How Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- and his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe -- run roughshod over the West
As religious music plays softly in the background, a mostly white, blue-haired crowd files into the former grocery store that is now a 500-seat auditorium for the First Baptist Church of Skiatook.
The stage is simply decorated: A U.S. flag on one side, a Christian flag on the other. A dark wood pulpit shaped like a cross stands front-and-center, and the back wall features a baptistery adorned with an even larger cross.
In one aisle, a trim, bespectacled, salt-and-pepper-haired man, neatly dressed in coat and tie, greets the congregants, shaking hands, posing for photos and engaging in small talk.
The only clues that this isn't a regular church service appear on the two large, wall-mounted projection screens on each side of the stage. They display a color portrait of the man now working the crowd, with a message in large white-on-blue letters: Welcome to Skiatook! Senator Tom Coburn.
Oklahoma's junior U.S. senator isn't an ordained minister, but he's definitely got a preacher's zest for sermonizing. His anti-Washington, D.C., screeds are filled with a from-God's-mouth-to-my-ear certitude that would make most evangelists envious.
For an hour, the 100 or so Oklahomans assembled here soak in The Gospel According to Coburn, a worldview that blames D.C. careerists -- both elected officials and bureaucrats -- for the nation's ills.
Among the basic tenets of this faith: Medicare is the reason the nation's health-care costs are skyrocketing. Health-care reform will ration care for seniors. Roe v. Wade is the reason that Social Security is financially shaky: It would be rock-solid solvent if not for all those abortions.
Global warming doesn't exist. Nuclear power is key to America's energy independence -- radioactive waste disposal is no problem. Illegal immigration could be solved overnight if the Obama administration quit pandering to liberal special interests and selectively enforcing the law.
And finally, beware of the evil unions, which are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to trick voters into embracing policies and politicians that undermine the nation's interests.
"What we need," Coburn declares, "is real leadership to talk about what the real problems are. ... But we have politicians that aren't going to make the hard choices because they're afraid they'll offend somebody. I joke with my staff: I decided I'd offend everybody at first and then let them decide whether they're going to trust me. ... I'm going to stand for the principle first every time."
Coburn is often dismissed as a Neanderthal by critics elsewhere in the U.S. But the applause that greets him at this Aug. 30 "town hall" meeting suggests that he is the closest thing to a political messiah that these people have ever seen. Assertive evangelical Christianity and anti-government suspicions run deep in Oklahoma; the U.S. Constitution is invoked here almost as often as the Bible.
Coburn and Oklahoma's other Republican senator, James Inhofe, have become icons of the ascendant hard right by working those themes. You could say that, as Oklahoma goes, so goes the nation, because the political shifts here have spread nationwide and seem likely to grow even stronger after the Nov. 2 elections are over.
But more than that, you could say, as Oklahoma goes, so goes the West. Because the Oklahoma senators often take actions that have a pronounced impact across the Western states, on issues such as federal-land management, energy and other environmental battles, gun rights and immigration.
Coburn will almost certainly have been re-elected to a second term by the time you read this, and the Coburn-Inhofe team will be back in full force. That raises some timely questions: Who are these two Oklahoma lawmakers, and what kind of political environment has shaped their approach to the West?
Oklahoma is a Choctaw word that roughly translates as "land of the red man." Though the state is still home to 38 federally recognized tribes, most of whom were forced to move here from other places, these days the word "red" more aptly describes the body politic. A recent Gallup poll ranks Oklahoma as the fifth most conservative state, right behind Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Idaho, and just in front of Utah. In 2008, all 77 counties voted for Republican John McCain for president.
Yet less than a century ago, Oklahoma was a stronghold of the populist-progressive movement, embracing politics so anti-corporate, anti-establishment and pro-little-guy that it's hard to imagine today. Up to the 1930s, Oklahoma's governors fought for regulations on banks and other big corporations, better workplace safety and an end to child labor. They promoted women's suffrage, prison reform, abolition of the death penalty and assistance for poor people.
