Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
Following up on my offering of a few weeks ago in which I asked, “What’s the matter with the South?”, let me be a bit more specific. How come Oklahoma, where the waving wheat sure smells sweet, has produced two of the worst and most ineffective members of the United States Senate in Dr. Tom Coburn and James Mountain Imhofe? They make the rest of their Republican colleagues seem moderate - well, sort of.
In his latest caper, Inhofe went to the Copenhagen climate change summit as a self-described, one-person “truth squad.” As the top Republican on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Inhofe could bring responsible criticism, even skepticism to the issue of climate change. Instead he has chosen to be a flat earther, calling former Vice President Al Gore “full of crap” and declaring Global warming, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
When he was asked in Copenhagen who perpetrated the hoax and why, Inhofe replied, “it started in the United Nations and the one in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.” A Der Spiegel reporter, who doesn’t play by the neutered American rules, told Inhofe, “You’re ridiculous.”
Coburn is a pediatrician known as “Dr. No” because of all the bills and nominations he has held up because he doesn’t believe in government (which pays him well and he is supposed to serve).
During the last days of the long health care reform debate, Coburn, who has sworn the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” suggested quite clearly that the American people should pray that one of the Democrats will not be able to make it to the Senate cast the 60th vote to break a Republican filibuster. There was no mistake that he was referring to the dean of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is 92.
Coburn’s one-man “Death Panel” took place on the floor of the storied Senate chamber, but no Republican stepped forward to remonstrate Coburn (Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Coburn to explain himself; Coburn said he meant no one to come to harm.). But I think he did.
The Republicans could have signaled they would not filibuster the procedural vote so that the frail, wheel-chair bound Senator Byrd need not make the trip from his home on a snowy night. But if Byrd did not attend to vote, the health care bill would have been stopped. So almost as if they were conspiring to worsen Byrd’s health, the Republicans repeatedly insisted on the procedural votes for which the Democrats needed Byrd.
But in defiance of Coburn’s call to prayer, Byrd was wheeled in for the 1:00AM Monday vote and the health care bill was on its way to passage on Thursday. As it turned out, Imhofe was absent on one vote, as if it were a devilish answer to Coburn’s prayer.
I’ve gone on at length into the antics of these two men, who were elected to legislate and not make fools of themselves and Oklahoma voters, because I have great respect for Democratic institutions like the U.S. Senate, in which only a few Americans get to serve. But what strikes me about Coburn and Inhofe and their not-so-merry band of right-wingers is what they have in common.
They are virulently and absolutist anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, anti-government and pro-gun. And these things they believe, they have said, because they purport to be Christians. I say “purport” because, as a Jew and lay person (who majored in philosophy), I cannot judge what is and what is not “Christian.” All I know, and value, is the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and, in the New Testament, Jesus’ admonition that we should love one another.
Now to get to the controversial part of my rambling. When I asked a knowledgeable, church-going friend what sets Inhofe, Coburn and the rest of the very conservative southern Republicans apart from much of the rest of the country, he said, “They’re Christians,” as if that explained everything.
It is true that both Oklahomans are members of Washington’s “C-Street group,” a residence for fundamentalist Christian lawmakers who, under the guidance of a minister-adviser, try to impose their religious, theocratic values on policy. They make it a point to say they do not believe in the separation of church and state.
They may seem loopy, but according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Forum, they – and their right-wing cohorts in the House and Senate - appear to reflect constituents in their states and the region. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a correlation between the region’s religious fundamentalism and its preference for right-wing politics.
A new Gallup survey concluded that with 80 percent of Americans identifying themselves with Christian religion, “the United States remains dominantly a Christian nation” with the highest proportion in the traditional Bible Belt states of the South. Here’s how the Pew poll sums up its December findings:
“At least 85 percent of people living in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama say they are certain that God exists. By contrast, in Maine, Connecticut/Rhode Island and New Hampshire/Vermont fewer than six in ten express absolute certainty of belief in God.”
The political differences are obvious.
More specifically, Oklahoma ranks 11th among the states in the percentage of people (80) “who say they believe in God with absolute certainty,” seventh in the percentage of people (69) who say religion is “very important in their lives” and seventh (50) in the percentage of people who say they attend services at least once a week. All these percentages are well above the national average.
But more deeply religious on all measures are:
• Mississippi, which is number one, (Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker)
• Followed by South Carolina (Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Demint, said to be the most right-wing member of the Senate)
• Alabama (Republican Sens. Richard Shelby, who questioned President Obama’s citizenship and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship because of his racist past and who was criticized by Rush Limbaugh for asking Judge Sonia Sotomayor during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, to pretend to be white and if she thought “Latino women were more qualified to be hair dressers or housekeepers”
• Tennessee, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both of whom were among the 30 (mostly southern) Republicans to vote against legislation giving a rape victim the right to sue an employer who was responsible
• Georgia, Republican Senators Saxbe Chambliss and Johnny Isakson who have sought to bar their state from using any federal health program
• Kentucky, Republican Senators Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has enforced the unanimous opposition to Obama among Republicans
• Texas, Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.
There are a few exceptions – Democrats Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina - all of whom serve with more conservative Republican colleagues from their states.
One particular exception seems to prove my point: Utah, of course, is not in the south. But it’s among the most religious states in the Pew poll because of the dominance of the Mormon Church. Its Republican senators, Orin Hatch and Robert Bennett, while not as looney as some of their right-wing colleagues, are nevertheless unswerving conservatives who joined the rest of Republicans in opposing health care reform and virtually every Obama initiative.
I may be on thin ice, but I don’t believe this says anything about Christianity. After all, the southern-based civil rights movement came from the mostly black Christian churches with help from white clergy, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.
But the white fundamentalist deep South is not only conservative, and often racist, it is also plagued by persistent poverty, which is worse in the south than any other region, and the greatest number of citizens without health insurance, with a minimal education.
That’s fertile soil for the demagoguery, political and religious, of right-wing politics.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Seen and Heard