By Clay Wirestone
Kansas Reflector’s comprehensive series on religion in public life keeps making waves.
Throughout the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen multiple news outlets pick up our reporting for their audiences. Politicians have taken note. Those at the center of the story have pushed back. In all cases, readers can see why compelling, fact-based journalism makes all the difference in a state where extremists covet greater and greater power.
Let’s start with the offense-takers.
When Adam Peters — the Ellis County GOP chairman who called for the transformation of Kansas into a “conservative sanctuary” — was asked to comment on his statements by Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith, he didn’t respond. He had every right to do so.
Yet the day the series made its debut, the Ellis County Republican Party posted a lengthy response on its Facebook page. Here’s how the post began; I’m quoting it at length to show that we are more than willing to give Peters his say. Unfortunately, as will soon become clear, the party left out a bit.
On Monday, Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith published allegations concerning a speech that Ellis County GOP Chairman Adam Peters delivered in March. Links to his speech as well as the accompanying Q&A session are provided here, and they refute Smith’s claims:
Far from offering “hints of violence,” Peters explicitly disavowed any form of violence or harassment during his speech at the 27:33 mark, saying, “I’m not calling for, just to be clear in case anyone else is recording this, I’m not calling to ruin anyone’s life. I’m not supporting Antifa tactics.” That’s consistent with a speech he gave this month denouncing the concept of “Christian nationalism” and the use of violence to achieve political goals:
What’s more, Peters implored his listeners at 17:57 of the Q&A to treat others with dignity, including men and women who do not fit traditional gender norms. He stated that we “need to keep in mind there are people who are struggling, and we need to approach them with love and kindness.”
First off, Smith wasn’t claiming anything. He was reporting. That includes listening to recording of Peters’ appearance and drawing conclusions. That’s what journalists do.
While Peters may have said at one point that he didn’t support “Antifa tactics,” he did say that “We need to use the tools that are at our disposal. You know, if we look in scripture, there was a time when the nation of Israel had to take up arms in defense of themselves.”
You can draw your own conclusions after listening to the man himself. The Reflector stands by its reporting.
Of the videos from Reno County Republicans’ meeting, the first lasts 36 minutes and 15 seconds, the second lasts 25 minutes and seven seconds, and the third lasts one minute and 24 seconds. That adds up to one hour, two minutes and 46 seconds — although the first and second clips appear to overlap.
The recording that Kansas Reflector reporters reviewed totals one hour, 43 minutes and 17 seconds. In other words, it’s substantially longer and includes more discussion than the excerpts above.
Later in its statement (please read the rest if you feel ambitious), the party makes the following claim:
“Smith also contends that Peters accused ‘LGBTQ-friendly church pastors of having signed a contract with Satan.’ Anyone who watches the footage of the speech and Q&A session will see that no such comment was made.”
Sure enough, you won’t see that statement in footage provided by the party. You won’t see it because it comes after the footage ends. In the recording Kansas Reflector reviewed, Peters’ makes those comments one hour and 13 minutes into the presentation. I’ll quote him directly.
“And that’s actually why we need to guard our churches,” Peters said. “There have been a growing number of churches that have been promoting drag shows. That they’re promoting just, you just look at this, and you think this is, this is satanic. You know, we were seeing about a contract with the devil before, and I’d have to seriously question what documents some of these pastors are signing.”
From my perch as opinion editor, I don’t think it’s a great look for a county party to make such easily disprovable statements. But then, I’m probably one of the people that Peters would want to create a “hostile environment” for and drive out of the state.
Let’s look at some more favorable reactions to the series.
Democratic Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, the senior minister at First Congregational Church in Topeka, was a major source for the series. He contributed again with a column published last week in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
He writes: “If these views were merely the day-dreaming of extreme activists, it could be brushed off as a fringe fever-dream. But, the sad fact is the majority of legislators have subscribed to this form of pseudo-religious manipulation.
“Crusading against those who are different from them has become standard practice for our Republican-dominated House and Senate. I have grave concerns not only for the future of our state but also the safety of those marginalized by the Legislature.”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes contributed a piece to the Kansas City Star over the weekend. I included an excerpt in my previous column.
But that wasn’t all! The Star published an earlier editorial about our work, titled “GOP chief wants to make Kansas ‘hostile’ to push out ‘bad people’ he disagrees with.
“We also hope — but don’t fully expect — that many of Peters’ fellow Kansas Republicans reject his expressed desire to inflict misery on some of their constituents,” it concludes. “Kansas belongs to all Kansans, no matter their race, gender, orientation, faith or ideology. The state should be welcoming to all. Hateful policymaking and hints of brute force have no place here.”
Most geographically removed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran its own editorial: “Hot mic moment for Kansas GOP official reveals the depth of party’s hostility.”
“Those who go out of their way to be ‘hostile’ to a ‘small sliver of society,’ when those targets aren’t hurting anyone, aren’t the ‘good people’ that the Kansas Republican chairman talked of wanting to keep in his state,” the paper’s editorial board thundered. “To use his own phrase, they’re the ‘bad people.’ And as long as the voters keep reelecting them, statehouses in Missouri and elsewhere will continue being playgrounds for these cynical bullies while the actual duties of government go unfulfilled.”
Finally, you can catch Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro — the other author of the series, along with Smith — on KCUR, offering her perspective.
Whew. That was a lot, but so is summarizing Kansas religious extremism. In the words of Tiny Tim, as I wrap up today, “God bless us, every one.”
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
Counterpoint: Letter to the Editor: Ellis County GOP responds to church, state series