Oklahoma, where only Christians are allowed to give the opening prayer!
Okay, not as catchy as the actual Oscar Hammerstein lyrics to the title song from Oklahoma!, but it sums up well the goal of one Republican state legislator.
You see, in the Sooner State, each session of the state legislature opens with a prayer by the “chaplain of the day” who is invited by one of the members of the state legislature. These chaplains are given up to five minutes to deliver their inspirational, faith-based remarks.
Well now, Chuck Strohm, the Republican Oklahoma state representative charged with coordinating the “chaplain of the day” program, quietly changed the program's rules a few weeks ago. Given that Strohm is a conservative Republican in the deeply red state of Oklahoma, do you think he made the program more or less embracing of minority faiths? Stop laughing. Of course, Strohm is trying to prevent non-Christians clerics from giving the opening remarks.
However, Strohm utilized the typical “cleverness” of modern day Republicans by enacting a policy that’s neutral on its face but in reality is horribly discriminatory. It’s like the way the GOP championed voter id laws that on their face don’t say we want to disenfranchise black and Latino voters but, as many courts have found, in actuality that was both the intent and the practical impact.
So what how did Strohm, a graduate of the conservative Christian Oral Roberts University that featured Michele Bachmann as the commencement speaker in 2014, change the chaplain program? His recent letter setting forth the new rule explains it: “We do ask that the Chaplain be from the Representative’s own place of worship.”
Well that might be okay except for one small thing: In the current Oklahoma state legislature, there are zero legislators who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other minority faiths. This is Strohm’s way of only allowing Christian clerics to give the opening prayer.
Could it be that Strohm fears that there’s a Muslim or Jewish cleric so compelling that after just a five-minute talk, a Christian legislator will say goodbye to pork bacon and hello to a life of turkey bacon and praying with words that have a guttural sound?!
Actually, the motivation is likely more sinister given the history of intolerance by some Oklahoma Republicans to minority faiths. For example, in 2014, Oklahoma GOP state representative John Bennett declared that Muslims are a “cancer” that must be cut out of our country and despicably claimed that American Muslims are not loyal to America but only to the “constitution of Islam.” In response to Bennett’s demonization of Muslims, he received a standing ovation from the conservative crowd and was even publicly defended by the Oklahoma GOP state chair.
And back in 2010, Oklahoma was the first state to ever try to ban Sharia law long before Donald Trump even thought about using anti-Muslim bigotry to win the GOP nomination. That measure though was blocked by a federal judge because it unconstitutionally singled out Islam. Add to that, the GOP proponents of the law even admitted to the court there were zero examples of Muslims in Oklahoma trying to impose Sharia law.
With respect to Jews, Oklahoma State Republicans also has a troubling past, to say the least. In 2013, Republican State Rep. Dennis Johnson, while debating a bill on the floor of the state legislature about the virtues of small business, commented: “They might try to Jew me down on a price. That’s fine ... that’s free market as well.”
When Johnson was informed moments later that was an offensive comment, he playfully replied, “I apologize to the Jews,” which elicited laughs form other members of the state legislature. He then added, “They’re [Jews] good small businessmen as well.”
And in 2011, another Oklahoma Republican state representative, Larry Taylor, apologized after urging an insurance association to treat policy holders well and not attempt to “Jew them down.”
Well the silver lining to Strohm’s “only Christians need apply” chaplain policy is that it has been uniting Jews, Muslims and some Christian groups in Oklahoma to stand up to this blatant attempt to marginalize minority faiths.
Adam Soltani, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, explained to me that Strohm’s new chaplain policy is intended to “prevent Muslim, Jewish, and other minority faith leaders from partaking in the Chaplain of the Day/Week program.” He added, “It’s yet another attempt by an Oklahoma representative to marginalize the Oklahoma Muslim community from full participation in the democratic process.”
Roberta Clark of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City explained to the local media that this rule is telling non-Christian voters their faith and voices don't matter. She added, “I think we miss opportunities to be thoughtful about discussions when certain groups are left out based on immutable characteristics."
And various Christian leaders in Oklahoma have slammed the new rule as well. Oklahoma City’s associate minister at the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ Lori Walke tweeted in response to this new policy, "this cannot stand." And Democratic State Representative George Young, who also serves as a senior pastor at a Baptist church and who in the past tried to have a Muslim imam serve as the chaplain of the day only to be rejected without explanation, vowed to fight this new rule.
There will always be bigots in our nation. Some are subtle, like Strohm. Others like Trump, the bigot in chief, are in your face. But to me the greatness of America is how other Americans respond to that bigotry. The silence of the good people means they win.
Thankfully, in response to Trump, we’ve seen increasing alliances of good people standing up and speaking out in opposition to his hate. Now the same goes for Oklahoma. And as long as the good people refuse to be silent that means that not just Oklahoma, but America, is on track to actually being O.K.