TOPEKA — Dave DePue, a pastor and director of the Kansas Capitol Commission, smiled in the background as Rep. Emil Bergquist’s voice bounced around the Statehouse rotunda during his baritone rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Bergquist, along with state Treasurer Steven Johnson and Wellington Republican Rep. Bill Rhiley, led prayers during the May 4 prayer ceremony, asking God for more religious influence in society at large.
DePue, who leads a Christian organization geared toward prayer in the Capitol, has been a quiet influence in the Statehouse for years. A spiritual adviser to former Gov. Sam Brownback, DuPue teaches Bible studies during the legislative session to senators and representatives. His organization hand delivers Bible study notes to all the Capitol offices, according to the organization’s website.
“It’s not religion so much. It’s faith,” DePue said in an interview following the May 4 Statehouse prayer event, which he helped to organize. “It’s hard to be on the front lines of the work, like in government. We just support them. We got their back. We just try to be a supportive environment for legislators and our administrators. We have people pray for them. We walk around and encourage them. No agenda, just to kind of shore them up and strengthen them.”
“For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever,” Bergquist sang, his voice rising and falling. “Amen.”
Bergquist’s performance was a repeat of an earlier one in which he sang “The Lord’s Prayer” to his fellow House lawmakers on April 6, one of the last days of the regular 2023 legislative session. Lawmakers that day proceeded to vote on a bill that would allow parents to pull their children from classes that didn’t align with their moral or religious beliefs, and a bill separating students by sex assigned at birth for overnight school field trips.
Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.
While Bergquist’s a cappella prayer was new, the dedication to religion in the Statehouse was not. The House and Senate open each daily legislative session with a prayer to God as lawmakers seek spiritual guidance before turning their attention to policymaking.
A quiet room on the second floor of the Statehouse has been set aside as a meditation space for lawmakers. Outfitted with Bibles, one tattered copy of the Holy Qur’an and scattered religious pamphlets, literature stacked in the room’s bookshelves bear titles such as “God’s Intervention,” and “Who is Jesus?” A framed poster reading “In God We Trust” sits near a canister of blessed soil ready to be contemplated by lawmakers and other Capitol visitors.
The daily prayers are published in the front pages of Senate and House journals, which record lawmakers actions throughout the session. On April 5, the day before Bergquist’s song, the House prayer, delivered by the Rev. Justin Panzer, asked God to direct lawmakers in doing His work.
“Equip them to use the positions entrusted to them to bring Your honor and glory,” the prayer read. “Lead them to protect life from conception to natural death. Guide them to make decisions that will benefit all citizens of this nation. In all matters of deliberation, give them open ears and discerning and understanding hearts.”
Bergquist, a Park City Republican, is just one of several Kansas lawmakers whose public service has been shaped by Christian beliefs and religious views.
During a legislative debate in March, Rep. Rebecca Schmoe, an Ottawa Republican, asserted the concealed carry of a firearm is among “our natural, God-given rights.”
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, offered to convert a Muslim woman and a news reporter when asked in March how he represented his non-Christian constituents.
“I care about you and God loves you. It’s not complicated. Our happiness, our contentment, our eternal life is thru Christ our Savior,” Steffen wrote in an April 27 Facebook post following news stories about his offer, which he had lied about.
DePue said Steffen had good intentions.
“Steffen’s a good guy, one of our favorite senators,” DePue said. “He’s in his first term, and he’s learning how the system works. He means well — three cheers for Mark Steffen.”
Behind closed doors at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson, Steffen and other Republicans strategized ways of evangelizing Kansans. A secret audio recording of their March 2 meeting was shared with Kansas Reflector.
Reno County Commissioner John Whitesel, Reno County GOP chairman Ryan Patton, Rep. Mike Murphy and Ellis County GOP chairman Adam Peters emphasized the importance of spreading Christianity. Peters said more of his fellow Christian Republicans needed to run for government positions to counteract liberal influence and pass bills such as parental rights legislation as a first step toward “healing” the country.
“We don’t control the media,” Peters said. “We don’t control Hollywood. Big corporations, big tech, academic institutions, most government bureaucracies, most of those are led by people who are hostile to us. What we do tend to control are state legislatures. So I believe we need to start there. Now to be clear, legislative action is no cure-all. Our society is severely injured, and it’s gonna take decades to heal the damage, but the first thing to do is to stop the bleeding.”
Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said topics such as transgender student athlete bans, religious education exemptions, voucher programs for private schools and other bills debated during this year’s legislative session are evidence of harmful religious beliefs.
“This session, the conversation’s completely stymied, or controlled. The only things that come up are the priorities or the obsessions of leadership or of this right-wing group,” Rieber said. “This is something that we need to push back on because we don’t believe that this kind of understanding of white Christian nationalism should be the way the country’s governed, or the lens through which we see important issues.”
Rieber said most Kansans are moderates who don’t welcome the intermingling of politics and religion.
“There’s a very black or white, good or evil kind of framing that they have,” Rieber said. “They think that God wants them to do x and y, and if it’s not done, then they’ve failed God. And where does that leave anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do?”
In an interview for this series, Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat and pastor, questioned how a radical minority had gained such a large footing in state politics.
“The question is: Are you on God’s side?” Schlingensiepen said. “Not the casual assumption that God is on your side. This is a very dangerous assumption, and that God is almost invariably an idol. Idolatry is when you essentially divinize your own personal desires.”
Schlingensiepen, a first-term legislator, thought about the way faith should guide a politician as he navigates decisions in the often-hectic Legislature.
“I like the mess. It’s where I want to be … and I think it is a fantastic challenge to what I believe as a Christian and as a pastor,” Schlingensiepen said. “And I think what we need most in this time is courage and education and honesty to the greatest extent possible. And the only places where those get challenged is where they’re under fire. I’m kind of curious to see how I respond to all these challenges.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.