victory in World War II, Olathe still housed no more than 5,000 people. As late as the 1950s, the town butcher doubled as mayor. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, Olathe began to feel the centralizing pull of America's ever-expanding highway system. Newly built Interstate 435 looped around Kansas City, Missouri, drawing Olathe, and dozens of other formerly independent towns, into the city's orbit. And Interstate 35 sliced south across the Plains, linking Olathe to every major city between Minneapolis and Dallas.

With the highways came migrations. I-435 and I-35 cut travel time between Olathe and Kansas City from half a day to half an hour—and offered middle-class residents of Kansas City an escape route from crumbling schools, mounting taxes, and worsening crime. Simultaneously, the relentless trend in American agriculture toward the replacement of human hands by machines forced more and more Kansans off their parents' farms. And so a reverse exodus brought young men and women toward a Kansas City metropolitan area that was expanding outward to meet them.

It was in places like Olathe where these migrations met, and they have transformed it almost beyond recognition. The city is seven times bigger than it was in 1960. To many Kansas City telephone operators, Olathe remains an unfamiliar word, but it is now the fifth-largest city in Kansas. The farmland surrounding the town has given way to housing subdivisions, and the few remaining farm stalls sit in the shadow of shopping centers. Even the town's name has changed. Old-timers call it Olathe, but they have been swamped by newcomers who call it Olatha.

Something else has changed, too. Olathe has become the center of a revolution in Kansas politics, a revolution with echoes across the country. A decade ago, the Christian right barely existed in the state. The Kansas Republican Party was dominated, as it had been for generations, by frugal, tough-minded pragmatists in the mold of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum Baker. Olathe itself was represented in the U.S. House by a pro-choice Republican moderate.

In 1992, the Christian right struck its first blow, taking over the Republican Party in Johnson County. In 1994, it won control of the party apparatus statewide and replaced the centrist Republican speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives with a Christian conservative. In 1996, Christian conservatives powered Congressman Sam Brownback to an upset victory over moderate Sheila Frahm in the Republican primary for Bob Dole's Senate seat. This year, David Miller, the head of the Kansas GOP and a former political action director of Kansans for Life, unsuccessfully challenged the state's popular sitting governor in the Republican primary. Six years ago, the Christian Coalition gave the Kansas congressional delegation an average rating of 60. This year, that average is 97.

Olathe, in the words of Kansas Republican National Committeeman Dwight Sutherland, is "the birthplace of the revolution, the truly holy city." Its congressman is a former instructor at an evangelical college. Its mayor sings in a Christian rock band. The local Fellowship of Christian Cowboys hosts a rodeo Bible camp. The Christian Book and Gift Shoppe is the size of a small supermarket, and it peddles everything from Christian exercise videos to Christian ties to Christian crossword puzzles to "scripture cookies" (a Christian equivalent of fortune cookies). Local teenagers sport bracelets bearing the initials wwjd? (What Would Jesus Do?), and the Christian Book and Gift Shoppe claims to sell 1,000 per month. Johnson County has won the national home-school basketball tournament for five of the last seven years.

The media tend to cast Christian conservatives as elderly, poor, relatively uneducated, and rural, but the residents of Olathe are none of those things. In fact, more than 50 percent of them have bachelor's degrees, close to 90 percent of city families earn more than $30,000 a year, and the city's median age is eight years younger than the national average. And Olathe is not anomalous. Contrary to public perception, recent surveys show that Christian conservatives are about as well-off and well-educated as Americans as a whole and more likely to have young children.

Most important, the Christian right is not a rural movement; it is a suburban one. The first generation of academics to study Christian conservatives assumed that they lived as far as possible from the threatening forces of modernity. And, indeed, white evangelical Christians are disproportionately likely to live in rural areas and small towns. But conservative, politicized evangelicals—the people we call the Christian right and the constituency that the Republican Party is mobilizing to win this fall's election—live overwhelmingly in suburbs. And understanding their relationship to the suburbs in which they live is the key to understanding a city like Olathe and the movement it embodies.

