Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Rise of the Religious Right in Oklahoma (Part One)

Religion has had an important role in the history of Oklahoma from the beginning.  This series will trace the emergence of the religious right  that began with opposition to the ERA.

Congress voted to submit the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the states for ratification in March of 1972.  That year, 22 states ratified it. 

Oklahoma led the way in defeating the amendment.  It was the first state to refuse to ratify it.

Opposition to the amendment was led by Ann Patterson, an Episcopalian associated with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum organization.  Most of Patterson’s support came from women involved in a Church of Christ women’s organization headed by Beverly Findley.

The anti-ERA forces apalled  women with warnings that their military husbands would be sleeping and showering in the barracks with women.  They also frightened religious conservatives with allegations that the National Organization of Women wanted to abolish the tax exemption  of all churches.

Pro-ERA forces had a more dialogical approach.  Methodists in Oklahoma hosted debates and invited advocates for both sides to participate.  The Oklahoma Conference of Churches, representing the position of most mainline denominations, offered open but muted support for the ERA.

Research indicated that only 17% of the Baptists, then under more moderate leadership than today, and a mere 5% of the Methodists in the state opposed the ERA.   Together they comprised 37.6% of the population of the state at that time.  Conservative Church of Christ  members comprised 5.2% of the population, but even in that denomination 57% were in favor of the ERA.

In the end, it appears that the squeaky conservative wheels in all these denominations came away with the most grease on this issue.  Their surprising success in stopping the ERA in Oklahoma energized political activity among conservatives and fundamentalists around the nation.

Ann Patterson and other Oklahomans went  on to assist in organizing anti-ERA efforts in other states. 

By 1982, the ERA was dead.  Three states short of the 38 needed for ratification.