The Indiana religious freedom debate has ended not with a bang, but a whimper.
The amendment intended to clarify that the state’s recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act isn’t a license for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will, in the view of some religious liberty experts, also make it useless to wedding vendors with religious objections to working same-sex weddings.
Neither the media nor the bill’s opponents could ever grasp the distinction between discriminating against gay people and participating in a ceremony contrary to one’s faith. Now many of the bill’s supporters in the Indiana legislature refuse to make that distinction too.
There was never any guarantee these religious wedding vendors would prevail under the unamended version of the RFRA either. But now it doesn’t seem likely they will even get a moment in court.
Here are some lessons we can draw from this episode.
Republicans don’t handle social issues very well. Unlike Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer or Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was at least willing to sign the religious freedom bill into law. But boy was he unprepared to defend it.
It’s not the first time Republicans have bungled a social issue. Remember when they pulled an abortion bill in January after a “revolt by women, moderates“? But usually when Republicans bungle a social issue, it’s some moderate establishment figure feigning interest in social issues to appease the rubes or an overzealous but inarticulate politician like Todd Akin.
Pence is a committed social conservative who has in the past shown some skill on these issues. And Arizona took up this issue first, so he should not have been taken by surprise.
That doesn’t mean Republicans should necessarily run from social issues. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — in a piece headlined “Republicans need to get away from the religious freedom debate. Now.” — captures the conventional wisdom well. “Poll after poll shows that voters outside of the Republican base disagree with the party’s accepted stances on abortion and gay marriage,” he wrote.
Gay marriage yes, but it’s less true on abortion. Social issues have supposedly been on the verge of dooming the Republican Party for decades. It’s never happened. Abortion, religious liberty and religion in the public square are all live issues.
Looking only at the current controversy in Indiana, it’s easy to say social conservatism is the party’s problem. Thinking back to all the failed “war on women” attacks last year after the Democratic Party had so much success with that tactic in previous elections, it’s not that simple. Voters tend to punish the side in the culture war that is seen as the aggressor, especially if they think the culture warrior is distracting from other issues.
Even things like teaching creationism in public schools poll fairly well. It’s not social conservatism per se that’s unpopular. It’s the caricature of social conservatives, who are often seen as a cross between Archie Bunker and Elmer Gantry.
All that said, if Republicans are going to stand firm on religious freedom — and they should — they are going to have to come up with a more compelling message than what we saw coming out of Indiana. Very few people favor anything that can be construed as discrimination against gays.
Republicans can’t count on big business on social issues. Corporate America’s swift, highly unfavorable reaction to the religious freedom law is the main reason the Indiana GOP caved. Liberals aren’t usually fans of Wal-Mart, but the company played a role in the Arkansas bill losing momentum.
There is a disconnect between grassroots conservative activists and the party’s donor class on a number of issues. Many of the GOP’s biggest donors would like to see Republicans jettison their opposition to gay marriage. They are apparently not going to allow religious freedom bills to be a compromise position.
No one can count on the media to cover social issues accurately. Sometimes there are subtle signs of socially liberal bias. The use of the word “pro-choice” to describe supporters of legal abortion but not “pro-life” to describe opponents. Phrases like “religious freedom” appearing in scare quotes but not “marriage equality” or “abortion rights.”
On Indiana, the coverage was about as subtle as a Mack truck. Numerous media outlets described the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a bill that definitely allowed businesses to deny service to gay customers or anyone else who violated the owners’ religious beliefs. As mentioned above, they also routinely conflated endorsing same-sex marriage (which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both declined to do when seeking the presidency of the United States) and providing services to gay couples more generally.
By the time the media started qualifying its coverage of the likely effects of the religious freedom bill, the damage had already been done. Few people who don’t live in Christian subcultures or consume conservative media ever encounter sophisticated or even articulate arguments for socially conservative positions. It’s therefore not surprising they don’t find those positions persuasive.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.