What happens when you mix atheists, Satanists, a Bible Belt state and a bunch of cliches? Well, you get a story like this one from The Associated Press:
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Atheists in Oklahoma City have erected a billboard seeking fellow non-believers, and Satanists have scheduled a conference in a city-owned building, drawing criticism from ministers in a state where more than eight out of 10 people say they are Christians.
"It's not a question of 'Can you?' It's a question of 'Should you?'" said Dan Fisher, pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. "It's kind of like they're poking a finger in your eye."
Nick Singer, the coordinator of a local atheists' group called "Coalition of Reason," recently received $5,250 from its national counterpart to erect the billboard along Interstate 44 near the Oklahoma State Fair, which opens Wednesday. Its message reads, "Don't believe in God? Join the club."
You get the message, don't you? The God-fearing state of Oklahoma is up in arms over these developments, and maybe some people are. But I live in Oklahoma City -- and I go to church here -- and the only place I've heard anything about the atheists or the Satanists is on the news.
Reporters at the hometown level look for ways to "localize" a national story. For a national -- make that, international -- news organization such as AP, the goal is to "nationalize" a local story, which is wonderful. The problem is that cliches so easily overtake such stories. When I worked for AP in Dallas, the joke was that no story from Lubbock ever made it on the wire without a well-meaning editor in New York adding "dusty plains of West Texas."
But to tackle specifics of the Oklahoma story: The lede mentions that eight of 10 people in the state say they are Christians. Wow. Then again, 78 percent of Americans identify with some form of Christianity, according to Gallup. That kind of context might be helpful.
Also helpful would be some kind of concrete information on the form -- and level -- of the criticism that the atheists and Satanists are drawing from Oklahoma ministers. Are ministers meeting to discuss a response? Is there any kind of formal opposition? Did the ministers approach AP? Or did AP call ministers trying to find critics? In other words, which came first -- the AP call or the ministers' concern (the first minister quoted serves a church 15 miles from the billboard)? To me, these are important details.
This is my favorite line of the whole story:
Oklahoma wears its religion on its sleeves.
Here's how AP backs up that statement:
Around the holidays, owners of downtown skyscrapers leave on nighttime lights in the pattern of a cross, which across the flat landscape can be seen for miles. The Ten Commandments were on display at a courthouse lawn in northeast Oklahoma until a federal judge ordered it removed, and a move is afoot to erect a similar monument at the state Capitol.
Legislators pray in their chambers, led by a "minister of the day," usually Christian. The Oklahoma City Thunder is one of the few NBA teams to begin each contest after a non-denominational prayer delivered by a minister on the public address system.
One state lawmaker wants to change the state's motto from "Labor omnia vincit" -- Latin for "Labor conquers all" -- to "In God we trust."
Oklahoma also has various "God" billboards that purport to pose questions and observations from the Almighty, like: "You think it's hot here?" and "What part of 'Thou shalt not ...' didn't you understand?" and "Life is short. Eternity isn't."
All of that, I suppose, is true. But Oklahoma also has topless bars, more Indian gambling casinos than you can count and a fair number of cars parked in driveways on Sunday mornings -- I see them as I drive through my neighborhood each week. However, those images don't fit the story, I don't guess.
Concerning the prayer at the Thunder games, I wonder if the prayers are Christian only or if the writer meant non-sectarian prayer instead of non-denominational prayer?
Speaking of cliches, there is one liberal pastor in Oklahoma City who stands above all others when it comes to commanding media attention. That pastor often is quoted as the voice of reason in stories like this. AP does not fail to deliver that pastor's perspective:
Some religious leaders had other issues on their minds.
"It's not the people who don't believe in God that worry me," said Robin Meyers, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. "It's some of the people who do.
"Fundamentalism is the enemy worldwide, no matter what the strain."
Am I suggesting that Oklahoma is not a right-leaning religious state? Not at all. Am I suggesting that atheists and Satanists are not a little off the beaten path in the ordinary narrative of Oklahoma religious life? Again, not at all.
But I am suggesting that a much better approach would be to go beyond the cliches and tell a fuller, more nuanced story. At a minimum, give me an idea how many atheists there are in Oklahoma, and Satanists too.
When you tell me the Satanists have reserved a room at the Oklahoma City Civic Center for a "blasphemy ritual," tell me what that is. What does it involve? What is the religious -- or non-religious -- significance? (For a bit more coverage of the Satanists, ABC News and The Oklahoman report on the planned event.)
Speaking of religious significance, what does it mean that the atheists are taking an evangelical approach to winning converts?
I have no idea how much time the reporter involved had to write this story. I don't know if it was his idea or a deadline request from an editor in New York. Perhaps it was one of those stories where the writer was told what it should say before he reported it. It certainly reads like it.
I did love the ending:
Singer, from the atheists' group, said his group has no connection to the Satanists.
"As far as Satan goes, we don't believe in him either," he said.