Religious Extremism

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.

Religious Intrusion

Image of anti-theocracy meme

An unneeded and overwrought bill allowing students to freely express religious ideas in Oklahoma’s public schools couldn’t even get one opposing vote this week.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma House voted 88-0 to pass House Bill 2422 or the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which codifies and encourages religious intrusion in government public schools. On a larger level, the bill clearly violates the Oklahoma Constitution and the basic federal tenet of church and state separation. On a pragmatic level, it opens our schools to deep religious conflict among students and teachers that distracts from the basic educational mission.

Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution 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.

How can anyone possibly reconcile that clear statement with the language below taken from HB 2422?

A school district shall treat the voluntary expression of a student of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats the voluntary expression by a student of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint . . .

The “religious viewpoint” (keep in mind this could be from any religion) could obviously be simple proselytizing on and/or using government-owned property sanctioned by government-paid authorities. A student might speak at a graduation ceremony, for example, about how her belief in Jesus Christ helped her earn high grades and urge others, directly or through simple implication, to adopt her views.

This obviously would be in violation of the state constitution’s prohibition against using state money and property, “directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion . . .” It’s an obvious lawsuit waiting to happen.

But it’s the pragmatics of the bill that should concern everyone, especially parents of school-aged children, even more. The bill essentially sanctions the dissemination of religious ideas at student assemblies and other gatherings, allows for the expression of religious ideas in assignments and homework and allows for student religious clubs and events. School districts, under the bill, “shall adopt a policy” that ensures all this happens.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if students from diverse religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—all made sure their views were represented not only at assemblies but also in the classrooms. What about Wicca expressions and other spiritual expressions? What about American Indian spiritual expressions? They would certainly have to be allowed as well.

What if students wanted to express the views of Satanism? We’ve seen how that issue has already emerged with the unconstitutional Ten Commandments Monument now adorning the state Capitol grounds.

What should a teacher do if a student submitted a paper or an assignment that was simply a religious screed disavowing basic scientific principles? I guess it would depend on their own religious views and/or the religious views of her administrators, but why even put a teacher in this position?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the intent of this bill is to encourage the use of right-wing, fundamentalist Christian dogma as a replacement for intellectual discovery and critical inquiry in our public schools. Christianity is the dominant religion in this state, and it’s fair to say that right-wing religious folks, including many extremists, are in control of state government right now.

Let’s be clear: There’s no discrimination against Christianity in Oklahoma; there is, however, Christian-based discrimination against other religions and basic intellectualism and free-thinking.

Again, it’s depressing that the bill didn’t receive one negative vote. Two high profile Democrats, gubernatorial candidate state Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs and state Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman were “excused” from the vote for whatever reasons.

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