Some Mennonites Vote Democrat

In the popular American imagination, Kansas Mennonites are Republicans.  The recent 2018 elections offered some interesting contradictions to that image.   In Harvey County the Mennonites voted strongly to elect one of their own members, Tim Hodge, a Democrat, for a second term to the state legislature.  In Marion County, Mennonites in West Branch township (including the town of Goessel) gave thirty-five more votes to the Democratic candidate, Laura Kelly, than to her Republican opponent, Kris Kobach.

There are a number of reasons for the common image of Mennonite Republicanism.  One is that journalists in the early years who wrote about Kansas Mennonites focused on the Alexanderwohl church community in western Marion County.   In the years after immigration (1870s) down to World War I (1917-18), the Alexanderwohlers were solidly Republican.   The election results in Menno township and West Branch township were often  over 90% Republican.  The Republican party had been in power at the time of the migration, and the Republican sponsored railroads provided cheap land for Mennonite settlement.

But not all Kansas Mennonites were Alexanderwohlers.  Just to the west in southern McPherson County was the Hopefield/Eden community and their daughter community of Pretty Prairie in western Sedgwick County.   The Hopefielders were “Swiss Volhynians” who immigrated from a different part of eastern Europe than the “Dutch Russian” Alexanderwohlers.   The Hopefielders tended to vote more Democratic (and in the 1890s more Populist), than the Republican Alexanderwohlers, although never as solidly.  Part of the picture was social/religious competition between different Mennonite groups.

I researched and wrote about Kansas Mennonite political acculturation in two volumes titled  A People of Two Kingdoms I and II  (1975 and 2016).   One surprise was that in recent decades, from World War II to 2014, more Democrat than Republican Kansas Mennonites ran for state and national offices.  During these seven decades a total of thirty Kansas Mennonites ran for state or national office.  Of these, seventeen (57.7%) were Democrats, twelve (40%) were Republicans, and one (3.3%) was Independent (Reform Party).  Nine of the twelve Republicans, and six of the seventeen Democrats, were elected to office.  A full list of these Mennonite politicians is in Appendix A, pp  297-299 of A People of Two Kingdoms II (2016).

Not all Kansas Mennonite groups were equally interested in politics.  Twenty-five of the thirty Mennonite candidates for state and national office were members of, or related to, congregations of the General Conference Mennonite Church.  Four were members of the Mennonite Brethren Church.   One was a member of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

In the years around the turn of the twenty-first century the Mennonite contribution to Kansas politics was shaped by a “three-party” system:  moderate Republican, right-wing Republican,  and Democrat.   An increasing number of Kansans were registered Republicans who elected an increasingly Republican legislature.  Kansas was called “the reddest of the red states.”  Critics (notably Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas, How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, 2004), observed that Kansans voted against their own interests.   They voted against abortion (with little result on the state level) but received tax cuts for the wealthy.

Kansas Republicans were divided into two groups–moderate and right wing.   It was possible for moderate Republicans to join with Democrats to oppose right wing legislation and to elect Democratic governors.  Coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans elected Democratic governors John Carlin in 1980 and 1984, and Kathleen Sebelius in 2004 and 2008.   Now in 2018 the election of Democrat Laura Kelly over Republican Kris Kobach recapitulated that pattern.

The 2018 election revealed a dramatic political difference between urban and rural Kansans.  There are 105 counties in Kansas.  Democrat Laura Kelly, now governor-elect, won a majority in only nine of those counties–all substantially urban.  Meanwhile Republican Kris Kobach won a majority in 96 counties, but lost the election decisively.   The rural-urban difference only partly explains Mennonite voting.   Harvey County, where Mennonite Democrat votes elevated the county into the elite nine county group that elected Laura Kelly, is a mostly rural county.  The energetic and innovative campaign of Tim Hodge, along with his Mennonite base, resulted in a Democrat win in Harvey County.   And West Branch township, where Mennonites supported Laura Kelly, is clearly rural.  There must have been other reasons that Mennonites in Goessel voted strongly for a Democrat in 2018.

