Tag Archives: Oklahoma

About Those “Sincerely Held” Religious Beliefs…

Well, the insanity is spreading. Examples are coming hot and heavy…

The GOP has declared a riot that killed nine people and did millions in property damage “Legitimate political discourse.” (As a cousin of mine quipped, “And Pearl Harbor was an over-exuberant fireworks display…”)

An Oklahoma bill proposes to fine teachers $10k for teaching anything “that contradicts religion.”( It doesn’t specify which religion…)The proposed act, named the “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow parents to demand the removal of any book with “anti-religious content.” The immediate targets would be any discussion of LGBTQ issues, and study of–or presumably reference to– evolution or the big bang theory. (The bill  was introduced by the same wack-a-doodle who introduced a bill to remove books with references to identity, sex and gender from public school libraries.)

Teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would be paid “from personal resources” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. If the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired, under the legislation.

I would be shocked if this lunatic proposal became law, even in Oklahoma–but it does give rise to a question that has recently become salient in the context of vaccine denial: what is religion?

After all, if we are going to protect something, we probably should be able to define it.

I regularly receive a newsletter produced by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and a recent issue considered that question in the context of “religious exemptions” from vaccine mandates. Are religious exemptions actually “religious,” or are people simply using the First Amendment as a pretext to get out of vaccine requirements?

Large-scale vaccine skepticism is a new phenomenon, but is it a religious phenomenon? As The New York Times’s Ruth Graham reports, evidence suggests “most objections described as religious to vaccines are really a matter of personal — and secular — beliefs.” In an article titled “Religious Opposition to Vaccines Is Rooted in Politics, Not Tradition,” UVA’s Evan Sandsmark argues that vaccine refusal among Christian conservatives has more to do with their politics than their religious convictions. “If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions,” Sandsmark writes, “they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders.”

Sandsmark is not alone in pointing out that Christianity is not an anti-vax religion. Numerous Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have made public statements in favor of vaccination, and many scholars have debunked and dismissed the claims of those who say their Christian faith precludes them from getting vaccinated. As Curtis Chang writes, “Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine.” Berry College’s David Barr puts the point sharply, “When Christians claim a religious exemption to this vaccine mandate because they don’t want to take it, the biblical term for what they’re doing is ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’”

As with so many other issues in contemporary society, the devil is in the definition. The newsletter cited a recent PRRI poll in which 52% of people refusing vaccination insisted that getting vaccinated would violate their personal religious beliefs; however, only 33% asserted that getting vaccinated would violate their religion’s teachings.

So–if the religion one purportedly follows does not prohibit vaccination, must we accept the insistence that these “sincerely-held personal beliefs” are religious?

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a scholar of both religion and constitutional law, has long argued for the impossibility of religious freedom as most people envision it, pointing out that laws mandating acceptance of religious exemptions require judges to become arbiters of orthodoxy—  determining which beliefs and practices are authentically part of a religious tradition and thus deserving of the exemption. They must determine whether there is doctrinal support from within the individual’s claimed religious tradition for whatever “sincere religious belief” s/he is claiming. If not–if we must accept as “religious” whatever commitments and beliefs a given individual claims are religious– then we are allowing people to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which laws they don’t.

So here we are. 

We have thousands of American Christians seeking religious exemptions from a public health measure that will save thousands of lives. Some significant number of those people are

disingenuously using their faith as a pretense for vaccine refusal, others are expressing their tenuous interpretations of the teachings of Christian faith, and others are invoking their own personal religious commitments while acknowledging that these commitments are not shared or supported by their religious authorities. 

The idiot who authored those bills in Oklahoma probably thinks the courts will define “religion” as whatever he personally believes….

 

The Story Of Today’s America

Discussions on this blog tend to be conducted in relatively abstract terms. It can be easy to forget the power of particularity–the power of stories–to bring them home.

A lengthy report in last Sunday’s New York Times reminded me of that power–rather forcefully.

The article described one of the numerous fights over mask requirements, this particular one in Enid, Oklahoma. It began by focusing on a public meeting, and the discomfort of an Air Force sergeant, Jonathan Waddell, who had moved to Enid with his family seven years before, when he’d retired. He’d thrown himself into the community, and won a seat on the City Council. He supported the mask mandate–unlike the throng of people dressed in red who filled the chamber that night.

