frank keating never had a chance
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Jackson Simmer.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! A while ago, we reviewed Ronald J. Sider’s 2005 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. And in it, he mentioned something that caught my eye. See, one of the sources he praised very highly, Frank Keating, committed what turned out to be one of the big failures in evangelical overreach in the public sphere. It reminded me of a truth about that crowd: their control-grabs only bring them failure. Today, I’ll show you what Frank Keating did, how his effort failed, and how nobody in his tribe of theocrats even cared.

frank keating never had a chance
(Jackson Simmer.)

(Fundagelicals are a fusion of fundamentalists with evangelicals. Over time, the two flavors of Christianity merged into a politically-extremist gaggle of grabby-handed theocrats thinly-masked by religious jargon. However, Frank Keating himself is a Catholic hardliner. Most Catholics don’t go in for the culture wars at all. That said, their hardliners have become largely indistinguishable from their Protestant bunkmates. The two groups’ scandals — and those scandals’ frequency, scope, nature, and their own abysmally-inadequate and dishonest response to them — tend to be indistinguishable as well. It’s so weird.)

Totally, No Preachers Ever Talk About Divorce in Oklahoma.

On page 20 of his book, Ronald Sider mentions Frank Keating. Keating was the governor of Oklahoma from 1995-2003 — and a very fervent Catholic hardliner who literally referenced Satan in his religion’s child-rape scandal.

Of this zealot, Sider writes:

Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma pointed out the irony that these unusually high divorce rates exist in his state, where 70 percent of people go to church once a week or more [or rather, claim to do so — CC]. “These divorce rates,” Gov. Keating concluded, “are a scalding indictment of what isn’t being said behind the pulpit.”

I got curious about this quote. It sounds utterly divorced from reality, if you’ll pardon a bit of wordplay.

See, I’d like to know who wasn’t preaching in fundie-land about divorce in the 90s and 00s. When I myself was a fundagelical, I heard about Jesus’ hatred of divorce constantly. That topic likely represented the second favorite of preachers — right after demands for money.

Authoritarian Christians of all stripes worry very, very much about divorce. Not their own, of course. Other people’s. But it’s definitely on their minds. I’m sure hardliner Catholic churches’ leaders denounce divorce just as often as fundagelical leaders do.

The more complementarian, authoritarian, and culture-warrior the Christian, the more loudly they thunder about the evils of divorce — and the more vehemently they insist that couples follow various marriage rules that lead directly to divorce.

The Marriage Initiative.

And in keeping with that rule, divorce was on Frank Keating’s mind long before Sider published his book.

Back in 1999, in fact, Frank Keating launched the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative with federal taxpayer money — and after busily laying the groundwork for it as soon as he got reelected to his position in 1998.

Through workshops and “outreach,” Frank Keating sought to slice the divorce rate by a third within ten years. In addition, Frank Keating sought to cut out-of-wedlock births by a third and child abuse rates in half. (Does this remind anyone of the SBC’s “Million Baptism Challenge?”)

Ostensibly, Frank Keating sought these goals to combat his state’s equally-dismal poverty rate. When couples divorce, women in particular often end up impoverished. In fact, poverty itself predicts divorce. Marrying too young (and especially having kids too early) predicts both poverty and divorce.

Attacking poverty through marriage seminars sounds as wackadoo as improving water quality by making sure all households have BPA-free water bottles. However, authoritarian Christians vastly prefer to force people to sit through marriage workshops than to better prepare children and teens for adulthood in the years before they inexplicably meet their high-school “soul mates.”

What This Initiative Involved.

Frank Keating’s big idea — called OMI, for Oklahoma Marriage Initiative — funneled federal money to various state organizations. Most of that money went to an outfit called Public Strategies Inc., founded just the year before by Mary Myrick. Oklahoma Watch describes her as “a Republican political consultant.”

In 2002, Bobby Ross tells us, OMI’s leaders proclaimed their successes:

  • About 750 clergy members signed the Oklahoma Marriage Covenant. This covenant required (among other things) clergy to require a 4-6 month preparation period of the couples they married. During those months, couples sat through — and paid for, I assume — marital counseling from ministers who follow marriage rules that don’t work in the first place. (Of course, this requirement only applied to couples married by clergy.)
  • In 2002, OMI trained about 200 people from public and private sectors to teach their main seminar, Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP).
  • OMI’s various groups set up a “statewide delivery system” and an official website.
  • OMI surveyed 2000 Oklahoma adults (and 1000 from nearby states) to figure out gosh durnit, why Oklahomans divorce so dang much. 90% of respondents thought people rushed into marriage too early/quickly. 82% liked the idea of OMI. 69% considered divorce “a very serious national problem.” Notably, only 1/3 of these respondents had actually been divorced. But they proclaimed judgment on the matter anyway.

However, Oklahoma’s legislature rejected Keating’s call for an end to no-fault divorce, along with his attempt to institute covenant marriage. I guess nobody wanted to really make Oklahoma resemble the Republic of Gilead.

All the same, OMI garnered a lot of attention — and not just from fellow busybody Ronald Sider:

Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, said, “All eyes are on Oklahoma, that’s for sure.”

And what, one might ask, did those outsiders’ eyes perceive?

How That Went.

C’mon. Ask me how this whole thing went.

Ask me how well overall this initiative met its own stated goals.

Go ahead. I live for these moments.

… Are you hesitating because you already know the answer to that question?

Indeed, you should know it.

It failed miserably.

Of course it did. And by 2005, when Ronald Sider published Scandal, that failure was already common knowledge.