 

 

 

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Count All the Votes: Hodge vs. Kelly

On election day, November 6, 2018, when the votes were counted for Kansas state representative in district 72, the Republican candidate, Steve Kelly, led the incumbent Democratic candidate,  Tim Hodge, by eighty-four votes, 4330 to 4246.  The Kelly camp celebrated, but cautiously.   The advance ballots and provisional ballots remained to be counted.   The Hodge camp hoped against hope that when all the votes were counted, they would overcome their deficit.  Hodge speculated that a recount might be necessary.

On Tuesday morning, November 13, a week after the election, the Harvey County clerk, Rick Piepho, announced a reversal.  The count of advance and provisional ballots revealed that Hodge had won the election by 209 votes, 51.12% to 48.74%.  (The exact numbers were not available, in part because the Whitewater precinct in Butler County was not included.)   But it was beyond doubt that Hodge had won.   There would be no recount.

The nail-biting outcome reflected Hodge’s campaign strategy.   He had gone door to door throughout the district, carrying two documents–voter registration forms and advance ballots.  He found hundreds of people who were not registered and who doubted whether their votes could make a difference.   These people responded to a person-to-person appeal.   Many filled out registration forms and promised to mail in ballots.  The alleged Republican advantage in party registrations–twice as many Republicans as Democrats–was not as important as people conventionally thought.   The 72nd district was full of people who were fed up with the Brownback-Republican party leadership and were eager for a change.  In the end these people made the difference.  Hodge said, “We’ve knocked on 6,000+ doors, registered close to 1,000 new voters, helped 2,200 voters get advance ballots and met thousands of wonderful people.”

The outcome also reflected the importance of Hodge’s political base in North Newton, where he lives on Main Street across from Bethel College and where his family attends the Bethel College Mennonite Church.   In the North Newton precinct, Hodge got 68% of the vote–359 more votes than his opponent, Kelly.   Hodge needed those votes to overcome Kelly’s majority elsewhere in the 72nd district.   In Whitewater Kelly beat Hodge, 189-68.

The election map showed a strong north/south difference.  Hodge won in North Newton and in the northern precincts of Newton city, while Kelly won in the southern precincts (with one exception).  Kelly also won in the rural townships to the south and east of Newton, as well as in the Butler County Whitewater precinct.  It would take careful social/political analysis to explain this pattern.  Part of it is traditional American town-gown differences.  Bethel College stood for peace during the Vietnam War.  One possibility is that the voting pattern reflected religious identity.  Mennonites presumably tended to vote for Hodge.  Another possibility is that some of the votes reflected social class.  But that needs to be studied.

The differences between candidates Hodge and Kelly were striking.   Hodge spoke out clearly and forcefully on a range of issues.  Kelly was less decisive on tax issues, but presented himself as a problem-solver who could reach across party lines.   Hodge opposed the death penalty while Kelly defended it “in extreme cases.”   Kelly was more clearly anti-abortion or pro-life.   There were conflicting reports about fundraising and spending.  The “Newton Now” newspaper, with information from the Kansas Secretary of State office, reported that from Jan. 1 to Oct 29, Hodge spent $56,077–more than twice as much as Kelly.   Hodge claimed that some groups had supported Kelly’s campaign without being required to report to state election offices.  Kelly got support from the Koch Foundation and from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile in the Kansas governor’s race, the Democrat Laura Kelly, a long-term member of the Kansas Senate, defeated the controversial Republican candidate, Kris Kobach.   Laura Kelly, like Hodge, tied her opponent to the discredited 2012 Republican tax “experiment” of former governor Sam Brownback.   Despite the success of Laura Kelly and Tim Hodge, along with the surprise victory of Democrat Sharice Davids in Kansas’ third congressional district, one cannot say that Kansas fully shared in a larger national “Blue Wave.”   The relative numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives did not change.   Indeed, a number of moderate Republicans were replaced by more conservative legislators from the same party.   Two victims of this trend were the moderate Mennonite Republican candidates Don Schroeder of Hesston and Steve Becker of Buhler/Hutchinson.  Schroeder and Becker both lost in the August primary to more conservative Republican candidates–Stephen Owens and Paul Waggoner.   Becker ran a write-in campaign in the general election but came short by a thousand votes.

