I recently spent some time with an old friend of mine from college, John Sparks, who is now a state senator in Oklahoma. He was passing through Washington, D.C., and we made plans to catch up.
At the time, I was a candidate for the job I now hold. I told John about Americans United and quipped: “I bet I know how these issues play in Oklahoma – not well! Am I right?”
“You’d be surprised,” John replied. Then he told me about a 2016 ballot initiative intended to allow a Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds – formally called State Question 790 (SQ 790). It had failed, 57 percent to 43 percent, in the same election in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 65 percent to 29 percent in Oklahoma.
SQ 790 targeted Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution. This provision prohibits taxpayer money from being used to support religious activity. Lawmakers had put SQ 790 on the ballot in response to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument violated this provision of the state constitution – and I’m sure they thought they had a good shot of passing it.
The voters had other ideas. They rejected SQ790.
I was intrigued. Support for separation of church and state in deep red Oklahoma? How did this happen? John connected me with the Rev. Lori Walke, associate minister at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, who offered valuable insight.
“The message that people most responded to was that we don’t want to sell the church so cheap. That’s a really important argument and a universal value around here,” she explained. She added that church-state separation ensures the independence of both government and houses of worship, so eliminating this protection in order for churches to get taxpayer dollars or religious monuments on government property would compromise the integrity of the church.
I’m writing about John, Rev. Walke and Oklahoma voters on AU’s blog today because this story represents the hope and optimism I have about our ability to win broadly on our issue, if we put time into educating Americans about the principles behind church-state separation and pause to figure out how to speak to different audiences in a language that will most powerfully resonate with them.
We need to explain that entangling religion and government hurts even those who belong to the culturally dominant religion because it compromises churches’ integrity – as well as the Christian (and American) values of hospitality and equality.
We need to remember that it’s not intuitive to everyone that separation of church and state is the foundation of religious freedom. We must make clear that despite our ideals, Christianity has often held a special cultural status in our country, and minority religions and atheism have often been disadvantaged.
We need to explain, as folks did in Oklahoma, that entangling religion and government hurts even those who belong to the culturally dominant religion because it compromises churches’ integrity – as well as the Christian (and American) values of hospitality and equality.
We need to forge strong collaborations with communities of color, who know all too well the playbook where religion is used as a basis to discriminate. And we must continue to make clear how inextricably tied our issue is to so many others that are under attack today – including reproductive freedom, LGBTQ equality and racial justice – and continue to grow our coalitions to reflect this reality.
I’m honored to be joining Americans United on the great shoulders of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. He left in place a skilled, committed staff. I’m also looking forward to hitting the road to meet you and hear about your reasons for proudly supporting Americans United.
Together, we will stay true to our principles and find winning strategies. United, we will amass the power to win the hearts and minds of policymakers, the courts and importantly, our fellow citizens. With our beautiful medley of faces on full display, we will make clear what’s at stake.
We have a lot of work to do, but our diversity makes us unconquerable, and our voices carry the conviction of righteousness. We are not just on the winning side of history. Our ideals are American history.
P.S. To learn about my background, visit this special section of Americans United’s website.