On Guard In Oklahoma: When Defending Church-State Separation In A Challenging Area, Diversity Is A Plus

Oklahoma is not easy. That’s all the more reason for Americans United and its allies to keep working there.

When it comes to separation of church and state, some states present more of a challenge than others.

Oklahoma is one of the more challenging states. It’s the home of the infamous Christian nation advocate, gay-bashing, Islamophobic state legislator Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City). It’s the state where residents got so worked up over Islamic law that they amended the state constitution to ban it with 70 percent voting in favor. It’s a place where, even as people cower in fear of shariah, they seek to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and slip creationism into public school science classes.

I traveled to Tulsa on Thursday to speak at an event sponsored by the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, Americans United’s Northeast Oklahoma Chapter and other groups. I came to give a talk on a topic that a lot of Oklahomans probably didn’t want to hear: Why the United States is not officially a Christian nation.

I’m pleased to say that about 150 people came out for the event. My remarks were followed by a spirited question-and-answer session; lots of AU literature was distributed.

Many good people in the Sooner State support church-state separation. This is evidenced by the three chapters AU has in the state. These folks know they face a challenge, but they aren’t about to give up.

During my visit, the Tulsa World ran a story about a flap over the city’s holiday parade. It seems that a few years ago, parade organizers wanted to make it clear that everyone – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. – was welcome to take part in the festivities so they changed its name from “Tulsa Christmas Parade” to the “Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights.”

You can probably guess what happened next: Outraged defenders of Christmas threw a fit. Some of them boycotted the event, and this year they decided to sponsor their own parade. Thus, on Saturday Tulsa hosted two parades, both of which took place at the same time in different ends of town.

As I talked to people about the controversy, I got the impression that most thought it was pretty silly. It was, and thinking about it later, I concluded that the incident was a good microcosm for the way the Religious Right behaves. Their intolerance, hatred of diversity and pettiness makes a mockery of the values of the holiday season.

I also realized that this attitude gives our side an opening. At the Religious Right meetings I attend, there is very little religious diversity. Most people are fundamentalist Protestants drawn from a few very conservative denominations, along with a smattering of ultra-traditionalist Roman Catholics.

By contrast, attendees at AU’s meetings run the gamut. At the Thursday event, I met liberal and moderate Christians, Jews, Muslims and non-believers. I suspect there were probably some conservative Christians in attendance as well; remember, not all of them are in league with the Religious Right.

Do we disagree about religion and matters of theology? You bet. Do we respect our right to disagree? Yes. In fact, I’d like to think we do more than respect that right – we celebrate it. That’s the crucial difference between us and the Religious Right.  

Oklahoma is not easy. That’s all the more reason for Americans United and its allies to keep working there. The good people I met on Thursday night are leading the way.

They’ve already seen some victories. The creationism bill that was introduced earlier this year did not pass. The American Civil Liberties Union went to court and won a judgment against a Ten Commandments display in Haskell County. A federal court invalidated the anti-shariah amendment to the state constitution.

The Religious Right is dogged and determined. So are we who defend the separation of church and state – and we’ve got something they don’t: religious and philosophical diversity. It’s our not-so-secret weapon that will help us win.

I know that Oklahomans will face many more challenges when it comes to separation of church and state. I also know that the people I met there will rise up to meet them. And I know, even though it will take some time, the ultimate victory will be theirs.