Governor-elect Laura Kelly has announced the appointment of a four-member team to set forth procedures and policies for the new Democrat administration.   One member of the team is Duane Goossen, former long-term legislator and budget director in Kansas.  (See comments about Goossen in previous blog posts.)   It remains to be seen whether the progressive policies advocated by Laura Kelly, Duane Goossen and Tim Hodge, such as expansion of Medicaid, removing the tax on food, and funding for education will actually be achieved.   But it is evident that Mennonites will have an ongoing influence, modest to be sure, on the Kansas political scene.

 

 

Mennonite Moderates Lose

     Two Mennonite moderates, Don Schroeder and Steve Becker, lost to conservative challengers in the Republican primary of August 7, 2018.   Both results were surprises.

     Schroeder, from Hesston in the 74th district, was running for his sixth term in the Kansas House.  He lost to Stephen Owens, 45% to 55%.  Owens identified with President Donald Trump, who, he said “really invigorates a lot of Republicans tired of the status quo.”  Owens, a life member of the National Rifle Association, acclaimed the second amendment.  At a public forum in Hesston he startled the audience by admitting that he was carrying a concealed weapon at the time.  He wants his daughter at Kansas State University to be enabled to carry her own weapon.  He criticized the Democrats and moderate Republicans who increased taxes to dig the state out of the hole created by the Brownback tax decrease of 2012.

Owens got significant financial help from conservative individuals and groups, including Koch and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.  The published record of campaign finance data revealed that total gifts to the Owens campaign came to $10,822.43.  To be sure, Schroeder also received money from conservative political action committees.  For example the record shows in 2017 gifts of $500 each to Schroeder from the BNSF Railway Company, the CHS McPherson Refinery, and the Kansas Contractors Association.  It is integral to American politics, including Kansas, that interested agencies attempt to buy the friendship and the votes of politicians.

In any case, Owens this time outhustled Schroeder on the campaign trail.  The town of Hesston was flooded with Owens yard signs and the post office boxes were stuffed with his brochures.  Owens energetically campaigned door to door.   Some of Schroeder’s supporters speculated that he was getting weary of politics and anticipated retiring in any case after another term or so.

In the 104th district, including Buhler and South Hutchinson, the initial primary election ended with Paul Waggoner leading Steve Becker by just one vote–2,014 to 2,013.   After the sixty-some provisional votes were counted, Waggoner won by seventeen votes.

Becker, a retired Reno County District Judge, is accustomed to close elections.  He won his first State House primary in 2012 by a 57-vote margin.  He is a member of First Mennonite Church in Buhler, and would be expected to get full support of Mennonites in Buhler and the surrounding territory.  But it is speculated that a goodly number of Mennonites voted for Waggoner, a businessman who ran to the right of Becker on the abortion issue.  Becker said he was against abortion, but that Waggoner succeeded in personalizing this and other issues.

Becker has been a strong opponent of the death penalty in the Kansas House.  He has been the primary  sponsor of legislation to end the death penalty.  That issue was not highlighted in the August primary election, but Becker’s leadership will be sorely missed in Topeka in the future.

Political commentators in Kansas observed that the results in the 74th and 104th districts were part of a small conservative wave in the Republican party.  Republican conservatives, supported by the state Chamber of Commerce, took five or six seats away from moderates.  It is said that tax issues were most crucial, but it is also the fact that church-based anti-abortion groups are well organized to exercise influence beyond their numbers at the local level.

A typical view of Kansas politics holds that there is effectively a three-party system:   Conservative Republicans; moderate Republicans; and Democrats.  Democratic candidates can get elected by making alliance with moderate Republicans.   The 2018 Democrat candidate for governor, Sen. Laura Kelly, needs to win over the moderate Republicans in order to defeat the Republican candidate, secretary of state Kris Kobach.  Both Kelly and Kobach worry about losing votes to the independent candidate, Greg Orman.  The August primary results in the 74th and 104th districts–the defeat of Schroeder and Becker–would seem to favor Kobach’s prospects.

 

Hodge vs. Kelly

Tim Hodge of North Newton, Democrat and current state representative from the Kansas House District #72, will will have a strong Republican opponent in the November 2018 election.   Running against Hodge will be Steve Kelly, former president of the Medical Center in Newton.

Hodge won  in 2016 over the conservative Republican incumbent, Marc Rhoades.   Rhoades was a dogmatic “trickle-down” capitalist who opposed taxing businessmen.   He strongly supported Governor Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax “experiment” that blew a hole in the Kansas budget.  The failure of Brownback’s “experiment” helped Hodge win a close election.  The campaign was contentious.  The candidates bitterly denounced and insulted each other.

