Heaven knows the Oklahoma Legislature needs all the prayers it can get.
So why take an instrument of peace and harmony – the House chaplain-of-the-day – and transform it into a weapon of political and religious war?
Especially at a time when a divisive, ongoing fiscal crisis yields an oft-tense atmosphere in which at least one lawmaker now has extra security because of threats and the governor’s State of the State was met with angry shouts from the gallery.
Alas, tone deafness is not a disqualifier for service in our august halls of governance. Nor is the inability to resist fixing what ain’t broke.
So we are left yet again to hide our faces in shame over the antics of a legislator – this time, Jenks Rep. Chuck Strohm – who took steps to ensure no one from outside the state’s dominant faith, Christianity, could qualify to open House sessions with a prayer.
The People’s House? Nope. It’s more accurately the Right Kind of People’s House.
State House and Senate sessions always have opened with prayer. It’s like opening the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance. Rarely controversial – though two lawmakers once scuffled over which would get to pick the preacher of the day (true story).
(As if on cue, a Durant pastor ignited outcry Thursday in the state Senate when he implied a series of natural disasters and mass shootings could be God’s punishment for immoral laws, such as marriage equality.)
Optics be damned, Strohm, the House’s chaplain coordinator, decided recently he would accept prayer-givers only from a representative’s “own place of worship” – ending a time-honored tradition in which lawmakers were free to nominate whomever they wanted.
The new policy ensured only Christian prayers, since there are no Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or other religious minorities among the 101 serving in the House.
Blowback was swift. Dozens attending the Oklahoma Conference of Churches Day at the Capitol gathered outside Strohm’s office, hoping to persuade him to abandon the new policy.
Instead, Strohm issued a statement, effectively ending the traditional chaplain-for-a-day/week program in favor of a congressional-style chaplain-for-the-session selected by the House speaker.
In retrospect, this showdown was inevitable, given anemic House leadership. As the Republican supermajority grew in recent years – and with it, the percentage of religious ideologues – the chaplaincy was allowed to become a behind-the-scenes flashpoint.
Last year, for example, Rep. Jason Dunnington nominated Imam Imad Enchassi, senior imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, to serve as chaplain. Strohm rejected the request.
“Part of the beauty of the program is to encourage civic engagement,” noted Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. “ … These newest changes deprive the opportunity to celebrate the diversity of faith that exists in Oklahoma, and to engage various religious beliefs in a thoughtful way.”
There was no reason to revamp the program, except that it reflects a noisy, bigoted GOP fringe that views religious minorities with suspicion (think: Sallisaw Rep. John Bennett’s demonization of Muslims as a “cancer”).
Clearly some lawmakers cannot abide cultural pluralism, even though Jesus himself spoke of welcoming strangers.
As Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, put it, “Regardless of our differing beliefs, our goal should always be to strive for inclusiveness, peace, and love. We should not live in fear of each other.”
These are tough times for elected Republicans. Despite statehouse dominance, they have failed to solve the state’s most pressing problems. Polls identify growing legions of unhappy voters.
How could lawmakers possibly avoid tough decisions, like taxes, and voters’ wrath? Distract a fuming electorate by fanning the culture wars.
The chaplaincy dust-up is a dog whistle to those in the GOP base that fear “others.” So are measures that would declare all wildlife to be the property of “Almighty God” or require schools to post “In God We Trust” in every classroom.
Oklahoma clearly needs more prayers – not less.
Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer, okobserver.org.