There is no single political or historical narrative that explains how Oklahoma ended up so deeply Republican. Local circumstances often trump statewide trends and conventional wisdom. But a few more facts flesh out the basic context.
Oklahoma is a young state (only four states are younger), still dominated in many ways by rural, agrarian political thought, even though 60 percent of its 3.7 million residents live in the metro areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The first day of hunting season is an official holiday in some areas. Oklahoma is also overwhelmingly white. The main minority groups -- blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans -- each constitute less than 8 percent of the population. Southeastern Oklahoma is even known as Little Dixie, because so many residents trace their roots to the Confederate states. And overall, Oklahoma is not well educated: About 23 percent of Oklahoma adults have a college degree, compared to a national average of 27.5 percent. (Colorado, the top Western state in this regard, hits 35 percent.)
The oil and gas industry has been a unifying factor for more than a century. "Oil made Oklahoma," Oklahoma Corporation Commission Chair Denise Bode told the Journal Record in 2001. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, it was "the largest oil-producing entity in the world," according to Oklahoma Geology Notes. Tulsa's renowned art galleries are a legacy of the early oil barons, who set out to create a cosmopolitan city with a St. Louis or Chicago feel. Oklahoma City, a former cow town, is now better known as the home of two of the nation's largest private oil and gas companies, Devon and Chesapeake. The Oklahoma Geological Survey says flatly that even today, "The exploration and production of oil and especially natural gas are the driving forces behind the economy of the State of Oklahoma."
The industry has been the top backer of Inhofe's campaigns and nearly the top backer of Coburn's campaigns, at the same time providing millions of dollars to candidates for state-level offices. Oil wells operated right on the grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City for decades, drilling through flower beds and lawns to tap a vast underground pool of crude. It's the only capitol in the country with such steel-derrick scenery, a perfect symbol of the industry's power.
But there's another longtime Oklahoma trait that's arguably even more important: social conservatism. Even back in the populist-progressive era, Oklahomans didn't cotton to notions of modernism, intellectualism and popular culture. The string of early governors blatantly treated black people as an inferior race, determined to deny them voting and other rights. Evidence suggests that, during the 1920s, two-thirds of the state's mostly rural lawmakers were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan burned crosses in yards, barged into homes, and inflicted beatings and other vigilante acts on blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1950 to force Oklahoma to allow blacks equal access to colleges.
From the Depression and Dust Bowl through the Korean War, Oklahoma remained solidly in the conservative faction of the Democratic Party, aligning itself with the Southern states. Oilman Robert S. Kerr, a Democrat who served one term as governor and three as senator, saw what was coming. In the late 1960s, en route home from D.C. on a private plane, Kerr confided to the Tulsa Tribune D.C. bureau chief, Frosty Troy, that Oklahoma eventually would be a Republican state. Troy, now 76, recalls that he was incredulous. How could Kerr be so certain? Troy wondered.
"The Daily Oklahoman (newspaper) and the Southern Baptist church," Kerr explained.
Kerr was prescient: The arch-conservative Oklahoman -- first under Edward K. Gaylord, one of the founders of the John Birch Society, and later under his son Edward L. Gaylord -- wielded enormous political power, rewarding friends (mostly Republicans) and punishing enemies (typically Democrats and unions), often with venomous front-page editorials. The newspaper operated much like today's relentless national right-wing media, led by Fox News demagogues Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly and radio flamethrower Rush Limbaugh.
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."
Rev. Prescott, who videotaped Scarborough's presentation, says more than 800 people streamed down the aisles, pledging to get involved politically at levels from school boards to the state Legislature. "Oklahoma," says Prescott, "is smack in the middle of this entire movement for the religious right."
Riding these dynamics, six years ago the Republican Party seized control of the Oklahoma House of Representatives for the first time. In 2008, it completed its Statehouse takeover by forging a Senate majority. Four of the state's five congressional seats are held by Republicans, and the lone Democrat, Dan Boren, is a conservative Blue Dog whose campaign signs hawk his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. And Mary Fallin, a deeply conservative religion-touting Republican, is favored to take the governor's mansion on Nov. 2 by an overwhelming margin, according to many polls.