The forces that turned Olathe from a small farming town into an 80,000-person suburb are present across the country. A glimpse at recent census reports shows that American population growth is occurring in very specific places. First, it is occurring outside of the industrial Northeast and Midwest—generally in the South, the agricultural Midwest, and the far West. Second, growth is occurring at the edge of cities. Central cities are mostly stagnant or losing population. Older, closer-in suburbs are growing very slowly. Rural populations are also stagnant or declining. But outer-ring suburbs—where the city meets the countryside—are growing very fast.

In other words, metropolitan areas are gobbling up large chunks of rural territory around them. And they are doing so in the most culturally conservative regions of the nation. The fastest-growing counties in America are on the fringe of cities like Atlanta, Sioux Falls, Denver, Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, and Kansas City. And they are exactly where you find the strongest support for the Christian right.

Metropolitan growth did not, of course, create evangelical Christianity. Throughout this century, tens of millions of born-again American Protestants have read the Bible literally and held conservative opinions about everything from drinking to dancing to evolution. But for 50 years, roughly from the Scopes trial until the election of Ronald Reagan, it was an article of evangelical faith to remain separate from the political process. The theology of pre-millennialism told evangelicals that they could not bring Christ's return by perfecting human society; in fact, moral decline was inevitable. The role of the evangelical was to save as many souls as possible and thus spare them from the terrible tribulations that would accompany the Second Coming. In the '50s, Jerry Falwell himself declared that he was "a soulwinner and a separatist."

Part of the reason evangelicals abandoned separatism was the liberalization of the culture. Most white evangelicals were, for instance, disturbed by the legalization of abortion and the public acceptance of homosexuality. In response, leaders like Falwell adapted pre-millennialism to make room for political activism—arguing that, unless Christians changed the government's course, it might eventually outlaw proselytizing altogether, which would make it impossible to save souls before Christ's return.

But cultural liberalization alone does not fully explain the switch. Had evangelicals remained an overwhelmingly rural population, they would still have noticed growing societal permissiveness, but its impact would have been much more distant. In fact, research by Professors James Guth of Furman University and John Green of the University of Akron suggests that, even today, Christian-right activism among rural evangelicals is low. The reason the cultural changes of the past 30 years jolted evangelicals from their political quiescence was that, for many of them, the changes were not far at all; they were near. And they were near because evangelical Protestants have been steadily migrating from rural areas into the expanding suburbs of the Bible Belt, into places like Olathe, Kansas.

Linda Highland is a pretty, middle-age woman with dark, wavy hair and glasses. She grew up in Marshall County in northeast Kansas, where her family farmed wheat, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa hay. She remembers going without running water as a child; she remembers gathering corncobs to feed the fire in the kitchen; she remembers her one-room school, where she was often the only person in her grade. And she remembers saying grace with her father as he tucked her into bed. Linda Highland's family was simultaneously conservative and apolitical. They would likely have taken the Christian right's side on cultural issues, except that, in Marshall County, those issues did not really exist. Asked about her parents' views on sex education and homosexuality, Highland said: "They'd probably be surprised you even asked."

Today, no one in Linda Highland's family still farms. One of her brothers is a dentist in Wichita; another is a miller in Des Moines; a third is an engineer in Marysville, the largest city in Marshall County; and a fourth also lives in Marysville, where he works as a banker. Highland herself majored in home economics at Kansas State University, met her husband, and, in 1991, moved to Johnson County, just across the city line from Olathe.

As a child, Highland had been active in 4-H, the government-funded youth extension program, and her children took part in it as well. When she moved to Johnson County, friends suggested she run for a seat on the county's 4-H Program Development Committee, and she did. After winning, she began to review the 4-H curriculum, and she discovered a course on sex education that she felt was too graphic for children. A while later, she received a 4-H pamphlet titled "Families of All Kinds." The pamphlet was designed to teach children about the concept of family, which it defined as "a group of people who love and take care of each other." Highland found the definition disturbingly broad. "I feel strongly that children really want to know their mother and father," she said. "I just didn't really see the need to redefine the family."

Highland had not previously spent much time thinking about why she valued the traditional family and opposed explicit sex education. But the pamphlets forced these semiconscious assumptions to the front of her mind. "My value system was being challenged," she remembers. "I was forced to say, `What do I believe in?'"

She became even more concerned when an English teacher with a taste for New Age taught her daughter transcendental meditation. Before long, Highland began to volunteer for socially conservative candidates in her neighborhood. And, about the same time, she started to reconnect to her faith. She began attending a weekly Bible study class and moved to a more conservative church.