He had noticed something was different when he drove up in his truck. The parking lot was full, and people wearing red were getting out of their cars greeting one another, looking a bit like players on a sports team. As the meeting began, he realized that they opposed the mandate. It was almost everybody in the room.

The meeting was unlike any he had ever attended. One woman cried and said wearing a mask made her feel like she did when she was raped at 17. Another read the Lord’s Prayer and said the word “agenda” at the top of the meeting schedule seemed suspicious. A man quoted Patrick Henry and handed out copies of the Constitution.

“The line is being drawn, folks,” said a man in jeans and a red T-shirt. He said the people in the audience “had been shouted down for the last 20 years, and they’re finally here to draw a line, and I think they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

 People were talking about masks, but Waddell said “it felt like something else.”

That “something else” became depressingly clear as the Times described the woman who had organized the red-shirted attendees. It’s one thing to speculate about the fears and resentments motivating QAnon and “Big Lie” believers and anti-vaccine cultists…but the Times story put a face on those resentments.

Melissa Crabtree is “a home-schooling mother who owns a business selling essential oils and cleaning products.

She said she came to the conclusion that the government was misleading Americans. For whose benefit she could not tell. Maybe drug companies. Maybe politicians. Whatever the case, it made her feel like the people in charge saw her — and the whole country of people like her — as easy to take advantage of.

“I don’t like to be played the fool,” said Ms. Crabtree, who also works as an assistant to a Christian author and speaker. “And I felt like they were counting on us — us being the general population — on being the fool.”

She felt contempt radiating from the other side, a sense that those who disagreed with her felt superior and wanted to humiliate her.

The article went into considerable detail about Crabtree’s unquestioning Evangelical religiosity, including her decision to homeschool her children to protect them from a culture she deplores–from its sexual “perversions” and the left’s “preoccupation with race” and its telling of history.

“Why all of a sudden are we teaching our 5-year-olds to be divided by color?” she said. “They don’t care what color your skin is until you tell them that that 5-year-old’s grandpa was mean 200 years ago.”

Crabtree’s organizing was successful; the mask mandate died. But the schism in Enid hardened.

Mr. Waddell voted for the mask mandate, and the reaction was immediate. The following Sunday, people he had prayed with for years avoided him at church. The greeters, an older couple he knew well, looked the other way when he walked by. Several people left the church altogether because of his association with it, he said.

It wasn’t just Waddell. Ben Ezzell, the city commissioner who introduced the mask mandate got veiled warnings  — mostly via email and Facebook. Someone dumped trash on his lawn. At one City Council meeting, “a man shouted that he knew where Mr. Ezzell lived. Another meeting got so tense that police officers insisted on escorting him to his car.”

In February, the Red Shirts swept the local elections, winning three seats on the City Council — including Mr. Waddell’s and Mr. Ezzell’s.  During the year, through a series of elections, appointments and City Council votes, they’ve placed four candidates on the school board and another four on the library board.

The article is lengthy, but I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It is eye-opening.

As the reporter noted, what we are seeing–nationally, and not just in Enid– is a deeply disturbing argument about what it means to be an American, and whose version of the country will prevail.

 

Words FAIL

A while back, Juanita Jean posted a news item that goes a long way toward explaining why it has become so difficult to recognize and distinguish between satirical internet sites and those reporting legitimate news.

In fact, she began the post by reciting the steps she’d taken to ensure that this bizarre proclamation was real.

It seems that the oil industry isn’t doing too well in Oklahoma because it doesn’t grow on trees, and since Republicans can’t possibly raise taxes on oil gazillionaires so they pay their fair share, the Governor decided to issue a proclamation in Jesus’ name.

Hold on.  I’m gonna let you read the whole damn thing because I believe, yes, I believe, in the power of crazy on a platter.