There's no better indication of the current state of Oklahoma politics than Sens. Coburn and Inhofe. Both are involved with the secretive D.C.-based religious group known as The Fellowship or The Family, which stages the annual national prayer breakfast, attended by thousands of people each year along with many members of Congress and every president since Eisenhower, including Obama. That group works to spread its version of Christianity into the upper reaches of governments worldwide.
Coburn and Inhofe are ideological twins -- diverging only over the issue of congressional pork, the earmarks that direct federal spending and tax breaks to specific projects. Inhofe is happy to grab what he can for his home state and other favored entities, while Coburn's opposition to earmarks has helped elevate his profile nationally.
Both senators dismiss the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. They favor increased oil and gas drilling, even in areas widely considered environmentally sensitive, and are bullish on nuclear energy. Both are ardent supporters of gun rights; Coburn is best known in the West for getting the Senate to force the National Park Service to allow loaded guns in national parks.
Inhofe is a former state senator, Tulsa mayor and congressman who won a special election in 1994 to succeed Democratic Sen. David Boren, who resigned to become president of the University of Oklahoma. Even back then, Inhofe's campaign theme was "God, guns and gays." Fifty-eight percent of Oklahomans approve his stands, according to a recent poll -- a high rating for a politician who's been in office much of the last 40 years and uttered more than his share of provocative statements.
As a state senator in the early 1970s, Inhofe urged that South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern and anti-war activist actress Jane Fonda be hanged for treason. Last year, he said he didn't need to read the health-care reform bill circulating in the Senate because he was going to vote against it anyway. He refused to even meet with President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, because he already had made up his mind to oppose her confirmation.
Inhofe is best known for calling global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Though his father was an insurance executive, Inhofe was raised in Tulsa at a time when it still proudly called itself the Oil Capital of the World. He's never met an oil and gas industry program he couldn't embrace, and reviles environmentalists and scientists who want the nation to reduce its carbon footprint. He had a great deal of power over those issues when Republicans controlled the Senate, because he was chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, a platform he used to hamstring regulators and make life easier for his supporters in the oil and gas industry.
Inhofe's mockery reached new heights last winter. In the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm that virtually shut down the mid-Atlantic region, Inhofe and his family trudged to the national Capitol, built an igloo in a prominent spot and posted a cardboard sign on the roof that declared it "AL GORE'S NEW HOME" on one side and said "HONK IF YOU ♥ GLOBAL WARMING" on the other.
Inhofe never paid a political price for his long refusal to acknowledge the need to clean up one of the nation's worst toxic waste sites, the former mining region known as Tar Creek in northeastern Oklahoma. After decades of mounting evidence that lead contamination was poisoning residents, causing higher-than-normal incidence of cancer, learning disabilities and other problems, Inhofe finally relented in 2006, paving the way for programs to buy out and relocate residents and clean up the waste.
Coburn is a physician by training, a politician by chance and a born-again Christian by choice. His approval rating -- 66 percent in a recent statewide poll -- is so high that Oklahoma Democratic Party insiders debated whether anyone should even bother to run against him this year. The candidate who emerged from the Democratic primary didn't raise money, didn't have a political organization and hardly campaigned.
Coburn entered politics for the first time in 1994 in a U.S. House race, ousting incumbent liberal Democrat Mike Synar in the Newt Gingrich-Contract With America revolution. Coburn says he finds it "a pleasure ... to represent Oklahoma values in Washington."
Oklahomans seem to relish Coburn's blunt-spoken, take-me-or-leave-me style. Three years ago, for example, he blocked a Senate resolution that would have honored environmentalist and author Rachel Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Coburn asserted that Carson -- whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, is widely regarded as the catalyst for banning DDT -- relied on "junk science" to stigmatize potentially lifesaving pesticides.
In Coburn's quasi-religious town hall meeting in Skiatook -- a Tulsa exurb in the heart of what's still called Osage country, even though formal tribal boundaries were obliterated generations ago -- people in the audience respond to his commentary as if they're attending a tent revival, frequently offering up "amens" as encouragement.