Central to Highland's religious and political awakening was the realization that her children were living in an environment radically different from the one in which she grew up. She remembers her childhood community as one where "parents ... supported the teachers, and the schools supported the parents." But, in Johnson County, her daughter was returning home with "ideas that did come from the schools and not from us."

Highland was experiencing what sociologists call "structural pluralism." The more modern a society is, the more it tends to distinguish between different spheres of human activity—particularly between spheres defined as private and those defined as public. In 1950s rural Kansas, churches often served as schoolhouses during the week. And, even though Highland went to separate buildings for school, home, and church, the three institutions reinforced one another. In the suburbs of Kansas City, they often do not.

Time and again, Christian conservatives in and around Olathe described the same epiphany: the day they realized that the schools were not teaching with them but against them. Sometimes the epiphany was not about the schools but about some other arm of the government, and occasionally it was even about an overly liberal church—but the epiphany always involved an undermining of the home. And it was often linked to a nostalgic memory of childhood, usually in a small town where those institutions worked together.

The epiphany typically produced two separate reactions. The first was an effort to withdraw from the public realm. Christian schools are booming in Johnson County. And home schooling—the ultimate reconnection of the public and private spheres—is booming even more. In 1986, 17 families formed the Johnson County Parent Educators. Today, the association boasts 750 families, most of whom live in Olathe. The network has grown large enough to support home-school basketball, football, and debate teams—not to mention a full-fledged home-school graduation each year, complete with caps, gowns, and diplomas presented by Mom and Dad.

There are still many Christian conservatives with children in the Olathe public schools, and they often go to great lengths to insulate their children from material that will undermine the values of the home. One local pastor, for instance, informs teachers at the beginning of the school year as to which topics would require his children to leave the room. But, increasingly, Christian-right parents see the public schools as hopeless. An article in the August 7 issue of the Kansas Christian warns, "public schools aethistic [sic], destroy religious faith in 70 percent of students."

But the impulse to withdraw is sooner or later twinned with the realization that full separation is impossible. Christian conservatives around Olathe depict a government that is always encroaching into the spheres of home and church. The government tries to regulate home schooling, it tries to remove tax breaks from religious colleges, and, under the guise of child welfare, it prevents parents from disciplining their children. Liberals are appalled that the Christian right often opposes state-run child-nutrition programs. But, for Christian conservatives, feeding children is the responsibility of the family, and even benign government intrusion strips parents of their authority and makes it harder for them to pass on their values.

The realization that government encroachment is inevitable usually propels Christian conservatives into politics. The men and women with whom I spoke sometimes wistfully imagined that the whole country might change—and become more like the one they remember growing up in. But, usually, their political ambitions were more limited: to halt government interference in the church and the family. Many activists said they had little interest in restoring teacher-led prayer in public school—as long as the government didn't interfere with their children's right to pray or evangelize. That might sound surprising, but it flows naturally from pre-millennialism, which teaches that society's institutions cannot be saved but as many individuals as possible must be.

In remembering their youth, Christian conservatives in Olathe sometimes said that the schools taught values that reinforced the home. But, more frequently, they said that their childhood schools did not teach values at all; they simply taught facts. Often they bemoaned the politicization of education today. Speaking of her school in Marshall County, Highland said approvingly, "There was no getting into social issues."

From a certain perspective, of course, schools in small towns in Kansas in the '50s did teach values, if only by omission. None of the people I talked to ever heard anything from their teachers about homosexuality or abortion, for instance, since there was a community consensus that such topics were inappropriate. It was that unspoken consensus that allowed the schools to concentrate on "facts." And it is that unspoken consensus for which Olathe's Christian conservatives yearn.

Modern societies, according to sociologists, are characterized by a heightened degree not only of "structural pluralism" but of "cultural pluralism" as well. As people with different belief systems intermingle, formerly objective truths are deemed subjective. The Johnson County schools include many liberal mainline Protestants, some Asian immigrants, and the bulk of Kansas City's Jews. Few of those parents agree with the Christian right about what it would mean for the schools to teach only "facts." And two local advocacy groups—the Mainstream Coalition and the Defending Democracy Project—explicitly urge the schools to teach tolerance for the different values of their students.