Hodge will face a very different candidate this time, in 2018.   According to an article by Adam Strunk in the June 7 issue of Newton Now, Steve Kelly defines himself politically as “right of center”–quite unlike the far right-winger Rhoades.   Kelly wants to be known less for his political ideology, than for his personal commitment to consensus building.  Strunk quoted Kelly:   “There needs to be more listening and less talking.  There needs to be more work to solve the issues instead of staying ‘look at me.'”  Kelly says his listening ability and consensus building enabled him to promote the takover of Via Christi Clinic by Health Ministries in Newton.

Kelly’s position on two issues suggest that he is not on the far right.  He says that he was for repealing the 2012 Brownback tax cuts.  He also argues for the expansion of Medicaid and for the acceptance of federal funds to closed the “Medicaid Gap.”  His experience in health care has taught him that hospitals and retirement homes could make good use of federal funds that Kansas has so far turned down.

On other issues Kelly seems to be further to the right, but his responses are vague.   He says he is “against abortion,” but does not explain what anti-abortion legislation he supports.  He says he “supports the second amendment” but “with responsibilities.”  It is not clear whether he favors the sale of assault rifles.   He says he needs “time to think about” tax policies.   No doubt Hodge, a strong proponent of reducing the state sales tax, will challenge Kelly to take a clear stance on that issue.  Hodge is a co-sponsor of legislation to end the death penalty in Kansas–another issue that Kelly will need to address in the upcoming campaign.

Kelly claims Hodge as a friend.  Remarkably, in 2016 Kelly twice contributed financially to Hodge’s campaign for the legislature.   It seems that the 2018 campaign will not be scarred by the same hostile denunciations and insults as two years ago between Hodge and Roades.

The count of voter registrants by political party indicate that Republican candidates have a major advantage in the 72nd district.   The number of registered Republican voters (6,284) in Harvey County is more than twice the number of registered Democratic voters (3077).   There are also 3,883 unaffiliated, and 101 Libertarian, registered voters.  The 72nd district also includes to town of Whitewater in Butler County.  We may well wonder if the natural advantage of incumbency will help Hodge overcome the disadvantage of political party registrations.

 

Koontz Israel Boycott

Esther Koontz, a member of First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, has undertaken a project to change one Kansas law.   Her strategy is quite different from that of the three Mennonite representatives currently  in the state legislature (Schroeder, Becker, and Hodge).  Koontz  is challenging the constitutionality of a state law that bars Kansas from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that boycott Israel or products made there.   The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Kansas in her behalf.

For nine years Koontz worked as a math teacher and curriculum adviser in the Wichita public school system.  She recently applied for a contract to work as a trainer in a statewide Kansas Department of Education teaching program.   On July 1, 2017, a new law went into effect that required her to sign a statement that said, “I am not engaged in a boycott of Israel.”  Koontz refused to sign.  She was denied a contract.

Some twenty-one states have similar laws.   If Koontz and the ACLU win their case in Kansas, it will have nationwide implications.

Is Koontz in fact boycotting Israel?   That question is less relevant than the fact that she will not sign the Kansas statement.  She says she is following the lead of the Mennonite Church USA that in 2017 adopted a denominational resolution that urged avoiding “the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation.”  The resolution did not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods.   It did call for Everence, a Mennonite financial agency, to take leadership in discouraging Mennonite agencies from investing in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  The resolution, in a not completely convincing attempt at balance, also spoke against anti-Semitism.  News reports so far have given no examples of individual or institutional Mennonite investment strategies or boycotts that have specifically implemented the resolution.