How OMI Changed Over Time.

As time passed and OMI’s utter inability to achieve its own stated goals became apparent, the state gradually retooled the program. I can see why. One source tells us that “for every 100 marriage licenses issued in 2001, the state granted 76 divorce petitions.” Ouch.

The program’s leaders began to talk more in terms of “encouraging healthy marriages and families.” Ah, just what these folks needed: a nicely-nebulous goal that was absolutely impossible to measure.

And to accomplish that nicely-nebulous goal, the state began to require certain people to take a series of courses and seminars in order to be approved for certain actions. It was largely punitive and make-work stuff.

For example, in 2014 Oklahoma passed a law (HB 2249) requiring married parents to take OMI classes before the state would approve their petitions for divorce (particularly on grounds of incompatibility). Oh, and the parents in question had to pay money to take these classes. That writeup link summarizes the situation thusly:

Now, by state law, divorcing parents will be required to sit through an educational program that fully explains the scenarios they have already considered.

Yep. That about covers OMI in general.

Analyzing Failure.

In 2013, an analysis revealed that the initiative had failed miserably at its stated goal. Oklahoma’s divorce rate remained astronomically high!

In 2016 during a time of serious budget woes, Oklahoma mercifully ended the whole fiasco.

In all, Frank Keating and his cronies spent over USD$70M of American taxpayers’ money to lower his state’s divorce rate. All the same, divorce rates only climbed in their state — along with single-parent families, unmarried cohabiting couples, and poverty itself.

In fact, by every metric available, OMI failed completely.

In fact, Oklahoma still has one of the highest divorce rates in the entire country. They rank third as of 2018 at 10.8%, behind Arkansas (13%) and South Dakota (12.1%). It’s been right up there for many years.

My Theory, Which Is Mine, and My Own Besides.

Frank Keating and his tribe of control-hungry theocrats despise autonomy and human rights like consent. That hatred leads to a conspicuous gap in their understanding of human nature. Instead of basing their worldview on consent, authoritarian Christians operate under a two-boxes form of morality:

  • Stuff Baby that makes Jesus gurgle and coo with delight, and
  • Stuff that makes Baby Jesus scowl and projectile-poop in his crib.

Predictably, these Christians’ culture wars tend to occur over the gray areas of the human situation. As with abortion, culture warriors maintain mental lists of Acceptable and Unacceptable Reasons To Do This Thing Baby Jesus Totally Hates Forever And With No Exceptions. Frank Keating is no exception there, as Bobby Ross informs us:

Spousal abuse, adultery and abandonment constitute legitimate grounds for divorce, the governor said.

“But most marriages end because one party or the other is simply bored or decides that they want to have a new Jaguar,” he said.

When I read that, I was just appalled.

No wonder his marriage initiative failed.

(New Jaguars in Oklahoma run USD$45k-115k. I doubt that people in one of the poorest states in the union purchase enough of them to impact their state’s divorce rate.)

Solutions In Search Of Problems.

Frank Keating and his pals created initiatives to solve problems that exist only in their own minds. If they seriously think that couples actually divorce out of boredom or would rather use their vast and lavish funds to buy Jaguars rather than maintain their relationships, then whatever comes out of their gobs next ain’t gonna change anything about divorce in the real world.

It sounds like Frank Keating refused to accept the real causes of divorce. Instead, he tilted at his windmill in the Fields of Fundiestan rather than in Reality-Land. Sure, he claimed a vast number of wins in skirmishes in that war. But those wins didn’t actually contribute to his stated goal. That’s why the stuff he wanted to change didn’t budge at all — or even got worse during OMI’s reign.

If Frank Keating could somehow have forced every single marrying couple in Oklahoma to sit through 6 months of marital counseling with clergy members, that wouldn’t have changed a thing. He could have found 2000 lecturers, and it wouldn’t have helped. Turning Oklahoma into the Republic of Gilead would only have skyrocketed its domestic violence rates — as well as likely increasing the burden on its already-overloaded welfare system.

But authoritarian Christians can’t countenance the stuff that really works to lower divorce rates. That stuff’s based on mutual respect and consent.

Thus, successful tactics incorporating those values run very counter to their worldview.

The Wrong Kind of Victory.

It’s far more palatable to these Christians to fling other people’s money at their political cronies than to use it in ways the tribe hates. They’d rather create onerous and unnecessary work for the heretics they want to punish than do stuff that actually solves social problems.

In Fundagelical-Land, the only life scripts they accept are the ones they’ve created: the Happy Christian Marriage/Family Illusion. They seriously think that forcing people to hop along to that script will create actually happy marriages and families. And if someone steps out of line during the hopping, then authoritarians’ solution involves punishing them so hard that they meekly get back into line.

So such Christians don’t really understand sayings like an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure or a stitch in time saves nine or even one of my faves: for want of a nail the kingdom was lost. They’re too closely attuned to punishment as a teaching tool to consider anything else.

After this failure, they learned nothing. Opposing no-fault divorce and punishing divorcing couples for not having virtuous-enough reasons to separate remains their main way of combating their own hypocrisy.

By the time OMI got involved in couples’ lives, it was already way too late for them to make any kind of difference. Yes. But Frank Keating and his pals doomed themselves right out of the gate because their worldview simply doesn’t reflect reality. By allowing it to dictate their plans, they ensured that OMI would become little more than an expensive footnote in Oklahoma’s history.

NEXT UP: How I un-learned that exact lesson as a game administrator. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...