There has been a fascinating change of circumstances occurring this last week, revolving around cookie-cutter state legislation sponsored by Republicans aimed at implementing the widely-deployed conservative rhetoric about “religious liberty.” Beginning in 2012, Republicans nationally and across the country adopted the mantra of “religious liberty” to take advantage of conservative Catholic and evangelical hostility to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. It did not produce the hoped-for defection of Catholics to the Romney-Ryan ticket (the Catholic vote, as had been the case recently, closely reflected the overall national vote), but did provide a rubric for talking about Republican opposition to legalized abortion and marriage equality that avoided messy and unpopular specifics and gave a positive cast to essentially reactionary positions.
What’s happening now, though, is that efforts to provide “religious liberty” exemptions to normal law-abiding expectations is moving the debate in the opposite direction, drawing attention to the extremism of conservative culture-issue positions. Here’s how I summed up this development at TPMCafe:
This began happening first on the contraception coverage front, where the religious objection to the Obamacare mandate had to be justified (in the Hobby Lobby litigation most notably) by the claim that highly effective contraceptive devices (the IUD) and treatments (Plan B and hormonal “patches”) used by millions of women were in fact “abortifacients.”
This is not a terribly common view outside the Right-to-Life movement and the conservative Catholic and evangelical Protestant clergy; it certainly is not in accord with mainstream medical opinion. But the very discussion of angels-dancing-on-a-pin disputes over fertilization versus uterine implantation as the beginning of pregnancy shifted the debate over reproductive policy away from the strongest ground for anti-choicers — rare but controversial late-term abortions and the conditions under which they should be allowed — to the very weakest: “abortions” so early that most Americans don’t consider them abortions at all. So a gambit designed to broaden support for faith-based objections to reproductive rights policies is pulling the discussion in a direction that threatens to isolate anti-choicers and their Republican allies in a small ghetto of extremist opinion.
Similarly, the effort to “protect” religious believers from the consequences of a sudden shift in policies on same-sex marriage began as a reasonable-sounding request for two-way tolerance that might unite the near-majority of Americans who are not presently “comfortable” towards marriage equality with those whose views had recently “evolved.”
But the more the demands for religious “exemptions” from compliance with new marriage laws have become concrete, the less reasonable they have seemed. Nobody’s talking about requiring that religious communities perform same-sex marriages (or for that matter, ordain gay ministers, the most heated issue within many U.S. Christian communities). So the martyr’s cross of the “persecuted” must be found among the small ranks of marriage professionals who refuse to bake wedding cakes with two plastic men on top, or offer to offer planning services to two women.
Perhaps some non-sectarian Americans instinctively identify with “bakers of conscience” or wedding planners who consider themselves in danger of hellfire for booking hotel ballrooms for Sodomites. But like the fight for the freedom to treat IUDs as death machines, the fight to provide the conservative Christian elements of the wedding industry with plenary indulgences from obedience to the law tends to elicit less sympathy than ridicule from the non-aligned.
And that matters a great deal politically. On many fronts in the culture wars, the momentum has usually been possessed by those who can best identify themselves with the ambivalent attitudes of a mushy middle “swing vote”–favorable to contraceptives and early-term abortions but not late-term abortions; increasingly accepting of LGBT folk but indulgent of their parents’ and grandparents’ “ick factor.”
After years of shedding crocodile tears for the victims of late-term abortions, anti-choicers are now finding themselves defending businesses who in open court argue that the dividing line between acceptable contraception and murderous abortion occurs moments after sexual intercourse — when women instantly transition from autonomous individuals to “hosts” for a state-protected zygote. And after years of arguing against marriage equality on behalf of the positive “rights” of men and women in “traditional marriage,” those who actually think gay people in love are abominations unto the Lord are being exposed for who they really are.
So a “religious liberty” statute that breezed through the Kansas House was halted in the Senate by Republicans who feared it went too far. And just tonight, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed even broader legislation that actually passed both houses of her state’s legislature, with both GOP U.S. Senators and even some bill sponsors urging her to do so.
Right now, the once powerful “religious liberty” strategy for dealing with cultural issues is in shambles, with Republicans divided. It goes to show that deception and indirection can only work for so long.