"We have abandoned the very culture and character traits of our founders," Coburn says, warning that Congress and the courts routinely ignore the founders' "rule book" -- the U.S. Constitution, a copy of which he says he carries with him at all times and re-reads frequently. "Our founders thought we should have as much freedom as we could have and have a limited federal government. ... When you read through this book, 80 percent of what it says is what the government can't do. It doesn't say what the government can do -- it says what the government can't do.
"And that's not to say the government doesn't have a legitimate role ... in the areas our founders gave us responsibility for. But we've so expanded, so gone beyond what was the original intent of the federal government that we find ourselves spending $4.1 billion a day that we don't have, that we're charging to our kids and our grandkids. And that's not any heritage I want to embrace. I want to embrace the heritage before that, where we worked hard and sacrificed to create an opportunity for the generation that followed us rather than steal from the generations that followed us."
One man in the audience asks why Republicans deserve another chance to run the nation, after they racked up massive federal debt when they controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president. But he's an outlier; everyone else seems to embrace the notion that "they" -- liberals, radical environmentalists, socialists and so on -- are deliberately leading the nation to destruction and "we" must do whatever it takes to get "our" country back.
Indeed, some of the questions raised during the town hall meeting clearly spring from Fox News and the anti-Obama chain e-mails speeding through cyberspace. One man wants to know if it's true that the president is using taxpayer dollars to relocate thousands of Palestinians to Michigan or Minnesota -- he wasn't sure where -- and provide them housing.
"I can't answer that," Coburn replies.
Another wants to know if Obama really could bypass the Senate and grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. "It depends on the degree and the definition -- I read some very disturbing things inside Homeland Security last week in terms of not enforcing when they have an opportunity to enforce it," Coburn says without elaboration. "But I don't know if those are rumor or fact and my staff is working to find out if that's a fact."
Critics say that Coburn could elevate the national dialogue by addressing such rumors directly and setting the record straight, but he rarely does. He portrays himself as an open-minded thinker, a daily reader of both the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal New York Times editorial pages, opining that neither side has a lock on wisdom and truth. But he also makes many claims that he doesn't back up with facts. He insists he could cut $600 billion from the federal budget tomorrow and nobody would miss it, yet offers no specifics.
"There's very little common sense in Washington," he says. "Think about the number of people in Congress that's never had a job except serving in a public elected position. ... (They) do what's in the best long-term interest of (their) political career. ... Washington's out of control, the bureaucracies are out of control in many areas and we don't have the appropriate oversight or hard work to get them under control."
Like Inhofe, Coburn takes stands on environmental issues that reflect Oklahoma's agrarian tradition -- a belief that God provided natural resources for human use and that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to limit or regulate those uses. Coburn conveys the sentiment with perfect pitch, linking drilling to energy independence, national security and individual liberty.
"It comes back to a lot of false claims of climate change," he says, deriding the term. "You notice that they don't call it global warming anymore because they can't back that up with the science. There's no question this country can be energy independent. We've got 7,000 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas (deposits) -- seven thousand. That's enough to run our country for 100 years. And that's domestic. That's not Alaska. And that's not offshore.
"The federal government owns of your land 650 million acres. Less than 8 percent of it is available for exploration for oil and less than 10 percent is available for exploration of natural gas. (And in) that portion that is available, the permitting process through the Department of Interior is so expensive and so fraught with lawsuits by the hard environmentalists that it is not cost-effective to drill."
Coburn speaks with such certainty that there's a joke making the rounds in Oklahoma: What's the difference between God and Tom Coburn? God never thought he was Tom Coburn. But what Coburn says clearly resonates in Oklahoma -- and it seems to be catching on more and more around the nation. As he likes to say, "America has to wake up."
Arnold Hamilton is a third-generation Oklahoman and editor of The Oklahoma Observer, a twice-monthly journal of news and commentary founded more than 40 years ago, dedicated to the motto: To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
These stories were funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
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