In fact, it is precisely those opposing voices that make Christian conservatives fear for their kids and propel them into politics. And it is the lack of threat that makes the movement relatively unnecessary in culturally homogeneous small towns. Research by Professors Guth and Green reveals that, all other factors being equal, the more non-Protestants and nonchurchgoers an area has, the more likely it will have a strong Christian-right movement. (And this is true historically as well. According to scholars like Nancy Ammerman of the Hartford Theological Seminary, evangelical-based political movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries flourished not in the South and Midwest but in the Northeast—where urbanization and Catholic immigration undermined native-born Protestant identity.)

Since they remember their childhood schools as factual and apolitical, Christian conservatives in Olathe tend to suspect that pedagogical innovation represents the imposition of values. And this helps explain why phonics has become one of the Christian right's most important issues, even though it would seem at first glance unrelated to its larger moral agenda. Phonics is a method of reading instruction based on sounding words out, as opposed to "whole language," which emphasizes comprehension. Most of Olathe's Christian conservatives grew up learning phonics and feel that the Olathe schools, which blend the two methods, do an inferior job of teaching children to read. To hear them tell it, phonics is the objective, scientific way to teach reading, and "whole language" is based on subjective, unproven theories. As Doug Johnson, a former candidate for precinct committeeman in Olathe, put it: "The whole educational industry embraces fads. It's a cultural thing."

Christian conservatives in Olathe also see "values" creeping into the schools through Outcome Based Education. Outcome Based Education, they argue, seeks to measure students not on their knowledge but on their values. In the words of Nancy Hannahan, a local activist: "It used to be solely academic outcomes. Now they're into areas that are none of the schools' business. Things like trying to measure values, behaviors, attitudes, your beliefs. Those are very subjective."

Proponents of Outcome Based Education would reply that the schools are trying to test whether children can think for themselves rather than simply whether they can memorize information. But, in so doing, they are tacitly acknowledging that, in many areas, the schools do not believe there is any single right answer.

To liberals, emphasizing critical thinking would seem a fair and neutral way to deal with students who have different belief systems. But, to Christian conservatives, there is nothing neutral about telling children that truth is relative; it is a frontal attack on what they believe. As the religious historian George Marsden has noted, fundamentalist Christians are Baconians in a Kantian world. They believe that there is an order, an absolute truth that underlies all things. Since it comes from God, human beings may not always correctly comprehend it. But human beings must seek to comprehend it—and they cannot deny that it exists. When schools make no effort to distinguish between a correct and an incorrect understanding of American history, or of Shakespeare, they undermine the epistemology on which evangelical Christianity rests.

In the eyes of Christian conservatives, schools that abandon their role as arbiters of truth also critically undermine their own authority. And that has profound consequences for the moral development of children. Blaine Freidline, former head of the Johnson County Republican Party, argues, "If morals are relative, then I think every child's going to tend to conclude that, `Why can't I do what I want to? Who's to say I'm wrong?' Nobody is, nobody is, and their teachers are reinforcing that." For the Christian right, a school that will not tell a student that her view is wrong in the classroom cannot convincingly tell her that it is wrong to use drugs. And, as always, the schools are simply a manifestation of the state—a state that cannot act against a president who repeatedly lies to hide his immorality. Indeed, for the Christian right, the president's actions are not a personality flaw but the logical result of an ideology that endlessly blurs the distinction between right and wrong. For Christian conservatives, the issue in the fall election is not simply the president's behavior but moral relativism itself. And, by talking impeachment, the Republican Congress is trying to capitalize on that.

For Christian conservatives in Olathe, the societal collapse wrought by an overly permissive state is irrefutable. But that view is itself something of a puzzle. Sociologists usually find that people's perception of society follows their personal fortunes. Early scholars, therefore, reasoned that members of the Christian right were propelled by "status anxiety" rooted in their declining economic position. But, in fact, Olathe's Christian conservatives are models of upward mobility—frequently, they grew up in small towns, became the first in their families to go to college, and now live thoroughly middle-class, suburban lives. And newer academic work shows that this is true for the Christian right in general.

