I think there are two underreported features of the fallout from Indiana that we should make sure do not get lost in the hoo ha.
One is that people are getting it that religious freedom does not and must not equal the right to discriminate. The other is that people are also broadening and deepening their understanding of what they basically already know: the Christian Right’s view on these things is not shared by all of Christianity.
The Indiana RFRA, as originally written, allowed people to invoke their religious beliefs to deny commercial services to LGBTQ people – but Republican political leaders did not want to admit it. History may recognize Governor Pence’s disastrous interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week as a turning point, not only in the battle over the state’s RFRA, but in the struggle over the definition of religious freedom in our times.
Stephanopoulos repeatedly sought to get Pence to say how the bill did not constitute discrimination and whether or not he himself supported discrimination, but each time the Governor awkwardly weaseled his way out of answering the question.
Meanwhile, the state faced economic boycotts, street demonstrations, a skeptical press, and the RFRA faced a rising chorus of denunciation from a wide range of groups and individuals across the country—including the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis.
The state legislature and Gov. Pence quickly changed course and passed a “clarification,” while publicly explaining that their religious freedom law did not equal discrimination and that this was not their intention.
While not perfect, the legislative clarification barred a religious liberty defense by businesses accused of discrimination for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity – although it does allow religious non-profit organizations to continue to discriminate.
The Christian Right, which had supported the original bill, was outraged. What good is a religious freedom bill if it doesn’t give you the right to discriminate? That is the question – since a central strategy of the Christian Right in recent years has been to reframe issues of reproductive rights and homosexuality in terms of religious freedom.
I reported here (before the Indiana RFRA blew up) that 50 Catholic and evangelical leaders, including National Organization for Marriage founder Robert P. George and Baptist megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, signed a 2015 anti-marriage equality manifesto that essentially argued that anyone who supports or in any way accommodates same-sex marriage cannot call themselves a Christian.
They also claimed that acceptance of marriage equality is the result of a “deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our humanity. Genuine freedom,” they concluded, “is found in obedience to God’s order.”
Remarkably, he blamed “Big Business” and “the intolerant Left” for “gutting” religious freedom in Indiana, and empowering “the government to impose punishing fines on people for following their beliefs about marriage.”
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who leads the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are undeterred.
“Individual or family-owned businesses as well as religious institutions should have the freedom to serve others consistent with their faith,” Lori said in a statement.
What Lori meant of course, is that people who believe as he does should have the right to refuse service to people they do not approve of.
A second feature of the Indiana debacle, which we should not lose sight of, is that the Christian Right is losing the battle for the public perception that its views on religious freedom and LGBTQ people represent all of Christianity.
The Christian Right has never represented all of Christianity of course, and the Indiana episode provided us with an outstanding example.
Even before the sports organizations, businesses, and celebrities, one of the first national organizations to speak out against the Indiana RFRA was The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination with a half-million members, headquartered in Indianapolis.
The church’s denunciation of the bill was widely reported. Ultimately, the Disciples pulled their 2017 convention out of the state in protest over the law, the likely inadequacies of the then planned clarification, and the state’s lack of anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and sexual identity.
“As a Christian church, we affirm and support religious freedom,” General Minister and President Sharon Watkins said in a prepared statement. “It is, in fact, a core principle… We are also strongly committed to an inclusive community — just as Jesus welcomed all to the table.”
The Christian Right’s strategy has suffered some powerful losses of late. It is good to take notice.
Since I first published this piece, the Disciples of Christ has decided to return their 2017 convention to Indianapolis. Sharon Watkins wrote:
Locating our assembly in Indianapolis, now that our concerns have been addressed, positions us more strongly as a moral voice in the movement for equal protection under the law for all. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to advocate for wholeness and dignity for all people. We are a church of an open table where all are welcome in Christ’s name. Indianapolis is now a more welcoming place for all our assembly-goers than it was when we originally decided on Indianapolis for our 2017 site.