Mar  2018 20
Imagining a Different Public Voice in Oklahoma

At the seminary trustee meeting in February, I was granted a year-long sabbatical, beginning July 1, and then will return to the seminary not as president but to initiate a new project.

For several years, the board and I have been imagining a center for religion in public life in Oklahoma. Soon, without also serving as the seminary’s president, I’ll be able to pick up the exciting work of exploring and developing this center.

What purpose or purposes would the center serve? What will be its activities? What do we hope to accomplish through the center? All good questions, all needing development and exploration.

What I know for sure at the present is the felt need, from within the seminary and among the dozen Oklahomans I’ve spoken with about the center. Here are some of the circumstances in which we believe a focused initiative and strategic activities about the role of religion in public life could make a difference in Oklahoma:

  • The social fabric of Oklahoma is too thin to accomplish together that which should be accomplished in terms of human basics, e.g., support for all types of families, education, health care, the elderly, and social justice. Religious individuals and organizations could contribute to a richer sense of community, of what neighbors owe to each other, than is currently the practice.
  • American democracy depends upon educated, morally-formed publics (all the 18th century Founders), the capacity to be “locked together in argument” (John Courtney Murray), and protection by the majority of the rights (and humanity) of political minorities (Hamilton and Madison). Today, in Oklahoma and in the nation, we lack capacity in all these areas, and public expressions of religion could strengthen each of them.
  • The privileging of Christianity is both unnecessary and is harmful to the social fabric and to Christianity. Christians do not need the backing of the state, and the state will always try to co-op Christianity to make it the religion of the state rather than one of the religions which both enriches the quality of life here and sometimes criticizes the decisions of elected officials. Such cooptation and privileging is all too evident, from the chaplaincy program in the state House to the shameful disparaging of Islam.
  • The U.S. needs a new narrative that is big enough to affirm the essential goodness of the idea of America, acknowledges and confesses and repents from the wrongs America has committed against persons for whom the “American dream” was turned into the “American nightmare,” and envisions and works toward an ever more inclusive, just, and compassionate nation. Oklahoma—where there is a living swirl of history, tensions, promises, broken promises, and hopes of Native Americans, African-Americans, and Euro-Americans (more recently joined by persons from many Asia, Middle Eastern, and Latin American countries)—would be an excellent place to find a narrative where each culture can look and say, “Yes, I see my people’s experience and hope in that story.”
  • In the creation stories of the Abrahamic traditions, human beings are bequeathed an indelible dignity. One could then extrapolate that adherents of these traditions would treat each other with utmost respect. We know that is not always the case, some religious persons and groups divide the world into the saved and the not-yet-saved, the lost, or the reprobate. Such religiously-supported division of the political world into orthodox and heretic contributes to the way Oklahomans talk with each other, argue with each other, dismiss each other, and split from each other. Wouldn’t Oklahoma be better off if religious persons led the way in demonstrating how to speak with those with whom we disagree, remembering the indelible dignity of each person, rather than labeling all opponents as enemies and consigning them to hell?

What would the center do to reinforce positive loops and to weaken negative forces in Oklahoma? Specific strategies and tactics need exploration, with partners! However, I can imagine activities such as:

  • A regularly-offered open, online course on civil discourse (which is having conversation about difficult matters while treating each conversant with respect, rather than playing Oklahoma nice and avoiding difficult issues).
  • Interviews, in front of live audiences, with persons who disagree on social or religious issues but who demonstrate what it means to engage civilly and to stay at the table.
  • An annual conference on “the state of religion and culture in Oklahoma” addressing a rotating set of topics, such as religion and incarceration, religion and public schools, the tension between religious freedom and civil rights, the relationship between religion and democratic practices.
  • Recruit a network of scholars and religious practitioners to write public opinion pieces on matters such as those named above, and on proffering new drafts of an American or Oklahoma narrative that is honest, inclusive, and inspirational.
  • (If the Phillips faculty and the seminary’s accreditors would agree) Develop a certificate or degree program on public religion/public theology and create student internships at the center.
  • Through the resources assembled and curated on the center’s website, and through the network of scholars, serve as a reliable resource for journalists on matters of religion in public life in Oklahoma.
  • When the legislature goes to theologizing, work in a persistent way to keep them honest and to disassociate religious reasons from any legislation that uses religion to discriminate or do violence.

Audacious? Surely. Doable? We’ll see! But, as the university on the southwest side of Tulsa says, “Make no little plans here!”

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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