The Oklahoman

Editorial Apologia

Religion? By Ron Jansen on Flickr The Commons

I would be remiss if I didn’t dissect a recent sophomoric editorial in The Oklahoman lamenting the decline of Christians in the nation and the rise of people describing themselves as agnostic or atheist.

The editorial, titled “Declining Christian numbers in Oklahoma, elsewhere no cause for celebration,” referred to a recent Pew Research Center survey that shows the number of people who identify as Christian dropped by more than seven percentage points from 2007 to 2014. It also showed people who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose by six percentage points during those seven years.

The survey found that 70.6 percent of the U.S. population still identifies as Christian, a high number for sure, but the editorial really doesn’t stress this point. The commentary is just a reductionist apologia for Christianity rather than a fact-based and truthful historical analysis of the religion. The editorial omits important information and relies on cringing generalizations.

The overall gist of the editorial is fairly simple. The number of Christians in the U.S. is in decline and this is a bad thing overall.

Let me be clear before I go through three “points” made by the editorial that although I identify as “nothing in particular,” I do think there are ways to academically and intellectually defend Christianity. For example, I think of famous Christians, such as C.S. Lewis or Cardinal John Henry Newman, who held sophisticated Christian views that still resonate and provoke.

But The Oklahoman isn’t interested in an intellectual defense. Here’s one of the first big points the editorial makes:

. . . there’s no denying that people genuinely devoted to a religion emphasizing love for others, denial of self, and belief that one answers to a higher power have generated far more societal improvement than what’s been rendered by those pursuing a self-directed “do whatever makes you feel good” ethos.

Our nation is undoubtedly a better place when there are more of the former than the latter.

The idea that it’s mostly non-Christians who pursue a “do whatever makes you feel good” personal philosophy is simply a gross generalization. According to one writer looking into the issue only 0.7 percent of inmates in the federal prison system identify as atheist. This number has long been in dispute, especially by Christians, but it's at least worth exploring on an empirical basis if one is going to make a generalized argument about “self-directed” people.

In addition, the idea that our nation is better off because of Christianity is simply not provable. It can be compared to the colonization argument that countries that have been colonized by empires are better off than if they weren’t colonized. But here’s the point: We will never know. It’s pure speculation. Along these lines, I might add that Christianity on a historical basis has been used to help empires exploit people throughout the world under the term “missionary work” and to give a moral basis for slavery in the U.S. The Southern Baptist Church, for example, was founded based on its pro-slavery position.

I could go on and on along these lines, but my overall point is the editorial doesn’t engage in anything close to a dialogue about the issue.

Here’s another big point the editorial makes:

Critics will counter that Oklahoma typically ranks among the top states for church attendance, yet ranks worse on the aforementioned measures than states with lower levels of religious observance. This may suggest some people are hypocrites, but it doesn’t mean Oklahoma would be better off if fewer people adhered to a religion that advocates against murder, adultery and theft. A classroom full of pregnant teenage atheists would still be a sign of societal decay.

The editorial gets it exactly wrong, especially when it comes to teenage pregnancy. It’s backwards. Open-minded people in this state for years have advocated for comprehensive sex education in our schools. We have been thwarted by religious conservatives and fundamentalists who believe such education will lead to promiscuity. Thus, there’s been a long-held argument here—stretching over decades—that religious conservatism is responsible for the state’s high teenage pregnancy rate because many teenagers are not getting the information they need to either abstain from having sex or to use birth control.

But The Oklahoman is having none of that basic logic:

Oklahomans’ problems aren’t the product of Christianity. But the compassionate response of many Oklahomans, who even make dramatic personal sacrifices to aid struggling people, is often a product of their Christianity.

Yet polls through the years have shown that Oklahoma is especially Christian. A 2004 Gallup poll showed eight out of 10 people in Oklahoma identified as Christian. That number is dropping, according to the Pew survey, but the fact remains that a majority of people identify as Christian in Oklahoma and have done so for a very long time.

