My parents were Democrats on both sides. Strong Dem¬ocrats. Most of my family’s from Ireland. I’m second and third generation.” That short family history, related by Mary Harren of Wichita, Kansas, differs little from that of many Catholics in this part of the country. What is unusual is that Harren will likely continue to vote Democratic this November, putting her in the minority of Catholics in Kansas.

In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush won 52 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide, up from 47 percent in 2000. He even took the Catholic vote in states like New Jersey that supported John Kerry. This represents a significant realignment. Even if the Democrats capture the U.S. House this year, as some polls suggest, the traditional association of Catholics with Democrats is no longer a given. For those asking why more Catholics are voting for Republicans, Kansas may provide some answers.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Thomas Frank argued that a growing segment of voters acts against its economic interest by supporting Republicans, and that it is motivated to do so because of cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Writers like Frank see abortion as a political ploy: politicians may find abortion a useful issue for delivering votes, but they have no intention of delivering actual results. While this may be true in some instances, it doesn’t hold across the board, and it misses the real strength of antiabortion activism as a grassroots movement in Kansas, especially among Catholics.

Virtually every Catholic parish in the state has a prolife committee, and in many neighborhoods the sign of a Catholic home is a “Respect Life” poster in the window and a statue of Mary in the front yard. Along the western fringe of Wichita, for example, where farms are rapidly giving way to subdivisions, many Catholics say they wouldn’t be involved in politics at all were it not for abortion. They stuff envelopes, make phone calls, work the polls, and, most significantly for people whose parents and grandparents identified with JFK and FDR, vote in Republican primaries. Such activism has helped establish abortion as perhaps the most visible issue in the state. Billboards protesting abortion are a common sight along highways, and anyone running for office has to address the issue, including the current governor, Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic Democrat.

Earlier this year, Sebelius angered prolife activists by vetoing a bill that would have mandated more detailed reporting of abortions performed beyond twenty-two weeks’ gestation (including patient age, state of residence, fetal anomalies, number of children, and health outcomes of those children). Proponents of the bill claimed it would aid compliance with current laws that ban most late-term abortions. Sebelius cited privacy concerns, perhaps targeting Republican Attorney General Phill Kline, who had attempted to subpoena the records of abortion patients. Kline was eventually rebuffed by the state’s highest court, which held that clinics had the right to remove patient names and other personal information before handing over records to prosecutors. Perhaps most significant in the governor’s veto message was her statement that “my Catholic faith teaches me that life is sacred. Personally, I believe abortion is wrong.”

Abortion dominates parish life in Kansas. The Diocese of Wichita sees it as so central that it has combined its prolife and social-justice ministries into one office. Still, abortion hardly constitutes the totality of Catholic social teaching. As Fr. Thomas Hoisington, moderator of the Wichita Respect Life and Social Justice Office, points out, “If you look at the money that’s put into the issue of abortion and compare it to Catholic Charities, Catholic Charities far outweighs it. And so the church is demonized for paying all attention to abortion even though that’s not the case.”

Immigration, for instance, is another issue the church has highlighted. A few hours west of Wichita are the dry, flat plains of the Diocese of Dodge City. Here immigration is both a ministry priority and a pressing fact of everyday life. The main industries are oil, dairy, and beef, which may sound pleasantly pastoral but translate into huge agricultural-manufacturing complexes where cows are milked by the thousands and where meat-processing plants loom over the sagebrush at the edge of town. The workers at these factories are primarily Hispanic immigrants, both with documents and without. When I visited the town of Liberal, Concepción Aragón, president of Hispanos Unidos, explained in Spanish that these workers “don’t have benefits. They don’t have medical insurance. They work up to fourteen, fifteen hours a day.” Seldom do they receive overtime, either because they are undocumented or because their employers qualify as agricultural entities and are thus exempt from overtime regulations. Accidents are unavoidable under such conditions. But as Fr. Mike McAndrew, a Redemptorist who works with the Hispanic population in the town said to me, “Go out to the plant and they’ll tell you, ‘We’ve had 186 days without an injury.’ And we’re sitting there knowing they’re lying. Because [the workers are] undocumented they don’t get counted....We’ve had two major arm cases-where arms got caught in the machinery-in our parish.” Such conditions place great stress on family life. Furthermore, these workers seldom attain legal status, despite years on the job.

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has promoted a campaign called Justice for Immigrants, the immigration issue has not seized the state’s conscience. There are no roadside signs urging respect for migrant workers or political action committees lobbying on their behalf in the state capitol. In Liberal, Fr. McAndrew noted, “the Anglo community in our parish feels like they’re the victims, that they’ve sort of lost their parish. And there’s a resentment to it.”

Three hours northeast of Liberal, where the town of Great Bend takes its name from a broad sweep of the Arkansas River, Marty Keenan is running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. He is the sort of candidate who allegedly no longer exists: a prolife Irish-Catholic Democrat. A member of Democrats for Life, he hopes to be “a megaphone in Topeka for the religious center.” For Keenan, that means talking about a broader range of issues, not simply focusing on abortion. “If you’re going to be prolife,” he said, “you better be for health care. You better be for education.” He has often been disappointed by resistance to his message from Catholics, and related an encounter with his cousin, a diocesan priest. “I said, ‘I’m a prolife Democrat,’ and he shook his head and said, ‘There’s no such thing.’”

Yet there are signs that Keenan’s broader definition of prolife has begun to resonate here. Running against an incumbent in a district where only 22 percent of voters register as Democrats, Keenan won 46 percent of the vote in 2004. This year, with that incumbent retiring, Keenan believes he has a much stronger chance of winning. Judy Armstrong is another Catholic running for a seat in the Kansas House. She reported that in her district, just south of Wichita, “people genuinely understand the common good. They may not use those words, but they understand it.”

The future of the Catholic vote in Kansas may come down to of how broadly the common good is defined and understood. Will the Catholic vote draw both parties toward a more comprehensive understanding of social justice-one that includes, but is not limited to, concern for unborn life? Or will the abortion issue continue to subordinate all others? November may provide some indications.

Philip Schweiger, a native of Wichita, is completing a master’s in literature at Fordham University.

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Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: View Contents
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