But there are early indications that the Koontz vs. Watson case can spark a firestorm of  protest.   One Jewish journalist, Edwin Black, has published a hostile response titled “The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions)  Movement Has Come to Kansas”.    Black’s essay was published in the History News Network, an online publication of comments by prominent historians on current events.  <http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/167580&gt;

Journalist Black alleges that Koontz’s action “re-affirms the anti-Jewish campaign begun by Adolf Hitler on April 1, 1933” and extended by subsequent anti-Semitic movements through the decades.  Black claims to be a long-time student of Mennonite history, though his review of that history includes some notable errors.  He tells of German Mennonite collaboration with Nazis–a theme highlighted in recent months by the writing and speaking of Ben Goossen.   But Black’s  trump card is his final condescending paragraph, which is worth quoting in entirety:

“If Koontz will return to any of the simple Mennonite churches in central Kansas, she can refresh her knowledge of history and the restoration of the Jews in Israel.  She can read the one international law that predated the League of Nations, the Arab invasion, and even the Roman expulsion.  She can refer to Leviticus 25:10 which commands the Israelites to ‘proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property.’  No Hitler decree, Arab League boycott, BDS chant, MCUSA resolution, or ACLU lawsuit can erase those words from the churches of Kansas–or from the courtrooms.”

The Koontz vs. Watson case is in its early stages.   It is not yet clear why the ACLU has apparently given priority to the law in Kansas rather than to one of the more prominent states of the union.   Is this some kind of reprise of  Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education?  For the time being, both parties (ACLU and State of Kansas) are waiting for a District Court decision on whether it will issue a preliminary injunction in the case.  Stay tuned for more developments.

Hillsboro and Tabor College in Bicentennial 1976

Del Gray, associate professor of Bible and Religious Studies at Tabor College, recently posted a statement critical of American Evangelicalism on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door.” Gray modeled his statement after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses of October 31, 1517. The statement was intended to contribute to conversations on the Tabor campus. Now distributed by Mennonite World Review, the statement is taking on its own life on the internet. Gray’s first thesis begins, “The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics.”
I don’t intend to comment on Gray’s 95 theses, except to say that it reminded me of an earlier lively conversation at Tabor–during the American Centennial Year of 1976. I wrote about that 1976 conversation in my book, A People of Two Kingdoms II, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics (Bethel College, 2016). Gray is clearly in the tradition of those called “Neo Anabaptists” at Tabor in 1976. Below is an except from chapter 8 of that book, pages 169-174. The chapter is titled “Bicentennial 1976.”