One explanation for the discrepancy is pre-millennialism, which predisposes evangelicals to look for signs of moral decline as evidence that the Second Coming is near. But that just begs the question: Why does such a pessimistic, otherworldly doctrine appeal to people who are succeeding in the here and now? In Olathe, one answer is that Christian conservatives often feel that their quality of life is not as high as it looks on paper. While acknowledging that their lives are materially better than those of their parents, they also view them as more chaotic and alienating. In this regard, they resemble another group of demographic migrants: the black middle class. Their very economic success has led them closer to people who undermine their identity and away from the comforting embrace of cultural homogeneity.

Christian-right politics, therefore, flow partly from an effort to recreate community in hostile surroundings. Christian conservatives in Olathe spoke frequently of the intimacy and warmth of the towns where they were raised. Charlotte O'Hara, who grew up in rural Bourbon County, Kansas, remembered neighbors coming to help bring in the crops when her father was sick. "It's the rhythm of life we've lost," she said. "It used to be a natural thing to find your sense of community. Now you have to go out and create it."

Like many suburbs, Olathe provides little organic community. It is almost impossible to get anywhere without a car, and the city's social life revolves around places like the Great Mall of the Great Plains, a one million-square-foot shopping center that opened last year. Because people are moving in so quickly, the city has few well-established neighborhoods. And the explosive population growth has made it difficult to develop a coherent civic identity. In the words of State Senator Karin Brownlee: "It's lost its small-town feel because you just got thousands of people that are probably clueless as to who the mayor is, who their city council person is. When you're smaller, there's more connectedness."

It is partly this absence of established community that has made possible the extraordinary influence of Olathe's churches. In fact, Olathe's evangelical churches sometimes seem as much community centers as houses of worship. Olathe Bible Church, for instance, offers more than 40 "small groups"—organized by age, marital status, and interest—in which adults meet once a week in congregants' homes to pray for one another. Children have their own small weekly meetings called "cell groups." Olathe Bible also runs parenting classes; separate men's and women's weight-loss programs; aerobics classes; a weekly dinner for older members; father-and-son camping expeditions; a men's only "Sports Blowout"; family swim nights; and a group called "Moms in Touch," in which mothers pray for their children. A church pamphlet titled "Created for Community" explains that socializing with other Christians is not a "spiritual `extra' or an add-on" but is central to God's plan and the church's work.

Sometimes church community seems to eclipse civic community altogether. In the nearby municipality of Shawnee, the city government doesn't run a Fourth of July celebration. So the 1,000-member Full Faith Church of Love assumes the responsibility—and hosts the festivities for the entire town.

Churches like Olathe Bible and Full Faith fulfill the yearning Christian conservatives feel for the social system and moral values of the places where they grew up. Yet they are nothing like the small, apolitical evangelical churches that actually existed a generation ago in rural Kansas. And this is perhaps the Christian right's chief irony. It is a movement based largely on nostalgia for an old order, and yet that nostalgia leads it to tremendous innovations: the establishment of megachurches, the home-school movement, the reworking of pre-millennialism to sanction political activism. In a world changing so fast, even the attempt to stand still ends up creating new things.

There is nothing wrong with adapting old institutions and values to new surroundings—every migrant and immigrant group in American history has done that. The danger for the Christian right is that, like other movements that stress orthodoxy, it prefers to deny the process of modification in which it is involved. Christian conservatives too often suggest that they simply believe what traditional Americans and traditional Christians have always believed—which implies that their opponents are religious or national heretics. (Movement activists, for instance, often use the term "Christian" to refer exclusively to evangelicals—as in, "She used to be a Catholic, but now she is a Christian.") Were the Christian right forced to defend its beliefs empirically, without the cloak of authenticity, it is unlikely those beliefs would change. But the movement would pursue them more modestly, more conservatively.

Because the Christian right consists largely of people who grew up in one world and tried to recreate it in another, it is hard to know what will happen to the movement's next generation. Will teenagers growing up in strip-mall suburbs—with no experience of homogeneous small towns—find themselves unmoved by the cultural ideal that animates their parents? Or will the disappearance of any actual connection to small-town life make the myths that much more compelling?

When I read in the Olathe Daily News that the city had demolished its oldest grain elevator, I wondered at first why no one protested. And then I drove past a country-style restaurant, built three years ago, part of a chain throughout the Midwest. And next to the entrance I saw a handsome replica grain elevator, framing the shopping mall that stretched into the distance.