In a red state, the culture war shifts

A Newcastle Public Schools bus is seen parked in Newcastle, Oklahoma
A Newcastle Public Schools bus is seen parked in Newcastle, Okla., on April 6, 2016. The Newcastle schools are planning to reduce the school week to four days next year as a result of a nearly $1 million budget cut. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Luc Cohen. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-OKLAHOMA-ABORTION, originally transmitted on May 27, 2016.

EDMOND, Okla. (RNS) In one of the reddest of the red states, appeals to traditional values have long resonated with many voters.

But while lawmakers in this Bible Belt state of 3.9 million have been debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama, Oklahomans are increasingly concerned about a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services.

The crisis has led some public schools to start summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.

State Sen. David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, said he was “ashamed” of the hours spent debating transgender restroom use at the expense of his constituents’ real concerns.

“Oklahoma is a very socially conservative state, and I have always supported the types of bills that have come to the legislature, because my constituency largely wants me to,” Holt said. “But while students in my district were quite literally marching in the streets to the Capitol to plead with the legislature to do something about how the budget shortfall will affect their schools, we were addressing something that virtually no one had contacted me about and that was arguably not a pressing issue.”

About the same time lawmakers considered the bathroom bill that drew Holt’s concern, a group of pastors pushed for the adoption of legislation that would make it a felony to perform an abortion.

“God’s word tells us very clearly that he’s for life, that he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs,” said one of the clergymen, Blake Gideon of the 4,000-member First Baptist Church in this affluent suburb north of Oklahoma City.

“That’s a sacred issue, and a sacred issue must be treated like a sacred issue and not like a common issue,” like education funding, he said.

The legislation would have revoked the medical licenses of most physicians who assist in abortions. Supporters hoped that the measure, if challenged in court, could lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally.

Oklahoma Governor Fallin speaks at the First Baptist Church of Moore community memorial service following the large tornado in Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin speaks at the First Baptist Church of Moore, Okla., community memorial service following a large tornado in Moore on May 26, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Sue Ogrocki. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-OKLAHOMA-ABORTION, originally transmitted on May 27, 2016.

But Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, vetoed it. She cited her “long history of championing and signing pro-life and pro-family legislation” but said the bill was vague and could not withstand a constitutional challenge.

Culture-war battles in Oklahoma are as predictable as spring tornadoes.

But Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, says there’s been a shift lately.

As he sees it, many voters still care about traditional values, but there is growing anger and willingness to boot incumbents over underfunded schools, crumbling infrastructure and failing health and prison systems.

“They run this stuff out there because it excites the base,” Gaddie said of the social-issues bills. “But nobody ever banked on the public also looking up and saying, ‘You know, we like schools. We like hospitals. We like roads. We like to have stuff that works.’”

Oklahoma is among eight states facing serious budget shortfalls after a two-year drop in oil prices that radically curtailed revenue from the oil industry. Also contributing to Oklahoma’s budget crunch are years of income-tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, especially for oil companies.

This week, Fallin struck a tentative budget deal to raise $1 billion in fresh revenue. If approved by lawmakers, it would require state agencies to absorb about $300 million in cuts.

While awaiting the outcome of those negotiations, lawmakers passed the anti-abortion bill and took up a measure calling for special accommodations for students who object on religious grounds to sharing restroom or shower facilities with transgender classmates. Another proposal advocated impeaching Obama — who lost all 77 Oklahoma counties in 2008 and again in 2012 — over his executive order requiring public schools to accommodate transgender students.

As he campaigns for re-election, state Sen. Nathan Dahm, the Tulsa-area Republican who authored the abortion bill, said his constituents are in favor of such legislation. And, he said, many voters didn’t like it when the Obama administration directed schools across the nation to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities — including restrooms and locker rooms — that match their chosen gender identity.

“The transgender bathroom issue in schools, that was the main issue that people were asking about, most likely because that was the main issue in the news media right now,” Dahm said.

In downtown Oklahoma City’s Bricktown entertainment district, Joe Clark, 44, and his girlfriend, Julie McBride, 46, relaxed along a riverwalk in the shadow of tall office buildings for major oil and gas companies, and Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the NBA’s Thunder play.

Both registered Republicans who grew up Southern Baptist — Oklahoma’s largest religious group, with an estimated 650,000 members — Clark and McBride said they understand the need to address the budget crisis but don’t want lawmakers to ignore social issues.

“I’m completely pro-life and would like to see our government taking steps to protect that,” said Clark.

On the other hand, Kristin Lawson, a first-grade teacher at a public charter school in Oklahoma City, voiced frustration with lawmakers’ priorities.

“Our state political figures seem to make decisions based on what will financially benefit themselves rather than what will have a long-term effect on our state’s children,” said Lawson, 54, who attends a local megachurch that she describes as extremely loving. “They spend precious time arguing and passing legislation on silly issues like who uses what restroom and often decide on things in the name of their religion, which gives religion a bad rap.”

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.


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  • Are people finally waking up to the fact that social conservative agendas are unnecessarily costly and waste money which could go into improving quality of life?

    One hopes.

