It seems fitting that The Simpsons’ quintessentially evangelical character, Ned Flanders, spent his college days in Tulsa (Flanders attended Oral Roberts University).
Home to Oral Roberts University, RHEMA Bible Training Center and a legion of evangelical churches, Tulsa appears decidedly evangelical. And a similar church culture exists in Oklahoma City. Add to the metros a host of churches sprinkled throughout the state, and it comes as little surprise that more than half of Oklahoma’s residents identify themselves with the “evangelical Protestant tradition.” Only two other states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have such a high number calling themselves evangelicals. And Southern Baptists, it is estimated, represent the largest segment of Oklahoma’s evangelical constituency. If a Bible-belt does exist, Oklahoma might arguably be its shining buckle.
Part of Oklahoma’s strong Christian presence is due to its locale. While not westernmost, Oklahoma was settled relatively late. Our state, just over 100 years old, was largely developed with cars in mind. As such, space has been relatively ample. If churches, for example, outgrow their buildings, they can simply move to an ever-expanding, usually cheaper, fringe of the city and enjoy a well-developed road system to get the church’s congregants there. This flex that Oklahoma provides is well-suited to the type of religion the American West engenders.
Ferenc Morton Szasz identifies two characteristics unique to religion in the West. First, religion in the West has always been diverse. Whether it was Native American religions, outcasts such as the Mormons, Asians entering California from the East, vestiges of Spanish and French Catholics or a host of European national churches being planted by pioneers (mostly from northern and western Europe), the West has been marked by religious choice. This gave way to a fiercely competitive religious market.
The second feature is connected to the first: given the religious diversity and competitive religious market, along with a rigorous, pragmatic and unsettled ethos that marked the pioneer, western ministers had to be creative and able to adapt. In other words, western ministers tended to be utilitarian. Szasz points out that the minister’s roles were many and could include being a “distributor of relief, social worker, librarian, counselor, good Samaritan and public lecturer.” Ministers, then, were willing to extend their services beyond the pulpit and into the very heart of society.
This ingenuity characteristic of the western minister can still be detected in Oklahoma. Consider the widespread attention that the innovative LifeChurch.tv has garnered. This church, based out of the Oklahoma City area, has experienced eye-popping growth due in large part to its ability to effectively utilize the Web; it has grown from around 130 attendees in 1996 to reaching more than 21,000 in 2007.
Szasz’s argument that religion in the West has a particular diversity and the western minister must have a strong utilitarian sense is a suggestion that religion in the West is an accentuated form of American evangelicalism in general. Forty years ago or more, conventional wisdom believed that under the forces of modernity, religion would wither, a view known as the secularization thesis. It was believed that the habits, institutions, structures and systems that comprise the modern world undermine the vitality of religion. And yet as the 20th Century tumbled on, religion (not necessarily Christianity) seemed to be occupying a surprising prominence in the public square and in the interests of individuals, at least in America. This led sociologists and cultural commentators to speak of American exceptionalism, the belief that America (when compared to Europe) is unique in its encounter with modernity because of its ability to sustain fairly strong levels of religiosity. But how? For many, it was America’s competitive and free religious market (contrasted with European state churches) that prepared it for the challenges that modernity might pose. Such a competitive market developed resourceful, flexible and aggressive religious leaders that have found ways to adapt. (Interestingly, the idea that modernity inevitably leads to the death or diminishment of religion has been increasingly challenged since the 1970s, leading some to describe the sharp decline of organized religion in Europe over the last 50 years as “European exceptionalism.”)
This resourcefulness has contributed to the perennial presence of religion in America that has surprised many religious observers. And Oklahoma’s widespread evangelical presence shines in a country that has left many secularization proponents scratching their heads. Ned Flanders would be proud. Or would he?
Let’s take a closer look at Ned’s old stomping grounds, Tulsa. From 1990-2000 Tulsa experienced a slight growth of evangelical churches (from 114,532 attendees to 116,036). Yet such growth has not kept pace with Tulsa’s population growth. When one considers evangelical church growth in terms of the percentage of the population, there has been decline (from 16.2 percent to 14.4 percent). In sum, the Tulsa evangelical constituency, like the evangelical constituency in most of America, is in decline.
Not only are the stats discouraging, but also evangelicalism’s effectiveness in shaping the character of the Tulsa area has been questioned. During the 2006 Tulsa Mayor race, candidates threw around staggering crime statistics for Tulsa as a way to critique the efforts of the current Mayor. The often quoted number was that Tulsa had a crime rate that was two times more than the national average. More recently, famous Tulsa pastor Carlton Pearson was covered in a CNN story for his new views on homosexuality. Pearson, who now embraces homosexuality as a biblically legitimate lifestyle, challenged the efficacy of all the “hyper-conservative, fundamentalist religion” pervading Tulsa because it does not appear to be working. Pearson drew upon Oklahoma in general to make this point, citing the high divorce and out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rates that plague our state. For Pearson, there is clearly a problem with the transforming power of what he terms hyper-conservative, fundamentalist religion. Pearson’s theology aside, his critique of evangelicalism seems warranted. For all its apparent strength as an evangelical epicenter, Tulsa’s prospect for evangelicalism appears statistically daunting, and efforts to transform society seem enfeebled.
Perhaps the best way to look forward is by looking back again. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of Christian ministers that America and the West have fostered certainly contribute to the visibility of evangelicalism in Oklahoma and the high number of those still identifying themselves as evangelicals (at least nominally). Yet it has been suggested that for all its energy and grit, much of evangelicalism has lacked theological rigor and the life of the mind. Moreover, evangelicalism, it has been argued, has even been antagonistic toward these things. This is why evangelicalism, while broadly represented throughout Oklahoma, seems to lack depth.
Those pointing out evangelicalism’s theological shortcomings each, in their own way, suggest that the way forward is to reclaim a rich and sustained theological reflection that is in orbit around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Casey Shutt is a Senior Writer for The Baptist Messenger.