I can’t help but be amused by Indiana’s experience with what, up to this time, has been a tried and true pander sure to reap positive results. What I’m talking about is the controversy over the state’s “religious liberty” law. When things didn’t go as expected with this effort to institutionalize discrimination under the rubric of religion, the poor schmuck of a governor, Republican Mike Pence, caught between an elderly, Christian fundamentalist rock and a corporate hard place, didn’t know which way to turn. As Paul Waldman noted in The Washington Post, Pence and the bevy of GOP movers and shakers who thought it was a sure winner to line up behind Indiana’s effort to okay discrimination, were “surprised by just how many directions that criticism came from, with everyone from business leaders to religious groups making their opposition clear.”
After all, for several years hardline conservatives have assumed with some justification that the way to impinge on the rights of groups or individuals they find unsympathetic is to assert a “competing right,” no matter how silly or unfounded. In this particular case, there’s a special helping of deja vu for many of us: “religious freedom” was, of course, invoked by many in the 1950s and 60s to justify discrimination against African-Americans. However, as E. J. Dionne observed:
Religious-liberty exceptions that have been carefully thought through make good sense. They involve balancing when it is appropriate to exempt religious people from laws of general application and when it isn’t. But turning religious liberty into a sweeping slogan that can be invoked to resist any social change that some group of Americans doesn’t like will create a backlash against all efforts at accommodating religion. Forgive me, but this is bad for the brand of religious liberty.
And maybe that is what is finally happening. In spite of the potentially negative consequences that Dionne suggests, after years of having exaggerated and spurious claims of religious victimhood treated as serious by a compliant media, it is both surprising and gratifying to witness the backlash to this particular instance of the religious right’s faux poor me whining. It’s fun to see those political friends of big business, often euphemistically referred to as GOP “moderates,” most of whom have rather obviously been playing the God game for political purposes only, suddenly try to back off the right to discriminate ledge without alienating those on the religious right who won’t vote for anyone who doesn’t leap.
Which brings me to Roy Blunt, one of the very best friend of big business . Blunt, who is, I have to admit, a little too rational to completely satisfy the true, hardcore, Missouri rightwing, seems to have thought that he had a real winner with this religious liberty schtick, a way to burnish his conservative bona fides without actually hurting any of his real constituents – you know, Monsanto, AT&T, Big Oil, etc. If the well-being of corporations is his main job, religious liberty has become his hobby. A few of the high points of Blunt’s religious liberty preoccupation:
–In 2012 he introduced the Blunt amendment which would “have given unprecedented discretion to any employer or insurance plan, whether or not religious, to exclude coverage for critical health care services on the basis of undefined “moral convictions.” As Think Progress noted:
Among those with the greatest to lose from proposals like the Blunt Amendment is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Broad and unfettered language of the kind advanced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) would grant insurers and employers the right to deny coverage for nearly any service provided to LGBT patients.
— In 2013, Blunt was a co-sponsor of the senate version of a “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act” that could have potentially codified wholesale bigotry:
… the implications for this legislation are numerous, but could allow businesses to discriminate against employees with a same-sex spouse, government officials to discriminate against same-sex couples filing their taxes jointly, or religiously affiliated hospitals discriminating against patients with same-sex spouses.
— Blunt’s objections to updating ENDA were couched in terms of religous liberty:
As a former president of a Baptist college in Missouri, supporters of this bill have been quick to assure me that its most onerous provisions would not apply to that school. But no such exemption is available for Christian bookstore owners, as an example, or any other small business in which people of faith and deep religious conviction are relied upon as an integral part of the workforce.
Remind you of the old feature vs. bug argument?
— In 2014, Blunt filed an amicus brief in support of the infamous Hobby-Lobby Supreme Court case.
As you can see, Senator Blunt has been very busy, rarely missing an opportunity to identify himself with the religious victims who might be forced to live and let live in a diverse culture. Will he persist in this leisure-time pursuit now that the efficacy of the word “religious” to obscure ugly intent seems to be waning? Should we share Brittany Cooper’s optimism?:
What this vocal contingent of the religious right is seeking to restore is not religious freedom but a sense of safety in expressing and imposing dangerous, retrograde and discriminatory ideas in the name of religion. I continue to support the free and unimpeded expression of religion. And I am hopeful that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s call for “clarification of the law” amid a massive backlash will actually force the Legislature to explicitly ban discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Then perhaps the law could do what some legal scholars claim it was meant to do, namely, protect freedom of religious expression for religious minorities in the U.S.
Will Roy Blunt ever have to deal with the consequences of his actions? Or is Missouri really the kind of place where he’ll never have to say he’s sorry?