LIBERAL, Kansas—Until Friday, Liberal, a small Kansas town with a population slightly over 20,000, wasn’t often featured in national news.
Then, three men who called themselves The Crusaders—Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, both 49, of Liberal, and Patrick Eugene Stein, 47, of nearby Wright, Kansas—were arrested for a terrorist plot to detonate bombs outside an apartment complex that also serves as the mosque for the Somali community of Garden City, Kansas, a town about 70 miles north.
Now, Liberal’s residents are trying to make sense of it all, sitting in the shadow of terror plans and the Trump campaign that has aimed exclusionary rhetoric squarely at the U.S. Muslim community.
“It’s strange to have it so close to home,” Brittany Baker, who asked that her name be changed for privacy, told The Daily Beast at her nondenominational church after Sunday service. “We, the Christian community, certainly don’t condone this.”
Liberal is conservative. Driving its brick-paved streets, one gets the feeling that it was named ironically. There’s an evangelical church every other block, dozens of “Back the Badge” signs on lawns in support of the Blue Lives and All Lives Matter counters to the Black Lives Matter movement, and ubiquitous Trump/Pence posters hanging on homes and businesses throughout.
The majority of the town goes to church Sunday morning. They head straight to one of the many restaurants afterward to eat in fellowship with the Christians who don’t go to their church.
Pastor John Kerrigan (name also changed) of a local branch of a nationwide church, shared Baker’s surprise. He told The Daily Beast in an interview that as Christians, it’s their responsibility “to help those in need. The people from the Somali community come over and we help them with government documents. Obviously those men don’t believe in the same God as we do,” he said, referring to the arrested plotters.
The Somalis are largely refugees who have travelled to southwest Kansas over the past 20 years for jobs at local meat-packing plants.
In downtown Liberal, an International African Food grocery store serves as the headquarters of their community. The Daily Beast visited the market for an interview, but a female community leader at the store said they were “too scared” to talk.
Kerrigan considers himself a member of the evangelical right, a voting bloc within the U.S. that has uniformly supported Republicans since Ronald Reagan. They believe that the nation’s founding document is sacrosanct.
When asked if he felt there was a correlation between the Trump campaign’s rhetoric, which many have called Islamophobic, and the plot, the pastor responded: “I’m a big Second Amendment guy. The Constitution guarantees that I have the right to protect home and family and there are people who mean to do us harm. Many of them are Muslims, so I can see where the confusion could come in.”
Kerrigan stressed that he doesn’t support plots to blow up innocent people. But he also said that change, particularly that which, in his view, is coming from “a Muslim agenda that is incompatible with the Constitution” causes friction in the country.
The pastor seemed conflicted, as do many Republicans. He doesn’t like Islam, but he doesn’t want to bomb or ban Muslims. As an evangelical Christian, he feels it’s his duty to convert them.
“We’re witnessing a historic change. The Constitution was written by Christians. A lot of people don’t like to admit it that, but it’s true. It’s not compatible with a fully Sharia way of life,” he said.
While the Trump campaign stutters forward with controversy after controversy, the evangelical branch of the Grand Old Party doesn’t seem sure of where to go or what will happen next.
“This is a town where you can find old traditions. People like to know their neighbors,” Kerrigan continued. “There’s a feeling of loss of tradition in these small communities, and a distrust of politicians in Washington who have been elected by the people and haven’t delivered on their promises. That’s what Trump is tapping into with the common small-town resident, not racism,” the pastor concluded.
Liberal is a nexus in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. Its location in the bottom of southwest Kansas means that if someone drives roughly 40 miles south on Highway 83, they will have passed through Kansas and Oklahoma to arrive in the Texas Panhandle.
For years, Liberal was the town with a Wal-Mart for dozens of communities in a wide radius across the three states. Members of conservative communities in the area would travel here to buy products like videogames and sporting goods not available where they lived.
At a local Long John Silver’s, a fast-seafood restaurant that is far too far from any body of water to inspire confidence in their offerings, Jerry Keenan, 62, and Susie Zuniga, 37, sat and prayed before digging into to their breaded fish and hush puppies.
“It’s hard to believe it happened here. But it could happen anywhere. No place is exempt at this point,” Keenan told The Daily Beast. “No town is too small.”
Zuniga, Keenan’s wife, agreed. She explained that the couple is from Hooker, Oklahoma, another strangely named town in the area, and is about 20 miles southwest of Liberal.
Hooker has a population of 1,918, which means there aren’t many shopping options. Keenan, a recent retiree who worked for years as a welder, and Zuniga, an insurance agent, were in town to peruse Wal-Mart and have lunch out.
The couple, who consider themselves conservative Christians, agreed with Rev. Kerrigan, to a point. They say that the root of the problem is change. “I think it’s migration,” Keenan continued. “There are a lot of people with a lot of different ways of living. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s difficult.”
Zuniga chimed in that the conditions responsible for the plot were the responsibility of the U.S., too. “Part of the reason for the change is the fact that education is going down the drain. Kids are growing up without being challenged. It’s creating a lot of ignorance and entitlement. People think things have to be done as they want it,” she said.
“I’m as American as they come. I get a tear in my eye when I see the Stars and Stripes waving in a parade,” Keenan continued. “But this is America. You have a right to your religion. Nobody can tell me what God to pray to.”
Freedom of religion is “one of the things that makes this country great,” Zuniga, agreed. “Or at least it’s supposed to.”