A recent skirmish in the struggle over relations between religion and the state took place at the city zoo in Tulsa, Okla. That Tulsa would be a frontline in America’s culture war comes as no surprise.
Before Colorado Springs became a Mecca for fundamentalist para-church organizations, Tulsa was recognized by many as the national center for right-wing Christianity in America.
Tulsa earned that reputation. Before it became home to the media ministries of both Oral Roberts and Billy James Hargis, it was the scene of one of America’s deadliest and most devastating incidents of racial violence against a prospering black community (150 killed, 30 city blocks burned to the ground, more than 1,000 families left homeless).
The white “conservative” Christians of 1921 Tulsa managed to conceal their city government’s role in that incident so effectively that it remained secret for more than 80 years.
While Tulsa’s place on the frontlines of the culture war is not surprising, the zoological venue for this salvo and the city’s rapid retreat from the Religious Right’s position was unexpected.
The skirmish began when Religious Right activist Dan Hicks convinced the city mayor and other members of the Tulsa Parks and Recreation Board that the city should put an exhibit displaying the Bible’s six days of creation at the city zoo. Hicks contended that a “Christian” exhibit was need to counterbalance both a display that included a depiction of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha, and a marble globe at the zoo entrance that was inscribed with the Native American saying, “The earth is our mother. The sky is our father.”
Once the zoo board’s decision to post the display became public, activists from left, right and center stepped forward to challenge Hick’s exhibit.
Religious activists from the left and center pointed out that the depiction of Ganesha was displayed along with various other cultural images of elephants–including an image of an elephant as the mascot for the Republican Party.
On the right, activists were divided over whether the proposed display should depict young earth creationism or the old earth creationism being advocated by the proponents of the “Intelligent Design.”
Native Americans advised that the different tribes held differing accounts of creation.
Scientists from the range of political and religious perspectives objected that the city’s endorsement of a religious account would undermine their instruction of scientific method and theory.
Finally, Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote the board a letter asking them to cancel the exhibit and ensure that all future exhibits comply with the constitutional requirement of not having the “ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion.” AU also reminded the board that the Oklahoma State Constitution specifically required that “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.”
In the face of such concerted opposition, the board quickly “clarified” their vote to say that they did not intend to endorse any particular faith and that they had actually planned to give equal display space to “six or seven” creation myths. Then the board reversed itself and cancelled the creationist exhibit.
In the end, the Tulsa City Zoo proved to be a poor place for the Religious Right to pick a fight in America’s culture wars.
Like the rest of the country, both Tulsa and Oklahoma are clearly more pluralistic and pragmatic than they were in previous decades. Moderate and progressive religious voices have been slowly gaining strength in Oklahoma, and this small success may encourage others to step forward and join in the fray.
The political might of the Religious Right, however, still casts a large shadow over this city and state.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. This column appeared previously in The Baptist Studies Bulletin and is used here with permission.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.