Whereas, Oklahoma is blessed with an abundance of oil and natural gas, allowing the state to be a prosperous producer of these valuable resources; and

Whereas Christians acknowledge such natural resources are created by God; and

Whereas the oil and gas industry continues to produce countless opportunities for wealth generation for Oklahoma families; and

Whereas Oklahoma recognizes the incredible economic, community and faith-based impacts demonstrated across the state by oil and natural gas companies; and

Whereas Christians are invited to thank God for the blessing created by the oil and natural gas industry and to seek His wisdom and ask for protection;

Now, therefore, I, Mary Fallin, Governor, do hereby proclaim October 13, 2016, as “Oilfield Prayer Day” in the state of Oklahoma.

As Juanita Jean herownself commented,

Oilfield Prayer Day.  Honey, I have no idea why it wasn’t called “Jesus Give Us Some Magic Money and Pollute Our Air At the Same Time.”  Or even, “Jesus Gives Us Gas The Natural Way.”

What amazes me is that the citizens of Oklahoma elected this person! (Or perhaps, given the language of the proclamation, it might be more accurate to say that the “Christians” of Oklahoma elected her.) I have been preoccupied of late with an effort to understand why voters cast their ballots for people demonstrably unequipped–by reason of ignorance or temperament or ideology– for the positions they seek. I have added Oklahoma to my “perhaps democracy is overrated” list…

I don’t know which is worse: the fact that the Governor evidently thinks her official prayer is needed to alert (a presumably all-knowing) God to Oklahoma’s fiscal problems and persuade Him (Her?)(It?) to improve the business prospects of the fossil fuel industry, or the fact that she is rather obviously unacquainted with the First Amendment of a Constitution that she took a solemn oath to uphold.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t the Christian God take a negative view of failing to uphold a solemn oath?

I truly occupy a different reality from Governor Fallin. (And for that, I give thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster….)

Squirrel!

In the charming animated movie UP, a recurring joke had the dog distracted from his task of the moment by the appearance of a squirrel. For a while, it became a meme–if a debate threatened to get personal, or a line of inquiry a bit too probing, someone would yell “squirrel!” to change the focus and break the tension.

“Squirrel!” became shorthand for distraction, and an inability to continue focusing on the task at hand.

Today’s “squirrel!” is fear of lurking transgender folks in the bathroom.

It isn’t only bathroom use, of course.

Some public schools are starting summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.

But instead of addressing a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been busy debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama.

It isn’t only Oklahoma, either. In fact, some of the most egregious examples of misdirection can be found in Congress, where 50+ votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, interminable investigations of Benghazi, and attempts to impeach the head of the Internal Revenue Service, among similar distractions, have consumed the energies of lawmakers to the detriment of actually doing the nation’s business.

It’s hard to know whether the surreal political landscape we currently inhabit is simply a “phase” we are going through–sort of a national adolescence–or whether it is the beginning of a disintegration of the Republic– evidence that in an increasingly complex modern world, responsible citizenship and self-government are simply beyond our capacities.

If it is the latter, the really worrisome question is: what will replace it? If–as most of us fervently hope– we are just experiencing the dislocations of social change and “paradigm shift,” what sorts of policies should our elected officials be putting in place to safeguard a Constitutional system that has served us well, while still responding to the challenges of globalization and modernity?

But hey–let’s worry about Target’s bathroom policy.

Squirrel!

Time to Find a New Planet

Maybe I should just join that group that’s being sent to Mars.

According to Think Progress, 

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

The sponsor of the legislation, one Dan Fisher, belongs to a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which argues “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.”

I hate to inject snark into this deep theological debate, but–if God exists, and is the personal, all-knowing deity who favors some athletic teams over others, sends hurricanes to punish gays and otherwise demonstrates fearsome omnipotence–wouldn’t He (and believe me, this version of God is all male) be able to take care of Himself? Could such a deity really be “diminished” by people teaching accurate American history?

But I digress.

The Black Robe Regiment also attacks the “false wall of separation of church and state,” and claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups is indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

Talk about projection!

So here we are in the 21st Century, with a Wisconsin governor who wants to replace university education with job training, and an Oklahoma legislature that wants to replace high school education with religious indoctrination.

I understand that crazy people have always been among us. I can handle that. What I want to know is who the hell elects these people?