The Common Sense of Oklahomans

Oklahoma, “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” is among the reddest of red states.

It gave Donald Trump the third biggest percentage he received anywhere—65.3 percent— surpassed only by coal states West Virginia and Wyoming. Only once since 1948 has it voted Democratic. Oklahoma is also one of the most religious states, ranking tenth tenth (behind only Utah and states of the Confederacy) in the proportion of people who call themselves “very religious.” In other words, it’s not the most ideal state to put before voters a ballot question on whether government should be allowed to provide financial support for churches and affiliated institutions like church-run schools. Especially a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by the state’s political leaders and churches.

And yet…at the same moment the good folks of Oklahoma were giving Donald Trump such massive support, they were voting down exactly that proposition, in a 57 percent landslide. What’s going on?

The battle was joined in 2012, when state legislators anxious to endear themselves to the God lobby allowed installation of a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol. (The original monument contained spelling errors, carved right into the granite.) The legal twist, though, was that even though the federal Supreme Court had allowed a somewhat similar monument in Texas, it did so against a challenge on federal First Amendment grounds. The Oklahoma constitution, by contrast, goes much further than the federal constitution in preventing government entanglement with religion. Oklahoma is one of thirty-eight states with a “Blaine Amendment,” a provision barring any expenditure of state funds for the benefit of a religion.

Oklahoma’s language, in Article 2, Section 5 of its constitution, is similar to that of the other 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.” When the ACLU challenged the installation of the Ten Commandments monument as a prohibited “use” of “public property” for the “benefit” of a “system of religion,” the Oklahoma Supreme Court had no choice other than to say “Yep—that’s precisely what our state constitution says we must not do.”

Undaunted, Oklahoma politicians led by Gov. Mary Fallin decided to try to bulldoze their own constitution. Earlier this year, both houses of the Oklahoma legislature passed an amendment to repeal the language quoted above by overwhelming margins: 65-7 in the House, and 39-5 in the Senate. That same pesky state constitution, though, says it can’t be amended by politicians—it can only be amended by a vote of the people of Oklahoma.

The campaign unfolded as expected. Politicians vied to outdo each other in the strength of their devotion to taxpayer subsidies for religion. US Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) called the constitutional protection a “virus” that is “being used as a vehicle to shut down the faith community.” Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb joined Lankford in trying to frighten voters that the current law “prohibits parents from making decisions about their children’s education that they believe are best.” It does? Re-read the language yourself, and see if you can spot the part where it prohibits parents from making decisions about their children’s education. Parents may have to spend their own money on certain choices, rather than taxpayer money, but that’s not exactly a prohibition. Lankford and Lamb went even further, though, wildly claiming that “Like the ‘Jim Crow’ laws that promoted segregation, the Blaine Amendment is a discriminatory provision in our Constitution that flies in the face of many of the Oklahoma values we cherish.” Segregation? Maybe Oklahoma ought to institute drug tests for politicians, because these guys seem like they’re on something a little stronger than their morning coffee.

Why did the referendum lose? I haven’t seen any exit interviews with voters explaining their thinking, and after the train wreck of the national polls leading up to Election Day I’m not sure I’d believe any such analysis anyway. Here’s my speculation. I don’t think most Oklahomans were motivated by bleeding heart civil liberties considerations, or by animus against religion. But I think they have a distinct aversion to the feel of a stranger’s hand in their pockets. When they see a law saying “The state shall not spend tax money on X,” and they see politicians anxious to trash that law, they think to themselves, “Wow, somebody wants to spend a ton of our money on X.”

The God industry, in fact, is facing a terrible financial crunch. More and more people are giving up on it altogether, and those who do still attend church are being more skeptical at check-writing time—church contributions as a proportion of overall charitable giving are down sharply since 1990. As more information trickles out about how God experts spend these contributions—primarily on their own salaries—revenues are likely to dry up even further. Many Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy, the largest Christian products distributor (Send the Light Distribution) is shutting down, and church organizations are reneging on pension promises made to their own employees. What better solution than a government bailout!

Oklahomans are too smart to allow that. So were Floridians back in 2012, when they rejected a similar attempt to repeal their state’s Blaine Amendment by a nearly identical 56 percent vote. Good for them!

Unfortunately, a group of folks who may not be too smart to allow that to happen sit on the US Supreme Court—a group that time and again has shown incredible deference to organized religion, even among its more liberal members. And that court will be hearing a case this coming year that seeks to undo the common sense of Oklahoma and Florida voters by declaring all thirty-eight Blaine Amendments unconstitutional, in one fell swoop. Even with all the trauma the next administration is likely to bring, nothing (at least domestically) next year will be more important to the future of church-state relations than the outcome of this case. If the Supreme Court says voters be damned, governments have to spend taxpayer money to prop up religion, then the steady decline of religious power we’ve been witnessing over the last fifteen years may grind to a halt.