  • As long as the neo-liberals can keep us focused on sex, and great portions of the Christian community support them, they will continue to bankrupt our states, cut services/infrastructure, and maintain dysfunction as the normal governmental opperating procedure. Maybe the political scientists see a shift, but there is little in the article to support such a conclusion. What is identified is unfocused anger that the neo-liberals have been all too successful at misdirecting.

  • Parents and children would benefit the most from pulling their children out of government school and home schooling.

  • The equivalent of setting fire to people’s homes and urging them to buy tents.

    One of the most boneheaded positions of the fundamentalists is the attack on public education. They are sore that education is going on which does not kiss their sectarian minded posteriors. So they try to destroy the system for everyone.

    EL, I have zero respect for the views you expressed in your post. I sincerely doubt it was a sane or intelligent sentiment.

  • What a great way to make sure your children are not fully educated and prepared for life in the 21st. century.

  • I think the long and short of it is that until conservative politicians start getting booted from office for wasting money and resources on these social agenda boondoggles, there is little evidence to support changes are occurring.

  • The ultra conservative agenda in OK and other southern, “Bible belt,” states strain out gnats as elephant walk in. They spend countless dollars, and hours on bathrooms, who may go in which bathroom, sex, who may have it, when they have it, people’s inborn sexual orientation, and women’s reproductive rights. Meanwhile, their infrastructure crumbles about their feet, their educational systems are the poorest in the nation, and thousands of others cannot receive, even a modicum, of health care.

  • I agree Ben, “huh?” Tom, you’re blaming liberals for Republican right wing politics? Seriously?

    I wish I’d known liberals could control righties. Just think, a decent minimum wage, no corporate oligarchy, health care for all, Democratic domination in the states rather than Koch/fundamentalist Republicans, voting made easy, a real progressive tax system, a Democratic Congress, a depoliticized SCOTUS, etc. In other words, a return to real democracy!

    Now I know it’s all my fault that we don’t have these things. Oh America, I’m so sorry.

  • Yes Judge, plus, the red states whose politicians behave so ridiculously are the states who drain government coffers and scrape by on the blue states’ taxes. “Personal responsibility? Accountability?” Not the red states.

  • Clarification of Tom Downs post. The term “Neo-liberal” is the new name for Reaganomics. Supply side economics, attacks on social safety nets, organized labor and government regulation. Use of the term is throwing people off.

  • I got the message. It boils down to as long as people keep electing these social conservative politicians there is no clear way to say a change is occurring with voters as the article suggests. Social conservatism was always a smokescreen for the rapine of middle and working class status in an effort to reduce them to virtual serfdom.

  • I find they do too much. So much so that they feel entitled to political power far in excess of their numbers. Time for politicians wean themselves off the notion they are only there for easy to organize voting blocs. Christian agendas are almost never constitutional and usually unnecessarily damaging to the public.

  • The term, at least as it is used today, appears to be designed to confuse. It’s doublespeak, not English.

    From Wikipedia: “Its advocates support extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy. Neoliberalism is famously associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States.”

  • Psychologists call that “projection.” Right-wingers routinely engage in such deception.

  • Oklahoma taxpayers are finally seeking the answer to the question, “How much in taxpayer dollars does the anti-gay, anti-abortion pseudoreligious political agenda cost us?” Their immediate answer is “the education of Oklahoma youth.” Look for them to seek genuine fiscal conservatives, Democrats, this fall who will not try to force taxpayers, including LGBT taxpayers, to finance the agenda of the “Gay Obsessed Party.”

  • Thanks for the explanation.

    I forgot that, for the breitbart set, down is up, bondage is freedom, and size 50 sweatpants are sexy.

  • Actually it’s the economic term that describes the dominant philosophy in our federal and most state governments. The fact that we don’t know the term only proves how much we (the general public) have been distracted by the wedge issues those who know the term continually throw at us.

  • Actually, you make my case about neo-liberalism. The guiding idea in that philosophy is that competition makes for efficiency: hence out sourcing and publicly funded private schools (and legal home schooling to a lesser degree) are designed add competition to government employees and public schools. The philosophy says that it makes better quality cheaper. Actually recent research finds that overall private school students score lower than comparable public school students. When people bother to compare they find that out sourced services aren’t really cheaper or better quality. Neo-liberalism hasn’t produced what it promised and people are angry; they just don’t know why. It’s neo-liberalism, stupid.

  • I know the policy. But the term itself was fairly unfamiliar to me untill a few months ago. I knew it as “fiscal conservatism”

  • One would think that here in the 21st Century one could easily educate their children at home without all of the attendant bs associated with government schools, which is the equivalent of warehousing with an eventual expiration date. What with the multiplicity of curriculum, and networking that the Internet affords these days. Homeschooling parents are no longer isolated and there are homeschooling cooperatives that share ideas and have group outings and with the benefit of inculcating a worldview that is not in opposition to the parents. Homeschooling is a much more viable idea than the haphazard, slipshod education (if you can call it that) the government schools can offer.

  • That is up there with the call for do it yourself dentistry and online psychiatry.

    With the rampant abuse and shortfalls in homeschooling and the lack of skills and time of most parents to pull it off, you are advocating abandoning education altogether for rampant ignorance. Homeschooling’s successes are far more rare than its failures.

    People who attack public education are essentially saying that they want to destroy the primary form of social mobility. To enforce a level of serfdom on the poor, working and middle classes.

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