Hillsboro and Tabor College, 1976

The town of Hillsboro, population about three thousand, outdid all other towns of south central Kansas in bicentennial celebrations. Governor John Carlin of Kansas designated Hillsboro an official “Bicentennial Town.” Hillsboro’s civic leaders managed to attract two nationally-sponsored exhibitions—an “Official Bicentennial Wagon Train” in March and the “Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan” in October. The Bicentennial Wagon Train was one of several in the country that traversed historic national trails and converged at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4. The Hillsboro Star-Journal estimated that five thousand people attended the Main-Street parade, and some four thousand stayed for the evening program in Memorial Park for a program that included a choral group from Pennsylvania University. The Wagon Train had national corporate sponsorship, but the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan was a public relations project for the U. S. Department of Defense.
In addition, the local Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, co-chaired by Carol Wiebe and Ray Baker, organized its own Memorial Day “Bicentennial Birthday Celebration” on May 29. The parade included a 13-man military color guard from Fort Riley, American Legion members and the Boy Scouts. Garner Shriver, fourth-district congressman, spoke at the dedication of a new civic center. Golfers participated in a bicentennial golf tournament, one of many community events. The Hillsboro Star-Journal, published a special 24-page issue, including a “Special Bicentennial Section.” On the first page were illustrations of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of Independence Hall, of a fife and drum corps, of a patriot lighting a cannon to shoot ships in the harbor, and of a Betsy Ross sewing thirteen stars onto an American flag.
The Mennonites of Hillsboro had mixed reactions to the bicentennial celebrations. One enthusiastic supporter was Elmer W. Flaming, president of the First National Bank and leading member of the Parkview Mennonite Brethren church. Annoyed by articles in the MB denominational periodical, The Christian Leader, that were critical of American civil religion, Flaming wrote an essay titled “Why Celebrate the Bicentennial.” He said, “The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of their belief and faith in God. It is a religious document from the first sentence to the last. It affirms God’s existence as self-evident truth which requires no further discussion or debate. The nation it creates is God’s country.” For Flaming the bicentennial celebrations represented “our opportunity and challenge to revive America with an injection of the same religious faith and dedication that brought about the birth of a great nation.”
On the opposite side were some teachers and students at Tabor College, located a few blocks south and east of the center of town. Tabor was wrestling with its identity as a Mennonite Christian liberal arts college. One new faculty member who arrived at Tabor in January 1976 found Tabor to be a “hornet’s nest” of controversy. At the center of debate were a number of young idealistic faculty members who urged Tabor to become a distinctively Anabaptist Christian school with a strong peace emphasis. On the other side were teachers and administrators who promoted a conservative evangelical identity that would attract more students of non-Mennonite background. Students in a college forum presentation identified the parties as “the pacifists versus the patriots. The alleged Mennonite ethnicists versus Protestantism.” One label for the idealists was “radical neo-Anabaptists.”
In the fall of 1975 the Tabor College homecoming committee decided on a bicentennial theme, “Highlights of History,” for the homecoming parade. The committee invited student groups to create floats portraying events from America’s past. Some students and teachers of “neo-Anabaptist” persuasion protested. The student Christian Fellowship Association (CFA), led by Curt Kuhns and Gordon Zerbe, decided to boycott the parade, asking “whether we as a Christian college could celebrate a government that was established by the overthrow of another, has a long history of war, and where so many things are not of God.” Don Ratzlaff, editor of the student paper, critiqued the CFA’s decision: “At a time when our country needs a moral shot in the arm, CFA proposes we give it a mortal shot in the head. America is in dire need of a Christian influence, not a Christian cop-out.”
A year later, in October 1976, the neo-Anabaptist group at Tabor mobilized a public protest when the most militaristic of Hillsboro’s bicentennial events, the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan, came to town. The caravan consisted of four large semi-truck trailers that contained museum displays for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, “recounting the contributions made to America by her armed forces.” An Army spokesman for the display said it was not a recruiting program, but rather “a concerted effort by the Armed Forces to bring the American Revolution Bicentennial closer to the people of Hillsboro and the surrounding communities.” In the Air Force Van, said the promotion, “Fifteen projectors and more than 700 slides are used simultaneously in the 17-minute show to highlight the Air Force’s role in aviation in its early stages, during the two world wars, in space research and in today’s world.” The Defense Department was spending a lot of money to refurbish its reputation tarnished by defeat in the Vietnam War.
The Tabor College protesters decided to set up a counter-military display, deliberately crude and low-tech to contrast with the sophisticated and expensive military caravan museums. For a display table for peace literature they rolled in a large wooden utility-wire frame and tipped it on its side. They parked their bicycles in front of the gas-guzzling military semi trailers, and put up a sign, “CHRISTIANS ARE CONCERNED, HAS WAR EVER MADE PEACE?” Visitors to the peace display engaged the protestors in friendly as well as hostile conversation. At his noon break, a young mechanic from the nearby Ford Company came to argue that the military forces celebrated in the Caravan museums were the reason the protesters had the right to free speech. K. B. Bruce, editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal, made the same point editorially: “The history portrayed in this fine caravan gave those few individuals Saturday their right to distribute material for peace in this country.”
Intense reaction to the Caravan confrontation put Roy Just, Tabor College president, in a difficult situation. Elmer Flaming, conservative Main Street banker, called Just and asked him to rein in his protesting students and faculty. On the other side, Ben Ollenburger, professor of religious studies and philosophy, distributed a statement for the “Tabor Forum” scolding the college for failing to support the protesters. They should rather be commended for “an act of courage and faithfulness in giving public testimony to the New Testament message of peace.” And, said Ollenburger, the college should renew its commitment “to be faithful to the tradition and theology which is the reason for this school’s existence.” President Just attempted to mediate between his radical faculty members and conservative major donors. According to Frank Brenneman, one of the faculty protesters, Just agreed with the ideals of the neo-Anabaptists. But he wanted the radicals to know that Tabor College could not ignore someone like Flaming, a major financial contributor whose bank held the major share of Tabor College’s debt.
The “Caravan confrontation” prompted G. George Ens, a medical doctor in Hillsboro, to write out his own version of the underlying issues, and to send them to President Just with copies to three of Tabor’s neo-Anabaptists (John E. Toews, Ben Ollenburger, and Al Dueck). In Ens’s view, two “philosophies” were contending for the minds of Tabor students. One was the “Christian capitalist” philosophy that had sustained the Mennonite Brethren Church. It held to an atonement theology with salvation in Christ followed by evangelism and mission work; believed in the validity of capital and benevolence; valued a thrifty and frugal life-style; and respected government as instituted by God. The alternative “socialistic” philosophy, which was threatening to undermine the church, criticized “cheap grace;” thought money was evil; advocated poverty and communalism; was anti-American and avoided involvement in government except for negative prophetic witness.
The Bicentennial-related events and discussions of 1975-76 were one part of an ongoing social and theological process among the Mennonite Brethren and at Tabor College. Roy Just, president of Tabor from 1963 to 1980, was widely perceived as having shifted sharply conservative in the latter years of his presidency. According to Lynn Jost, co-author of the history of Tabor College, President Just after 1973 envisioned Tabor as “a school of evangelistic mission,” but the faculty resisted, “insisting on the historic liberal arts mission.” In 1976 Just hired Calvin Redekop to the position of Vice-President, knowing that Redekop would be a strong advocate of Anabaptist identity at Tabor. However, the outspoken neo-Anabaptists, including Redekop, all left Tabor College in the late 1970s, convinced that Tabor had chosen definitively to move in a conservative evangelical, rather than an Anabaptist, direction. The American bicentennial dialogue in Hillsboro illustrated the acculturation process of Mennonite Brethren toward conservative evangelicalism.