So who IS responsible for Oklahomans’ problems? If the majority of Oklahomans, including its politicians, are Christians, then it would only be logical to presume they are the ones responsible for the state’s social problems, such poor medical outcomes and childhood poverty. Undoubtedly, there are Christians who do great social work in the state as the editorial mentions, but when the state’s leaders—politicians like U.S. Rep. James Lankford, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, state Rep. Sally Kern, Gov. Mary Fallin, etc.—won’t do anything about our “problems” and instead exploit impoverished people to serve the wealthy, then one has to reach the conclusion that Christianity is exactly what ails this state.

Obama Melts Ice Cream Cone

Obama by La Criatura on Flickr The Commons

A recent ludicrous editorial in The Oklahoman basically arguing against providing health care to impoverished people through Medicaid used a report to make a point and then bashed the same report.

Believe this part of the report. Ignore this other part. That’s some stellar argumentation there. (Wait. If this part of the report is wrong then . . . oh never mind. It’s The Oklahoman.)

The Sunday editorial, using the “O” word, is titled “Obama tactics reveal Medicaid expansion danger,” and it’s a solid example of exactly why the newspaper’s commentary has no credibility just in terms of basic logic. That’s not even to mention its crass, suffocating right-wing ideology, which I believe is one of the reasons for the newspaper’s continuing financial demise.

So the seemingly big point of the editorial is that the federal government—i.e. “President Barack Obama”—has “threatened” to stop funding “uncompensated care pools” in some states for uninsured patients unless those states expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Those states being “threatened” personally by Obama don’t include Oklahoma so one has to wonder what the big point is anyway, but then the editorial makes its big move.

See, Oklahoma is one of those states that chose not to expand Medicaid under the ACA because, as the editorial claims, it would eventually cost the state $850 million, according to a Leavitt Partners report. The report by the Utah-based firm also argued the expansion would add $400 million to the economy, but all that’s nonsense to The Oklahoman.

Here’s the key paragraph:

Somehow citizens are supposed to believe that if government takes $1 from taxpayers and spends it, then it will have greater economic impact than if that $1 was spent by taxpayers. Obviously such claims are bogus, which is why the Leavitt report’s estimate of an $850 million state cost should be taken seriously while purported “savings” can be ignored as accounting fiction.

I hate to even use the clichéd term “cherry picking,” but then I’m writing about a clichéd newspaper that publishes clichéd editorials supported by a clichéd ideology that’s dying on the vine, on its last gasp, kaput, finito, going, going, gone. This editorial is the picking of cherries at its most exquisite.

Let me clear this up. Somehow citizens get two ice cream cones for $1 but then one of them melts. This isn’t right. Obama made that ice cream cone melt by shooting laser beams from his eyes while wearing his “O” cape. It’s an ice cream cone fiction. Believe that the lime sherbet ice cream cone melted but that the orange sherbet ice cream cone didn’t. Get it?

My point is that it doesn't matter where that $1 is coming from that's going into the economy in terms of basic mathematics. Also, shouldn't The Oklahoman be in favor of the federal government spending less money on health care? It contradicts itself.

The bottom line is that The Oklahoman editorial board, which is pretty much a local propaganda division for the Republican Party, could care less about poor people. The newspaper’s editorial writers apparently want to live in a world where fellow citizens suffer, and they will dispense with logic and morality to make sure that happens here.

Okie Voter Vortex of Apathy

All the local discussion and punditry hype and think-tank mush about the political disengagement of Oklahomans fail to note the obvious and the reality.

The obvious and the reality are that political apathy here is based on the fact that conservatives—both Republicans and Democrats—and the right-wing corporate media here have shut down any real political debate in the public square.

This means people are labeled freaks if they passionately question whether the hydraulic fracturing process, or fracking, leads to environmental damage or if they believe impoverished people should have access to health care or if they want to argue teachers should get paid halfway decent wages.

