What’s the Matter with Kansas?
I moved to Kansas as an 11 year-old kid in 1989. So at that young age, I didn’t have any political or religious thoughts of my own, I just regurgitated what my parents told me or what I was able to pick up from TV. By the time I enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1997, I wasn’t asking “what happened to Kansas”, but rather “what’s wrong with Kansas”, as the only thing I knew about the state were the die-hard republicans and the right wing views that permeated throughout. Naturally, Lawrence, Kansas was an attractive destination in an otherwise red state.
However, the curiosity and frustration I had about the political and religious beliefs of Kansas never led to me making a movie about it and it was by pure accident that I stumbled upon this little documentary from Laura Cohen and Joe Winston. In a surprisingly unbiased fashion, they set out to research “what’s the matter with Kansas” and nail it down to specific incidents by interviewing various political figures and residents. The film follows three separate people; a struggling farmer, a born again Christian mom and a young Christian girl on her way to college. They have different experiences and views on politics and religion and the filmmakers are careful not to paint any of them as “wrong” or “right”; they just want to show you they exist and that they have particular views.
One of the best parts about watching documentary films like this is that you get to be a part of people’s lives that you otherwise wouldn’t see. In this case, listening to these people and hearing their reasoning was interesting, but extremely frustrating at the same time. The film really blurs the line between religion and politics (regardless of what you think, “republican” is not, and never has been, synonymous with “Christian”) and so at times feels like you’re watching a movie about Kansans and religion and not Kansans and politics. I think both are valid topics and ripe for debate, but I was more interested in why Kansas is such a republican state now and less interested in their religious views. Perhaps that was the intent of the filmmakers; to draw a parallel between the Christianity in Kansas and the switch to supporting the republican party.
As much as I enjoyed following these people and listening to them talk about their political and religious views, what I was really interested in was finding out what happened to Kansas. We get a little bit of a tease when we learn about some of the Populist and Socialist history of the state, then we get a great interview with Dan Glickman when he recounts the Summer of Mercy, but the question remains unanswered when the film closes. The filmmakers seemingly wanted the audience to answer the question on their own, but I wanted more of a history of the politics in the state to better judge why the state changed so drastically.
I’m curious as to how people outside of Kansas will view this film. I was slightly embarrassed by it, but I also recognize that the film completely ignored anyone in cities like Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and even in the heart of Wichita. The vast majority of Kansans live in those cities and I think they could have gotten a more diverse reaction had they focused on the politics within the major cities. Even still, I enjoyed the film and I join the filmmakers in asking; what’s the matter with Kansas?