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How Oklahoma Became Ground Zero in the War Over Church-State Separation

6 minute read
Perry (@profsamperry) is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is among the nation’s leading experts on conservative Christianity in American politics, race, sexuality, and families. His most recent books include the award-winning Taking America Back for God (with Andrew Whitehead) and The Flag and the Cross (with Philip Gorski).

While Florida makes headlines for its “war on woke” in public schools, in the war against church-state separation, Oklahoma is the frontline. And on Monday, July 31st, return shots were fired. A group of 10 plaintiffs including clergy, public school parents, and public education advocates filed a lawsuit against state officials and organizations for approving St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School as the nation’s first publicly-funded religious charter school.

The central concern in the case of St. Isidore is that taxpayer dollars would go to fund a school that is overtly sectarian with religious education as a goal. In its charter school application, St. Isidore plans to “provide Christ-centered Catholic formation” and will function “as a genuine instrument of the church” as a place of “evangelization.” They would also divert funds away from Oklahoma public schools, already ranking near the bottom of the country in education spending.

St. Isidore is just one example of the way Oklahoma education officials and organizations are challenging the very idea of church-state separation. Shortly after his re-election in November 2022, Governor Kevin Stitt prayed on the Capitol steps, claiming every inch of Oklahoma for Jesus, asking God the Father that he would “have his way” with the education system.

Also winning office last November, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has actively cultivated a brand as a culture warrior, regularly posting video selfies from his car, as well as appearing on Fox News and evangelical talk shows like Washington Watch with Tony Perkins, almost always on the theme of “woke indoctrination,” teachers unions, the Biden administration, and the importance of America’s Christian heritage.

Read More: Christian Nationalism's Growing Popularity

During his short tenure thus far, Walters has endorsed recommendations to hang the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom, require that students be given a full minute before school for prayer or silent reflection, to teach the Bible, and to train all history teachers in Oklahoma public schools using curriculum from Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian private school in Michigan.

Stitt and Walters know their base. When I analyzed data from Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, I found nearly two-thirds of Republicans in Oklahoma’s region of the country believe public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers. That same percentage believes cities and towns should be able to place religious symbols on public property (like, say, the Ten Commandments in schools). Playing up the Christian nationalism in Oklahoma is just smart politics. And it may score points in their respective political careers in a party where Trump’s odds to be the Republican nominee again are growing.

But the stakes in the St. Isidore case are certainly larger than one charter school. They’re even larger than Oklahoma. “We’re bringing today’s lawsuit to protect the religious freedom of Oklahoma public school families and taxpayers, and to stop Christian Nationalists from taking over our public schools across the nation.” explained Rachel Laser, President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In their online announcement for the lawsuit, Americans United warned “soon states like this will appear around the country.”

Confronting Oklahoma education officials, in other words, holds the line. The political dominance of Christian nationalist Republicans in Oklahoma has emboldened them to further challenge conventions of church-state separation in the name of “school choice” and “religious freedom.” To the degree they are successful in funding overtly sectarian charter schools like St. Isidor, other Republican-dominated states will almost certainly follow suit.

But Oklahoma is unique among states where governors and other high-ranking officials are making names for themselves as culture-warriors. Florida and Texas, for example, are growing economic powerhouses where Americans are migrating in droves. They’re also at least somewhat politically in play. The anti-woke, Christian nationalist rhetoric of Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott is about mobilizing their base to fight off political opponents at home.

Oklahoma is different. Here Republicans have dominated most offices, including the governorship and superintendent position for years. And there’s no sign of change. That is where we find the point of all the culture-warring for Oklahoma officials. The state is being left behind. Oklahoma is not a destination for mass migration like its southern neighbor. Nor is it a place where wealth and opportunity are booming. It ranks near the bottom in public education. And Republicans have no one else to scapegoat.

Leaders like Walters and Stitt know they must distract their supporters from Republican failures. And you do that by inventing opponents, creating controversy, and claiming cultural victories. On Monday afternoon, for example, Walters characterized the lawsuit as “religious persecution” and himself as a warrior for “religious freedom,” claiming it was “time to end atheism as the state sponsored religion.”

Though I’ve studied Christian nationalism professionally for the last decade, Oklahoma, my current home, is teaching me something new. So often, “Christian nation” rhetoric is a response to the very real experience of feeling like your culture is changing, your grip on political power slipping away. As an ideology, Christian nationalism reassures historically dominant groups that they have moral high ground, because outsiders and infidels are trying to destroy God’s blessings to the nation.

But that kind of rhetoric can also be a side show, a grift, targeting people for whom there is virtually no threat of cultural change or loss of political power. That’s Oklahoma Christian nationalism—a grift to build a politician’s personal brand and distract from party failures. That doesn’t make their actual policies less important or less harmful; but it does reveal their origins.

Like all political grifts, those who suffer are the constituents who get used like pawns, in this case, Oklahoma’s children and families. As an Oklahoma resident with three children in public schools, and a spouse who is a public school teacher, that fact enrages me. To the extent these sorts of maneuvers are exported to other states, it should enrage you as well.

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