Editor's note: Reposted with permission from The Oklahoma Daily.
I locked myself in my bedroom and cried the first time I read the memo.
It was January 2008. Two weeks before, I had sent a text message to a former high school teacher that read simply, "Oh no. I may be turning liberal."
I had recently switched my political party affiliation from Republican to Independent, and, though not a complete swing to the left, I knew it was a big move for a small-town, Southern Baptist, Oklahoma woman.
My former teacher called me immediately and excitedly offered her congratulations.
But what she somberly told me next " and what the old memo she e-mailed me two weeks later proved " was that religion and politics are so strongly bonded in Oklahoma that anyone who disagrees with the religious right is made out to be despicable.
I realized that, in the minds of too many Oklahomans, the "L-word" will do nothing less than send a person straight to hell.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
This teacher was infamous in my small hometown in north-central Oklahoma.
She was the one who told students to not use the word "gay" as an insult.
She was the one who kept a copy of the Quran in her classroom, to the dismay of the community and to my high school self.
She was the one who wore black the day after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.
The school board tried to get her fired. As did local churches, including mine.
And as did the principal.
In 2005, he asked her to sign the memo. It listed several points she must agree to, including:
"Understand that you work in a conservative community."
"Stay on topic; be cautious with politics and sexual orientation situations with students."
"Be careful with liberal and religious viewpoints."
And, the one that made me cry, "Remember who you work for and [the fact that] consistently being outside the box and parent complaints could cost you your teaching position."
I suddenly realized I had been brought up in a community that forbids original thought.
I realized I had bought into the lie that it is a sin open your mind and just listen to what people who disagree with you say.
I realized my small community was a microcosm of the state of Oklahoma and that, as long as I stay here, the fact that I am a moderate who sympathizes with some " though definitely not all " liberal viewpoints will cause others to question my Christianity, my judgment and my intelligence.
THE RED STATE
Oklahoma is the most conservative state in the nation.
It is a somber fact here that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.
Every one of Oklahoma's 77 counties supported Sen. John McCain in the Nov. 4 election, making it the only state in the nation to have every county vote Republican.
Despite the fact that the rest of the country has shifted slightly to the left, Oklahoma has moved farther to the right.
For the first time in Oklahoma's 101 years of statehood, Republicans this year gained control of both the Oklahoma House and Senate.
This year, Oklahomans re-elected to his third term in the U.S. Senate James Mountain Inhofe " a man who has crassly broken elections into three issues: "Gods, guns and gays."
During his tenure in the Senate, Inhofe has been strongly opposed to finding solutions for global warming, calling it the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," and claimed that most evangelicals agree with him.
Oklahomans also re-elected by a 58 percent majority State Representative Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, who, in March, made national headlines when she said at a Republican luncheon that homosexuality "is destroying this nation," and that homosexuality is "the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam."
Also re-elected to the Oklahoma House was a man originally from my hometown whom I know well, Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs.
In 2007, Duncan refused a complimentary state centennial copy of the Quran from the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council.
Instead of saying a simple, "No thanks," Duncan wrote fellow lawmakers that he refused a copy because, "Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology" and because he didn't "know of another religion or ideology that employs terrorism and the threat of terrorism.''
Months before, Duncan accepted a copy of the Bible from the Baptist General Convention in Oklahoma. He said it was a nice gift.
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
Though many are questioning why Oklahoma is shifting to the right, I believe the answer is simple.
The state is becoming more conservative because it has politicized Christianity and turned liberalism into a sin.
Oklahomans are proud of the fact that their state is most conservative in the nation, despite the fact that it contains more registered Democrats than Republicans.
They view it as a final safe haven for Christians, morals and families and have no desire to "conform" to the idea that America can endure what they perceive to be dangerous change.
Obama had a difficult time gaining support in Oklahoma because people did not think he was a Christian, according to Ivan Holmes, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, quoted in The New York Times.
McCain was the "Christian candidate" " despite the fact that McCain, who rarely talks about his faith, was quoted by the Christian Science Monitor as saying he is not "born again" but is "just a Christian."
According to everything I've been taught, to be a Christian, a person must confess a faith in Jesus Christ as lord and savior " which is commonly called being born again.
Obama also was badly hurt in the state by his pro-choice views.
Though many conservatives I have talked to said they agreed with most of what Obama stood for, they, as Christians, could not vote for a man who was "pro-abortion."
Inhofe was re-elected because he represents vaguely defined "family values."
He also initiated the "We Get It" declaration, along with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Cole, that protests climate-change action on the grounds that "our stewardship of creation must be based on biblical principles and factual evidence."
Kern and Duncan were re-elected despite their hateful messages against people who are "different" because they believe these people are a threat to Christianity.
THE RED STATE, TO ME
It was after Kern and Duncan's hate-filled "Christian" Republican rhetoric that I realized I was not a conservative Republican.
This had absolutely nothing to do with my faith in God, which is stronger than it ever has been.
It breaks my heart that, outside campus, I cannot discuss politics in my home state without my faith being questioned.
It breaks my heart that, in this state, there is little room for the middle ground. A person has to agree with everything " or nothing " a party stands for.
Yes, I voted Democratic this year. No, I do not believe abortion is morally OK, nor have I ever.
I also don't agree with capital punishment, like many Republicans do, or continuing an unjust war based on false pretenses, or denying the existence of global warming.
If I voted Republican, would I have to believe in those? No.
It is not a sin to think independently. It is not a sin to listen to and befriend people who are different from you.
I don't care how Christians feel about homosexuality. They should love homosexuals because they are people whom Jesus himself loves.
I don't care that Christians do not agree with Muslims about religion. They are doing the opposite of what they as Christians are called to do when they approach them with hatred.
Christians are called to love. When did so many forget that?
Too many Republicans " though definitely not all " in this state are benefiting from stirring hatred that should not be there in the first place and fueling it by saying it is the Christian thing to do.
I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and I am happy with my stance on politics and religion.
But I am always saddened when I leave my protective bubble on campus and return to my hometown, where conservatism is sacred and change is feared.
Change is inevitable, and I've learned that how we react to it defines us, for better or for worse.
Oklahomans can't continue to close their minds and hearts to the big, beautiful world around them.
My former high school teacher never signed the memo. She ended up leaving Oklahoma and now refers to that time in her life as "a witch hunt: ludicrous, vengeful, intimidating and just so wrong."
If things do not change here, I cannot see myself staying.
And that breaks my heart.
Hailey Branson is a journalism junior and the opinion editor of The Oklahoma Daily.