Democrat David Walters swears that when he occupied the governor's mansion in the 1990s, he used to step outside every morning, carefully approach the morning Oklahoman lying rolled up on his doorstep, and poke it with a stick -- just to see if anything dangerous would crawl out.
The Oklahoman's arch-conservative drumbeat intensified from the 1960s on, even as a religious revolution with political implications was brewing. The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition burst on the scene in the 1980s. And the state's largest religious denomination, the Southern Baptists, became enmeshed in a civil war, eventually won by conservative elements eager to promote their brand of religion in politics.
So today's Oklahoma stands at the altar of the marriage of religion and politics -- most often an alliance between evangelicals, fundamentalists and Republicans. It isn't just a shared opposition to abortion. It's a worldview that resurrects some of the most sinister bugaboos of the 1920s: the threat of secular humanism, intellectual liberalism and Hollywood-style debauchery. It rewrites American history, all but erasing Thomas Jefferson and his belief in the separation of church and state.
Jim Huff, who taught social studies and history in Oklahoma City high schools for nearly four decades, sees a disturbing pattern: Many juniors and seniors, required to take social studies but with little interest in the subject, do just enough to graduate and quickly forget most of what they learned. Later in life, their ministers become their de facto teachers, easily misleading them into believing that all the founders were devout Christians who intended for this to be a Christian nation.
"It's really frightening," says Huff, who makes public presentations for a national group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We now have generations that don't know the truth."
Increasingly, Oklahoma ministers are purposely blurring the lines between church and state, hoping to provoke a legal battle over Internal Revenue Service restrictions on politicking by churches and other tax-exempt organizations. They believe a friendly U.S. Supreme Court, if ever presented such a case, would end decades of what they regard as unconstitutional restrictions on how they pursue their faith.
Rev. Paul Blair, a former pro-football lineman who pastors a Southern Baptist church in Edmond, an upscale Oklahoma City suburb, is one of the movement's leaders. A nonprofit group he founded, Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ, claims to have more than a hundred pastors on board. Representing the group, Blair sent an e-mail urging supporters to attend a June rally for Republican state Rep. Sally Kern, whose Democratic challenger happened to be transgendered. Kern herself is married to another Southern Baptist minister and is known nationally for charging that homosexuals are a greater threat than terrorists. Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about Rev. Blair's e-mail, calling it partisan politicking that violated the terms of the group's tax-exempt status. Then the group filed another complaint against Blair, charging that he used a September sermon to endorse Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Fallin.
"We have not and have never done anything illegal," Blair told the Oklahoman. "We don't sponsor or underwrite candidates politically, but we certainly will send out bits of information on the national and local level if it will affect those who hold Christian values here in America."
Other Oklahoma churches are working with Vision America, a group that seeks to "inform, encourage and mobilize pastors and their congregations to be proactive in restoring Judeo-Christian values to the moral and civic framework in their communities, states and our nation." The founder of that group, Rick Scarborough, who used to be a Southern Baptist minister in Texas, spoke at a January 2008 gathering of people from 12 churches -- most Southern Baptist, some Assemblies of God -- at the First Baptist Church in Moore, Okla., a working-class suburb of Oklahoma City. As is customary, Scarborough ended the revival with an invitation, but this time it wasn't for his listeners to "give their hearts to Jesus -- it was to get involved in politics," recalls Bruce Prescott, a Norman, Okla., minister who heads Mainstream Baptists, a group of moderates devoted to "combating fundamentalism in Baptist life."