Religious Extremism

The Branch of Defiance

Image of Mary Fallin

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin isn’t generally known for possessing brilliant oratory skills or known for making witty and resonating off-the-cuff remarks to the press, but that held true for her Democratic predecessor Gov. Brad Henry.

Maybe a majority of Oklahoman voters just don’t trust slick talkers. Certainly, there’s a lot of distrust here for President Barack Obama, one of the best orators ever elected to political office. The use of soaring rhetoric and ironic, witty retorts, the result of intellectual insight and practice, must be an anathema to the down-home spinners here.

Given all that, it didn’t surprise me in the least that Fallin supposedly fumbled her way verbally through an attempt to defend the Ten Commandments monument, which still stands on state Capitol grounds despite the recent 7-2 Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that it must be removed.

The media made a big deal about Fallin’s definition of the three branches of government when she talked to reporters about supporting the monument recently. This is really just a side issue to what she was trying to say, and I’m fairly certain the college-educated Fallin knows the three branches of government include the executive, legislative and judicial. Here’s the Fallin quote that caused the media storm:

You know, there are three branches of our government. You have the Supreme Court, the legislative branch and the people, the people and their ability to vote. So I’m hoping that we can address this issue in the legislative session and let the people of Oklahoma decide.

I’m not the first to point this out, but the so-called gaffe (or, really, was it a gaffe?) is far less important than a governor openly ignoring a court ruling so people can decide to impose their religious beliefs on other people. The judicial branch of government was established, among other things, to prevent such occurrences. The rule of law prevents the rule of mob and tyranny over minorities.

Fallin’s specific point seems to be that she wants the legislature to create a ballot title so voters can repeal Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution in a general election. That section states:

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

At this point, I’ve written about this section and the ruling so much I’m losing some interest in its legal and historical specifics. Here’s my last post on the issue. Here’s the one before that. The court’s ruling, it should be noted, is not at all controversial in any legal sense. Read the section. Note that the Ten Commandments monument is currently on public property.

What everyone should be concerned with, however, is that Fallin has NOT ordered the monument removed and is acting defiantly against the basic rule of law. Even if Oklahoma voters eventually vote to repeal the section, which is a reasonable expectation, then the monument should be removed until they do so. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has essentially asked the court to reconsider the decision, but the 7 to 2 vote represents a solid majority.

Both Fallin and Pruitt probably also know, along with their three branches of government, that there’s still constitutional arguments to be made on the state level against the public location of the monument beyond the use of Article 2, Section 5, or at least I think so. There’s also the federal court system as well, the overall issue of the separation of church and state and the First Amendment. It’s highly unlikely the American Civil Liberties Union will give up on the case if the state constitutional section is repealed. This case is going to go on.

I have a deep appreciation for the historical civil disobedience practiced peacefully by Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers during the civil rights movement, but the Ten Commandments monument case doesn’t begin to rise to this level. The vast majority of people in Oklahoma have broad access to the Ten Commandments. It’s in the Bible. It can be found on the Internet. Study it. Promote it. Talk about it in Sunday School classes. The monument’s public location isn’t a matter of a violation of rights or an action for equality, precepts guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The monument is a stone with some words on it put up in 2012 and paid for by the family of state Rep. Mike Ritze, a Republican from Broken Arrow and a Southern Baptist ordained deacon and Sunday School teacher. Put up the monument on some private property. Allow people to view it. I would bet most people against the monument’s public location wouldn’t mind or care. I certainly wouldn’t care. But Fallin should comply with the court ruling and get it off state property.

The lesson taught here is not that our governor doesn’t even know the three branches of government, which she most likely does, but that it’s okay to ignore the rule of law and the judicial branch of government. Ignoring the rule of law in this case is not heroic civil disobedience. This is about publicly privileging Judeo-Christian religious edicts above other religions and people without religious affiliations. It’s a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

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.

Blame Shame

Image of Oklahoma state Capitol and church

This country’s prisons are filled with self-professed Christians who have committed heinous acts of violence, but few Oklahoma politicians will want to note this obvious fact.

Instead, right-wing politicians here distort and cast aspersions on one of the world’s largest religions, Islam, based on the extremely non-religious and unholy actions of one solitary person.

Why not blame all of Christianity for Timothy McVeigh, the maniac who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in 1995, killing 168 people? Some people argue he was influenced by the extremist Christian Identity Movement, and he grew up as a Catholic. But that’s different, right?

Alton Nolen has been charged with murder after police say he decapitated a worker last week at Vaughan Foods in Moore. Nolen, who had just been suspended from his job at the company, had supposedly tried to convert a fellow worker to Islam and had photos of Osama bin Laden and a beheading on his Facebook page.

Some right-wingers here immediately called the case an act of terrorism without any regard for simple logic. What would be gained by Islamic terrorists, for example, by killing people at a company in, of all places, Moore, Oklahoma? Can you imagine terrorist group leaders in Syria or Iraq ordering Nolen to kill his fellow workers if he ever got suspended or fired from his job? None of that makes any sense, and the FBI is treating the murder as a case of workplace violence.

But Nolen’s professed Islamic beliefs—he converted to the religion apparently while in prison—was enough to fire up the anti-Islam crowd here.

The so-called Counterterrorism Caucus in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives called for “public discussion about potential terrorists in our midst and the role that Sharia law plays in their actions.” Those who signed off on the statement were state Reps. John Bennett (Sallisaw), Sean Roberts (Hominy), Lewis Moore (Arcadia), Dan Fisher (El Reno), Mike Ritze (Broken Arrow), and Sally Kern, Mike Christian and Mike Reynolds, who are all from Oklahoma City.

Let’s be clear: Sharia Law, which is essentially an Islamic moral code, does not condone murdering your fellow workers once you get suspended from your job. Does that even need to be stated?

Bennett, it should be noted, has made controversial statements recently about Islam and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) even before the killing in Moore. His recent comment that Islam “is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” has drawn national attention and condemnation from CAIR.

Even Gov. Mary Fallin, who is up for reelection this year, decided to weigh in on the murder case with some typical fear mongering when she issued a statement that said “it is unclear at this time whether the crime was an act of terrorism, workplace violence, or a gruesome combination of both.” She also urged “Oklahomans to remain alert and report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement.” In other words, people, be scared.

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and only a tiny fraction of them distort their religion to support violent acts of crime. There is also a long history of violent extremists who have distorted or used Christianity to support their violent acts. What about The Crusades or the Salem witch trials or David Koresh? What about the former but deep support for slavery among American Southern Baptist Churches? Doesn't slavery meet the definition of "terrorism"?

Do religions, in general, create hardened dichotomies of thinking among some people that turn into vitriol when those dichotomies get challenged or are not accepted? That’s the real public discussion we should have, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon in Oklahoma.

Syndicate content