All day the talking heads on cable news have been debating whether the new Indiana law protecting “religious freedom” is actually a bill sanctioning biased treatment of LGBT individuals.
A number Far-Right mouthpieces have tried to mount a defense of the law and of Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whose inability either to provide any coherent defense of the law or to step away from it in any decisive way was painfully evident on one of the Sunday morning political talk shows.
Put aside the fact that almost no one has asked the most obvious question: namely, why Pence was so clearly unprepared to answer the one question that he was certain to be asked because answering it was the only reason that he had been invited to appear. The defense of Pence and the law now irrevocably associated with him has amounted to three relentlessly but futilely repeated talking points:
1. The law simply echoes a federal law that was passed almost unanimously in both the House and the Senate in 1993 and signed into law by Bill Clinton.
2. The law is essentially the same as current laws in twenty-some other states, which have not experienced anything close to the same level of political, cultural, and corporate backlash.
3. The law actually provides greater protections for the rights of all individuals.
The first point is complete nonsense. The federal law that passed with such support in 1993 prevents the government from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. This law is, in essence, an inversion of that federal law. So this argument is tantamount to saying that there was very little substantive difference between civil rights legislation and the “Jim Crow” laws that preceded it.
The second point is very dubious at best. I am not an expert on such laws, and I know that a number of states fail to protect LGBT individuals against employment discrimination—or, worse, fail to protect LGBT individuals against being fired simply for being LGBT. But, given the way in which the national sentiment has shifted on this issue over the past decade, I find it difficult to believe that parallel laws have been passed, almost entirely unnoticed, in other states. So, it seems to me that the only part of this ostensible defense that withstands scrutiny is that this law echoes discriminatory laws in other states that were passed in less enlightened periods and that have still not been repealed. Indeed, if one thinks about it at all, this point is really an exercise in misdirection, asking the listener to not focus on the discrimination sanctioned by this law but, instead, to focus on the unfairness of demonizing Pence and the Indiana legislature for passing such a law when other state governments were not equally demonized for passing similar laws—which provides a neat segue into a discussion of the third point.
That third point is simply a ridiculous exercise in double-talk. Protecting a Christian fundamentalist’s right to refuse to do business with LGBT individuals means that the LGBT individuals are being denied equal rights by being denied access to those products or services simply because they are LGBT. The only possible reason for not immediately recognizing this reality is that one is so deeply biased against LGBT individuals that one does not think that denying them their basic civil rights is actually discriminatory.
Let’s face it, with this legislation, Mike Pence attempted not just to pander to the Far Right, but to pander to the Far Right in a manner that would give him more stature nationally. That is why the bill was introduced, why it was passed quickly through the legislature, and why he made such a public show of signing it.
Mike Pence has made no secret of his ambition to be a presidential candidate–if not in 2016, then in 2020. But Mike Pence is proving himself a bumbler on the level of Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal–or, very arguably, even a worse bumbler, since Pence has not even waited until he is securely on the national stage before self-imploding.
Recall that last fall he proposed using state resources to create a state-operated news agency. Yes, one of the governors in the Koch Brothers’ cadre of tax cutters who claim to want to reduce government to its most basic functions wanted to use tax revenues to disseminate propaganda about what a wonderful job his administration is doing for the people of Indiana. He was even witless enough to admit that many of the newspapers in the smaller towns and rural communities of the state are struggling financially and would welcome such a free source of “news.” In other words, the state would have been financing what amounted to GOP news releases that would have been disseminated most widely in the communities in which the GOP base is most concentrated. Even commentators on the Far Right asked with disbelief whether the news agency would be called PRAVDA.
Now, in the week ahead of the weekend on which the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is being held in Indianapolis, Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA, has been forced to go on television to state that the organization will be considering whether it ought to move its national headquarters out of Indiana. Even the official statement released by the NCAA, which is more open-ended than Emmert’s televised comments, is so terse that it implicitly suggests a certain appalled bewilderment at the stupidity of the law:
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events. We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.
“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
Indeed, if one scans the public responses to this controversy, Mike Pence has managed to do what no other GOP governor in the Midwest has managed to do: that is, he has created a situation in which corporations and labor unions have found common cause.
Pence comes from the same end of the political spectrum that has enthusiastically passed legislation preventing the imposition of Sharia Law in states that have very negligible Muslim-American populations. I am sure that the people behind those laws are certain that all Muslim-Americans are very easily identifiable–just as LGBT individuals must surely be very easily identifiable.
One wonders how the people so enthusiastically supporting such laws would respond if the laws were used against them. One wonders how they would react if a non-Christian owner of a business in Indiana, or elsewhere, refused to sell products or to provide services to anyone who “looked” Christian, on the assumption that he or she was intolerant. What if everyone wearing a crucifix were assumed to be suspect? What if anyone who seemed suspect could be asked some basic questions so that the business owner could confirm or put to rest his or her suspicions?
One thing is almost certain: Mike Pence would be asked to leave—and not because he gave the wrong answers, but because he would be just smart enough to realize that he did not know how to answer the questions in a context in which the Right answer is clearly going to be the wrong answer.
And, just to be clear, by “context,” I mean most of the rational world.