These arguments are presented by activists, for sure, and on a blog like this, but under present circumstances they’re never going to get a full and extended hearing, say, in The Oklahoman or on News9 in Oklahoma City. Why become politically engaged when news anchor Kelly Ogle or the editorial board of The Oklahoman will dismiss such engagement with sarcastic, self-righteous indignation worth about two cents?

Better to just move out of this place or shut up, right? That’s the prevailing message that everyone eventually gets in Oklahoma one way or another.

Here’s a link to a blog post by Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post, which outlines Oklahoma’s pathetic “political disengagement.” Here’s the gist of the matter from Chokshi enlightening post:

Oklahomans consistently rank near the bottom on a variety of measures of political obsession — or engagement, depending on your perspective. Only two states saw a smaller share of eligible voters cast ballots in 2012, and just seven states had a smaller share of residents registered to vote, according to census data. People in Oklahoma were 10th most likely to say they never vote in local elections, 11th most likely to say they infrequently discuss politics with family and friends, and 14th most likely to say they don’t express their political or community opinions online, according to data collected by the census in 2013.

It’s a rough assessment, but when those five rankings are combined, Oklahoma scores higher than any other state on political disengagement — ahead of Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas.

The Oklahoman editorial board supposedly laments this lack of participation and calls it a “perpetual problem,” but the newspaper itself is the problem. It operates as a monopoly in the dying business of hard-copy newspapers, and it doesn’t allow consistent, dissenting opposition to its extremist right-wing views. Why participate?

Of course, the newspaper didn’t even think low voter turnout was a problem way back in 2014.

One of the newspaper’s former editorial page editors, Patrick McGuigan, was unabashed about it back in 1998. McGuigan said back then, “"We're trying to change the political culture; we're trying to make Oklahoma a conservative bastion." Mission accomplished. That’s why McGuigan is being inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame this month.

Obviously, there are solutions beyond better and fairer journalism to the problem. We can make it easier to register to vote. We can start combining our local election days with general election days. We can teach our children in schools about the importance of civic duty, but that’s problematic here in the era of right-wing, gay-bashing extremists, such as state Rep Sally Kern of Oklahoma City. She might call that liberal indoctrination. Better to just move out of this place or shut up, right? But I said that already.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute lays it all out here in its incredibly wonky and beautiful way as usual, but I see OKPolicy as part of the morass these days. I didn’t think this at one time, but now I do. The organization has absorbed The Oklahoma Observer, for example, and has become the token “liberal” viewpoint for the media, especially for The Oklahoman, but its centrist-to-left views hardly challenge the right-wing orthodoxy here. On some of the real important issues, such as the environmental impact of fracking in the state, OKPolicy doesn’t have much to say at all. Since its creation, the state voters have become more conservative and monolithic and apathetic. I guess you could say that about this blog, too. But I don’t get paid by or take my orders from corporations. I’ve never accepted one cent of advertising money or even contributions of any kind just to prove Okie Funk’s complete independence.

It can be absolutely scary when you don’t know what someone might say or do. Sometimes in the world of politics, and especially when it comes to political engagement, that can be a useful tool. We all know what OKPolicy and The Oklahoman are going to say or do. How will that sameness and repetition help people become more politically motivated? What new chart or statistical analysis will help us here? What groundbreaking, right-wing editorial will motivate some young person to become politically active and help end the earthquakes here in central Oklahoma?

Maybe, New York Times columnist and professor Paul Krugman is correct that politics these days is now all about the party. The Republicans here and elsewhere have moved so far to the extreme right, according to Krugman, there’s little to do but vote against a party and its ideas. It’s not about the individual running for office anymore. Ignore all that. Anyone but a Republican? But this can breed its own form of apathy, too.

In the end, though, it might just be something in the water here in Oklahoma. Maybe it’s all the mental illness, the poor health care, the poverty, the closed minds, the religious fundamentalism, the denial of any personal agency for anyone seeking it, the tornadoes and now the earthquakes that no one will do anything about. Let’s just call it the vortex of apathy with two sides of anxiety.

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