Duane Goossen’s Influence

On June 6, 2017, the Kansas legislature voted to override Governor Brownback’s veto of its vote to overturn tax policies that had bedeviled the state’s finances since 2012. The vote was national news. To understand what happened in Kansas, the Washington Post turned to Duane Goossen, former Kansas legislator (1983-1996) and state budget director (1999-2011). Goossen had become the pre-eminent critic of Brownback’s failed “tax experiment,” and arguably the most influential voice in turning public opinion in Kansas toward change.

Goossen was not an elected official. What accounted for his extraordinary influence? According to Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Goossen shaped the statewide debate through “his monthly newspaper column that ran in over twenty newspapers across the state, his blog writings, his radio and TV interviews, and public seminars.” At the outset in 2012, Goossen’s critique was a lonely one. But over the months and years, as Beatty summarizes, events proved him right: “He predicted the tax cuts would not produce the estimated tax revenue windfall; they didn’t. He predicted the tax cuts would blow a giant hole in the Kansas budget and necessitate budget cuts and borrowing; that happened.”

The Kansas primary and general elections of 2016 were an important turning point. Many far right conservatives were turned out of office, and newly elected moderates were more willing to listen to alternative voices. Goossen became popular on the lecture circuit—invited to speak two and three times a day. His exceptional knowledge of state budget and finance history ensured that he would be taken seriously. He illustrated his points with graphs that made complex relationships understandable. Defenders of Brownback’s policies were unable convincingly to contradict Goossen’s data. They rather resorted to tired repetitions of the “trickle down” ideology that did not agree with the facts.

Goossen’s arguments were enhanced by his personality. Mark Peterson, chair of the political science department at Washburn University, has said that Goossen is “one of the least egocentric individuals I’ve ever met.” He did not take obvious delight in destroying the arguments of his opponents. “His Mennonite background has created a real conviction in the good of service to others.”

Peterson also emphasized Goossen’s professional credentials. “I think the thing that makes Goossen so effective is his vita — 7 terms in the state house (Republican), a Masters from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and his service as budget director from 1997 for the Graves administration until the end of the Sebelius administration. In that time he became both parties’ and most lobbyists’ go to guy for the straight up on revenue and the impact of contemplated changes to the state’s budget.” While Goossen was a registered Republican during his political career in Kansas, he has subsequently changed his registration to Democrat. But his contribution to the tax debate has been strictly non-partisan.

The national press has been interested in the wider relevance of the Kansas model. The Washington Post article based on conversation with Goossen was titled, “Kansas’ collapsed tax-cut plan will provide political fodder for Democrats for decades.” Recent commentaries on Fox News suggest that supply-siders will simply ignore Kansas, and continue to claim that tax cuts under President Reagan fostered national prosperity. Meanwhile Goossen warns about the looming tax plan of President Trump: “It’s the Kansas experiment on steroids.”

We might wish that Goossen could exercise the same kind of influence on national policy that he has had in Kansas.