“There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out an through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall.” –Homer
In a way, the culture war (or what’s left of it) over recent state permutations of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) is the latest instantiation of America’s ever rising sociopolitical polarization. A cursory look at the divergent media coverage shows the predictable degree to which some partisans of either side dismiss the rhetoric of their opponents as symptoms of debilitating paramnesia. Liberals think the most recent incarnation of RFRA in several red states is carefully tailored to allow discrimination. RFRA’s defenders counter that the altered provisions in Indiana would not trump anti-discrimination laws, as such a thing has never happened.
As in many things, it seems people of different views are increasingly living in different worlds.
Yet it seems we are crashing upon the last shores of the tide of gay rights in America. After all, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson cited his son’s opposition in deciding to renounce support for an Indiana-style RFRA bill in Mike Huckabee’s old stomping grounds—and the red-state Republican even went so far as to openly ponder signing an anti-discrimination order for state workers.
Among Republican presidential hopefuls’ varying levels of support for the new RFRA’s stated intentions, I was most encouraged to see my home-state Senator Marco Rubio explicitly affirming the mainstream view in favor of anti-discrimination laws for gay people while supporting religious liberty. Refreshingly, Rubio’s statement follows naturally from his prior acknowledgement, in a speech at Catholic University, that federal and local governments once required anti-gay discrimination under color of law of. In this way, his statements are probably the closest to the truth of things of any candidate on either side of the aisle.
As the Indianapolis Star (which endorsed Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s 2012 election) prominently argued, our laws can protect both LGBT and religious people (an overlapping set) with versions of RFRA that explicitly complement anti-discrimination laws. Such harmony exists already in several states, including the bastion of cultural conservatism that is Utah—a state so dominated by Mormonism that it mandates beer be watered down and cocktails be prepared behind “curtains” of modesty lest righteous teetotalers be tempted through sinful spirits.
Like many gay rights proponents from left to far right, my friend Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans (and a Christian), expressed skepticism that Pence and the Indiana legislature will avoid substantive gay rights measures and aggravate all sides with half-measures. Other friends, like guest poster Lyman Stone, share an opposite concern with several other religious conservatives and sympathetic voices: that the Left’s abnegation of the original federal RFRA indicates gay rights activists will never allow, as Ross Douthat puts it, religious opponents of same-sex marriage to negotiate amicable terms of surrender in the late unpleasantness.
Said Achilles before vengeance: There can be no covenants between men and lions.
So let’s be blunt: the culture war is, on some level, about sociopolitical annihilation—that is, there are views that some folks earnestly believe ought to be expelled from the aegis of civil society.
For those familiar with the history of anti-gay discrimination, including the government-mandated homophobia of the 1950s Lavender Scare and the later ballot-box malignance of Anita Bryant and the Family Research Council, modern protests aimed at the cultural extirpation of the old adversary—homophobia—that was intolerable when it was powerful and is now deemed pitiful—but not pitiable—when it is weak, may seem just, perhaps divinely so.
But today’s religious dissidents to same-sex marriage are not the crusading bigots of yesteryear—as exemplified by the contemplative nuance of Rubio—and it seems unlikely that such entrenched bigotry will ever reign again.
Whatever one thinks of neo-RFRA proponents’ true intentions, Gov. Pence is manifestly on point in arguing that religious freedom laws have provided substantial legal protections to people, often of religious minorities, facing impositions on their faith that have nothing to do with gay rights. Repealing federal and state versions of RFRA outright, as many liberals have advocated since Hobby Lobby, would undercut those laws’ substantive protections for imprisoned Muslims, Amerindian kindergarteners in Texas, Indiana’s newly state-approved Church of Cannabis (because politics makes strange bong-fellows), and so many others.
RFRA opponents content to dismiss, while high on schadenfreude, religious freedom concerns in order to ruin perceived bigots should reckon with the collateral damage of that Shermanesque march to the fiery shores of “progress.” This may not be the intention—funny how word keeps coming up—of most anti-RFRA activists, but it is the reality all the same. As even Matt Yglesias of Vox, of all people in all media, pointedly acknowledged (backhandedly, of course), there is more validity than many liberals would rather admit to social conservative fears of a slippery slope beyond their disintegrating trenches in the culture wars. This is especially true when one considers the breathless hypocrisy of “pro-gay” liberals who, say, boycott Indiana and then jet off to Cuba.
None of this is to say that conservatives shouldn’t perhaps be more empathetic to RFRA skeptics who are unwilling to trust the rhetoric and legislative priorities of people they believe to harbor what could be most charitably described as sanguine indifference (and less charitably as outright hostility) to LGBT rights, especially given the aforementioned history of anti-gay vitriol from the government to the pulpit. After all, this sort of skepticism—which extrapolates likely consequences of ambiguous laws from perceived motivations of the most zealous supporters—inclines RFRA skeptics to infer anti-gay maneuvering from people opposed to gay rights for the same genre of reasons that gun rights advocates recognize (correctly) a Trojan horse in many a liberal proposal for “common sense” gun control.
In such cases, opponents of controversial reform (gun control, RFRA, etc.) do not trust that the reformers are dealing honestly when claiming a new law would not do (erode gun rights, allow/foment discrimination against gay couples, etc.) what opponents strongly suspect the reformers wish to do (ban guns, undercut gay rights, etc.).
To some extent in some quarters, this divide will not be bridged. For other situations, pairing robust RFRA protections with LGBT anti-discrimination provisions will be a vital way to convey good will where none is currently inferred. Such a harmony will not satisfy everybody. If that means gay rights opponents will have to withstand liberal opprobrium or religious freedom advocates will have to overcome some religious hostility to gays, so be it. An enduring union of those who seek tolerance and comity it should rally the better angels of the majority of Americans who want to do right by their neighbors.
Or so we can hope.