It is dangerous, and generally unwise, to talk about politics and religion. The trouble is, here in Oklahoma, they’re the same thing.
Christian fundamentalists have long dominated Oklahoma, and when I was young most fundamentalists were Democrats. That changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. At that point fundamentalism became Republican. Fundamentalists, who had always had enormous strength of conviction about religious matters, expanded these convictions to include free-market economics and other right-wing political positions. Suddenly de-regulation and union bashing were on par with doctrines of redemption and atonement. Oklahomans responded to those who questioned for-profit health care as if the questioner had advocated atheism or moon worship.
Americans who live outside the Bible Belt might be puzzled and ask why we can have such a blind faith in markets that sometimes fail catastrophically. How did a religion founded by a guy who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” come to embrace dog-eat-dog capitalism? To understand this, one really needs to understand the theology that is prevalent in Oklahoma.
Oklahomans believe strongly in sinfulness⎯especially the sinfulness of their neighbors. Each Oklahoman knows he is redeemed, but he also knows that each person meeting him on the street is sinful. This belief, unfortunately, leads us to mistrust others. When the idea of a free market came to the fore, bringing with it the idea that each individual acts in her own self interest, maximizing her own welfare with no particular obligation to others, the idea dovetailed nicely with the way we already perceived each other. It was easy enough for Oklahomans to meld the conventional economic theory of homo economicus into the religion of Oklahoma orthodoxy.
So, what am I arguing for? Two things.
First, a reexamination of Oklahoma orthodoxy. Yes, all of us make mistakes, some big some small. Some mistakes have far-reaching consequences; some are almost meaningless. We are capable of great evil, or great good. We are free to choose which path we will pursue. We do not need to assume the worst about others. Oklahomans lack of trust in their neighbors leads to an exaggerated sense self-reliance that sometimes borders on the ridiculous.
Second, let’s learn our history. The idea that greed is part of a system (Invisible Hand) that leads to maximizing community welfare came from Adam Smith, an 18th century Scottish philosopher. Smith was a deist, rather than a Christian, and he never claimed any sort of relationship between his ideas and Christianity.
A willingness to examine long-held beliefs, accompanied by knowledge of history could give Oklahomans a chance to form a different perspective. We no longer need to accept laissez faire economics as the inevitable reality that can and need never be changed.
Arden Res lives in Oklahoma City.