Indiana made ignominious history yesterday. Gov. Mike Pence, a potential ’16 presidential aspirant, signed a so-called “religious freedom” measure that gives bigots the right to turn away gay customers in the name of God.
Indiana thus becomes the first state in the nation to codify bigotry in this fashion; religious conservatives in a dozen other states are similiarly lobbying to play the God card. It’s the same game that was popular in southern states back in the ’60s, when desegregation was the law of the land and racist store owners sought to defy it – on religious grounds. Most famously, Georgia restauranteur Lester Maddox refused to serve blacks, claiming that doing so would be “a sin against God.” When blacks didn’t get the message, he’d grab an axe handle and chase them out.
Actually, what’s most interesting is not the law itself – a last-ditch bid to turn back the clock in a gay-marriage nation, a last-ditch bid to cloak gay-hatred in godly garments – but the serious political dilemma that it poses for the Republican party. Because this could be a classic wedge issue.
Should the ’16 candidates embrace the law – thereby doubling down on the GOP’s intolerant image at a time when gay marriage has already been vetted by the American mainstream? Or should they distance themselves from the law – thereby positioning the GOP in the 21st century, but risk losing the religious conservatives who pine to impose their intolerance on the American mainstream?
It’s a fair bet that no-hopers like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal think the “religious freedom” law is awesome – as does Indiana Gov. Pence, who signed the measure yesterday in private, surrounded by the religious conservatives whom he hopes to woo. Most priceless was Pence’s public statement: “This bill is not about discrimination.” He was swiftly undercut by Indiana’s most powerful conservative lobbyist, who boasted on his website that Christian bakers, florists, and photographers are free to invoke God and thus refuse “to participate in a homosexual marriage!”
Somehow these people have overlooked the fundamental fact that when you offer secular services to the general public, you can’t pick and choose your customers in the name of God. (A lesson that southern racists learned half a century ago.) And it’s not just about gays. The Indiana law is worded so loosely that an anti-Semitic bed-and-breakfast owner could invoke some diety to justify a sign that says “No Jews Allowed.” A Christian landlord could cite the Bible while refusing to rent to a Muslim.
These issues arose last year in Arizona, when a similar “religious freedom” measure was passed. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer, who wisely concluded that it had “the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve.” She was also heavily lobbied by the business community, which knew darn well that giving bigots a God loophole would expose the state to economic boycotts.
This is already happening in Indiana.
Within hours of Pence’s signing, the CEO of the tech firm Salesforce said he’s scrapping his Indiana expansion plans; furthermore, “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employes to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” The NCAA, based in Indianapolis, warns that it’s studying the law to see “how it might affect future events and our workforce.” The gamer convention Gen Con, which has met annually in Indianapolis, is threatening to take the confab elsewhere. And a mainline Protestant denomination, Disciples of Christ, is threatening to cancel its 2017 convention booking.
(The latter alone would cost Indiana $6 million in lost revenue – and demonstrate that gay-haters don’t have a monopoly on Bible interpretation. So here’s an idea: Trade groups, tourists, and religious conventioneers should boycott Indiana, on the grounds that God does not abide bigotry and discrimination.)
Hence the Republican divide: The business wing of the GOP abhors the extremists, because it knows that laws like Indiana’s are bad for the bottom line and bad for the national party’s intolerant image. The business wing’s donors know that you can’t win the White House without capturing the American center – and supposedly, the top-tier ’16 Republican candidates, like Jeb Bush, understand this. But maybe they don’t. One week ago, Jeb served up this word salad:
“Religious freedom is a serious issue, and it’s increasingly so, and I think people that act on their conscience shouldn’t be discriminated against, for sure. There should be protections, and so, as it relates to marriage equality – and that may change, the Supreme Court may change that (in a legalization ruling). That automatically then shifts the focus to people of conscience, and, I don’t know, have their faith make – they want to act on their faith. People have a right to do that, just as we need to be respectful for people who are in long-term committed relationships. Sorting that out is important.”
You do that, Jeb. Good luck straddling that divide.
Some final Barneyisms, from my Monday gig with Barney Frank at the Free Library of Philadelphia:
On Democrats’ loss of a key voting group: “White working-class men (have) become increasingly alienated from (us). These are people who’ve traditionally believed in government, who voted for FDR and Truman and Johnson and Kennedy. They really do think that government can do a lot, and their anger is that as their economic position has eroded, the government has done nothing….And because they’re angry at government for not doing things to help them, they vote for (Republicans) who are angry at government in general….
“We need to show these people that government can do things for them. But we don’t have the money right now. A substantial reduction in the military budget would make it easier for working-class kids to go to the state colleges, put more construction workers to work, pick up more of their health care – make them feel better about government.”
Why Obamacare is still unpopular in the polls, despite its successes: “A lot of people seriously underestimate the hit we took with that ridiculously botched (website) rollout. I don’t understand why the president was not saying, one full day a week, ‘Nothing was more important, show me what’s going on.’ I am very unforgiving of the incompetence with which that was done.” Republicans were getting slammed in the autumn ’13 polls because of their government shutdown – “and then came this rollout.”
Recalling the ’10 town-hall incident when a lunatic waved a photo of Obama with a Hitler mustache, Barney told her that she was as brainless as “a dining room table,” and Fox News attacked him for being rude: “The thing is, shortly after Fox did that, they began to lionize Chris Christie. And what I said was, they had a double standard for rude fat guys.”