02 April 2015

Why pick a fight in Indiana?

Conor Friedersdorf raises a fair question on the Atlantic magazine website: if all the threats of boycotts against Indiana are about gay rights, why aren't the same people threatening boycotts against the states where gay marriage still isn't legal? After citing some theoretically embarrassing examples of apparent inconsistency -- the band Wilco, for instance, is cancelling shows in Indiana, because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but not in Texas, where gays can't even have weddings to create trouble for bakers, photographers, etc. -- Friedersdorf describes the campaign against Indiana as a form of bandwagon jumping, which is a euphemistic way of calling many of the boycotters bullying hypocritical cowards. "Now that those who would discriminate against gays are a powerless cultural minority that focuses its objectionable behavior in a tiny niche of the economy, elites have suddenly decided that using state power to punish them is a moral imperative," he writes.

To repeat, Friedersdorf raises a fair question, but is it really a valid point? The author himself has an inkling that the Indiana controversy isn't primarily about gay rights, though he raises the possibility in an almost pejorative way: "this has as much to do with opportunism, tribalism, humanity's love of bandwagons, and political positioning as it does with advancing gay rights." There probably is something to this given the publicity the Indiana RFRA (and now its Arkansas counterpart) has received. If anything, it should be made more clear that the RFRA controversy isn't primarily about gay rights, when the more obvious provocation stares everyone in the face.

Historians may remember Indiana in 2015 as the place and time when mass militant secularism first made itself heard in the U.S. after years of paranoid warnings against it from the Christian right. By "militant" I don't mean violent, of course, but rather an activist determination to impose a movement's will on the nation -- or certain states, in this case.  Militant means a realization that right makes might and comes with an entitlement to coerce the recalcitrant -- again, not by violence but through the majesty of law. The question historians may ask is not why activists attacked Indiana and not Texas but why Indiana was the first of the RFRA states to be targeted. That I can't answer beyond suggesting that a slow burn of indignation against the spread of RFRA legislation finally ignited into the "firestorm" now taking place in the Hoosier State. The object of indignation, I submit, is the idea that religions are entitled to opt out of treating homosexuals like everyone else, and that religious homophobia must be respected as a "philosophical difference" and a matter of conscience. A generation of propaganda against Islamism has made Americans alert to manifestations of something similar among Christians. If we will not respect a Muslim's demand for sharia law, or his belief that non-Muslims must accept second-class citizenship or worse in an ideal state, as a conscientious philosophical difference, then we can't in good conscience defer to Christians who claim a religious entitlement to deny equality to any class of people. Indiana is seeing a fight against religion, whether all sides admit it or not -- and the side that won't admit, sadly, is the side that's in the right. But there should be no shame or guilt about citizens acting to constrain the special claims of religion so long as the constitutional freedom of worship is not endangered. Those who think their freedom or worship is threatened by a requirement to treat homosexuals as equal human beings are the ones in the wrong, and the campaign against Indiana is right to argue that such people are not immune from accountability if their attitude unfairly burdens those it's aimed at. Again, I'll agree that the six-figure fine that homophobe baker's reportedly facing looks excessive, but the baker's implicit belief that to cater a gay wedding is sacrilegious is also excessive. It may not deserve a penalty, especially on the scale reported, but it doesn't deserve the respect or the protection of the law, either. If militant secularism is flexing its muscles at last, it's because a kind of militant Christianism has already taken the field. The Indiana controversy is less a fight for gay rights then a stand against this Christianism -- but it would still be fair for someone like Friedersdorf to observe that this Christianism prevails wherever gay marriage remains illegal. RFRA legislation may be the most aggressive or obnoxious manifestation of Christianism right now, but Indiana is really just one front in a (dare I say) culture war that should be fought with equal militancy on all fronts.


Anonymous said...

The problem is, they are unable to step back and view objectively. I'm guessing most of the opponent's of the RFRA consider themselves to be one form of christian or another and, since the backers of the RFRA also claim to be christians, it doesn't occur to the RFRA opponents that there could be a religious basis to the debate. In short, unlike Islam, no liberal christian seems willing to accuse the right of being non-christian.

Samuel Wilson said...

It wouldn't surprise me if some liberals do see the religious right as a kind of heresy contrary to the compassionate spirit of the Jesus who palled around with publicans and sinners. The main point should be that RFRA measures aren't so much non-Christian as extra-Christian in the way Islamism can be seen as extra-Islamic rather than non-Islamic. Like Islamism, the Christianism that RFRA laws empower is religion straying beyond its proper civil-society bounds in a pluralist polity, If there is a heresy in either case, it's the claim that you can't truly live your religion within those bounds.

Anonymous said...

Any of the RFRA supporters are quite free to live their own lives according to their beliefs - no one questions that. The problem is that, by doing what they are doing, they are attempting to force others to adhere to their idea of morality - a morality that many of them seem to have a hard time adhering to.

Samuel Wilson said...

Actually, the RFRA doesn't forbid gay weddings. If it forces anything, it forces people to "respect" an idea of morality that might more rightly be deemed abhorrent, and it forces the gay wedding planner to find another baker if the first one conscientiously objects to getting paid by gay people.