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Let’s Face It, Republicans Are Cowards On Religious Liberty (But Voters Aren’t)

Considering the ineffectiveness and cowardice of Republicans so far, religious liberty advocates might be better off without them.


The GOP’s capitulation on religious liberty was as swift as it was predictable.

Republicans have talent for courting just enough controversy to generate prodigious amounts of negative press but at the same time not doing enough to accomplish anything meaningful. And few things in this world rattle your run-of-the-mill Republican more than some ginned-up outrage over “discrimination” or “bigotry.” The media’s deliberate distortion of the intention, reach, and history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—not to mention pressure from corporations like Apple and Walmart—was more than enough to do the trick.

What excuse does Mike Pence have for flubbing a simple question about discrimination on national television last Sunday? What’s his excuse for pledging to “fix” a law that’s already straightforward, innocuous, and ubiquitous? He’s not alone, of course. When Arkansas legislators passed the same bill by a wide margin (what the media calls “controversial”), Gov. Asa Hutchinson threw it back to lawmakers and asked them to rework it to guarantee that the make-believe concerns of his son could be “fixed.”

I hope you’ll excuse me, my faithful friends, but if this is your leadership you are screwed. By claiming that RFRA bills can be “fixed,” Republicans are only corroborating the false impression that these bills allow wanton discrimination against gay patrons. By claiming that you can fix this, you are only pretending that there is a compromise available that would make it OK for Christian business owners to refuse participation in gay weddings. None exists. You will be hounded until you are made to coexist.

So, politicians can make cogent and compelling argument for why RFRAs—the most rational and genuine comprise available—are needed and why preserving religious liberty is itself an exercise in tolerance, or they can surrender. I bet on the latter. Even though surrender would be premature.

After all, are all Americans who are comfortable with gay marriage (as I am) also going to be comfortable with mobs bullying local pizzeria owners into obedience? Perhaps not. Perhaps there will be those who accept gay marriage but don’t accept the tyrannical instinct that demands philosophical lockstep be enforced by the state. And I realize the mass media acts as if its histrionics about RFRAs reflect a national consensus. But there is little evidence that it’s true.

In a poll predating the Indiana bill, Pew found that the public was evenly divided on the question of whether businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples despite religious objections to same-sex marriage. Forty-nine percent said that wedding-related businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers, while 47 percent say that these businesses should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

The Pew poll doesn’t exactly frame the issue impartially, either. A more accurate poll question would go something like: Should government force religious people to participate in events that conflict with their sincerely held religious values?

And the Associated Press did a better job earlier this year, finding that 57 percent of Americans agreed with the idea that “wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples.” Only 39 percent said that businesses should not be allowed “to refuse service.”

In March, a Marist poll found that 54 percent of Americans agreed that “allowing First Amendment religious liberty protection or exemptions for faith based organizations and individuals even when it conflicts with government laws.” Even Democrats, by a two-point margin, agreed with this traditionally uncontroversial proposition.

The other day, White House press secretary Josh Earnest—speaking for a president that only a few years ago lied about gay marriage to further his career—answered a question about religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas like so:

I do think that, in the mind of the president, the thought that we would have state legislatures in the 21st century in the United States of America passing laws that would use religion to try to justify discriminating against people because of who they love, is unthinkable.

This is a giant but potent lie. I’m not sure modern-day Republicans are up to task of fighting rhetoric that wraps illiberal ideas in bogus tolerance. If they are not, millions of citizens with sincerely held beliefs and genuine grievances will be left to fend for themselves against an alliance of powerful business, political, and media interests. And considering the ineffectiveness and cowardice of the GOP so far, they might be better off.