What Happened When an Extremist, Christian Fundamentalist Got to Run a Whole State
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Liberals throughout the land breathed a sigh of relief when Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas stepped down in 2008 and later decided to run for governor. Yes, the nation's gain was a loss for the good people of Kansas, but Brownback's special brand of right-wing fundamentalism was so extreme that many felt it was better to try to contain him in a single state rather than inflict him on the whole of the country. Judging from the four years he's been in charge of that unfortunate state, their concerns were well-founded.
This should come as no surprise. His tenure in the Senate was characterized by his righteous absolutism and entirely predictable ultra-conservative vote. There was no tax cut he did not back or military adventure he wasn't in favor of. He voted to impeach President Clinton and even took the unusual step of decrying the immorality of the American public for failing to be properly outraged. But it was in the realm of culture and religion where he made his mark.
Once a devout evangelical Protestant, Brownback converted to Catholicism later in life. (His chief of staff at the time was none other than Congressman Paul Ryan, who is credited with counseling him in his conversion.) In the Senate he took up the banner of the culture war, even chairing a Senate group called the Values Action Team which included such conservative activist groups as Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Right to Life Committee, where he and fellow right-wing senators plotted their strategy for taking America back to the Dark Ages. He was so doctrinaire he even refused to vote for a particular judicial candidate because she had once attended a lesbian commitment ceremony. (She didn't officiate or participate; she merely attended.) For the two terms he served in the Senate he was a ferocious culture warrior.
But he wasn't always so intensely focused on the decadence and moral dissipation of modern American life. When he first ran for congress in the mid-'90s he was considered a moderate Kansas Republican like Eisenhower. But a tough campaign against an opponent backed by well-organized right-to-life zealots converted him to an evangelical culture warrior and Republican revolutionary so committed to cutting taxes and shrinking government one profiler said he even gave Newt Gingrich "the willies."
He became leader of a House group called the New Federalists which devoted itself to the dismantling of the government one brick at a time. Fortunately, they were unable to pass their ambitious agenda so they instead became the far-right's hitmen, pioneering the use of hard-core obstructionist tactics to paralyze the government. They were the faction agitating the hardest for a government shutdown in 1995, pushing Gingrich to his most obstreperous limits (and setting the stage for his precipitous fall from grace). Joe Scarborough famously quoted Brownback telling him not to be disillusioned by the PR disaster that ensued, saying "Rome wasn't burnt in a day."
His far-right fiscal bona fides solidly demonstrated, Brownback turned his attention to social issues when he ran for the Senate in 1996 at the height of the religious right's growing clout in the GOP. He spent the next 12 years as a hardcore fiscal conservative but more importantly, as a far-right Christian crusader, sometimes fashioning himself as a "Wilberforce" conservative (after the British anti-slavery activist) comparing abolition of slavery to his determination to ban abortion. He's been closely associated for years with the secretive Christian fellowship group known as the Family.
By the time he tried to run for president in 2008, he appeared to be perfect conservative candidate. Unfortunately, the anticipated groundswell didn't materialize and he dropped out before the primaries. But he did participate in the early debates and was memorably one of the three (with Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo) who raised his hand to declare he did not believe in evolution.