The film based on Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What's The Matter With Kansas? is a subtle yet revealing portrait of the religious right and how it continues to influence politics in this region of the country.
It’s an important film that could have been made in Oklahoma as well as Kansas. It was shown last weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Frank was in Oklahoma City and answered questions after the Saturday’s showings. I saw the film Sunday.
The documentary film is not confrontational in, say, the tradition of Michael Moore’s movies. Instead, it allows the main characters—some of whom are quite likable—to define themselves without any director's irony or intrusion. Many of the film’s characters are members of a religious right movement that focuses on anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality protests. The self-defeating results of the movement’s narrow focus becomes clear as the film ends, but director Joe Winston never intrudes with dogma.
The movie, like the book, tries to answer the question of why Kansas became such a “bastion” of conservatism despite its early radical history, which included heavy popular support for socialism. I used the word “tries” because the film never gives an explicit answer. This is not a failure of the film, but the difficult reality of trying to frame motivation. Why do these religious right folks believe like they do? What motivates them into political action? Is it a basic fear of modernity, a looming sense that they are getting left behind?
At one point in the film, a new church begins at an amusement park called Wild West World. The bifurcation of the park and church makes viewers wonder which is the more fictional, the amusement park with its dressed-up cowboys or the church members with their obsessive focus on abortion and homosexuality? But, again, the material is not presented in a heavy-handed manner. The theme park eventually goes bankrupt, and the church has to move on.
At another point in the film, a mother condemns secular universities as evil places where defenseless children lose their religious faith. Criticism of academia from the right is nothing new, but the mother’s comments come off as passionate, sincere and even caring. She’s not a stereotype. She really believes it.
Frank’s book and the movie are especially relevant to progressives in Oklahoma. The state has become increasingly conservative over the last three decades or so, and Oklahoma has several religious-right politicians who focus on cultural issues, such as abortion, to win votes.
For example, here’s a recent Salon.com piece on a new draconian abortion law passed by the Oklahoma legislature last session. I wrote about the issue last April.
What’s The Matter With Kansas? specifically documents how the religious right has politicized itself in the so-called heartland and become a powerful force in state politics. As wages remain stagnant, as millions remain without adequate health care, as unemployment rises, the religious right continues with its narrow, cultural agenda. It may have been repudiated in the 2006 and 2008 national elections, but it remains alive and well in Kansas, Oklahoma and other nearby states.
(You can order a DVD of the film here.)